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2018 Theodore Roosevelt Award: Capt. Barry “Butch” Wilmore

A rigorous college experience paved the way to military service — and the stars

Capt. Wilmore before a 2014 mission to the International Space Station. Pavel Golovkin / AP Photo

A typical day at the office carries a slightly different meaning for NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore. The former Tennessee Tech football player and electrical engineering major has logged 178 days in space and completed 21 combat missions as a Navy pilot in Operation Desert Storm, after all.

NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Navy captain Barry "Butch" Wilmore is the 2018 recipient of the NCAA’s highest honor: the Theodore Roosevelt Award. He will be recognized at the NCAA Honors Celebration on Wednesday, Jan. 17, in Indianapolis. The award, which is given annually to an individual who exemplifies the ideals of college sports, is named after the former president whose concern for the conduct of college athletics led to the formation of the NCAA in 1906.

Past recipients with NASA ties include former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn (2008), astronaut Sally Ride (2005) and flight director Christopher C. Kraft Jr. (1971).

Learn more about Capt. Barry "Butch" Wilmore

Despite those daunting undertakings in his professional life, Wilmore says the biggest challenge he has faced came in tackling his complex electrical engineering coursework as an undergrad and graduate student while playing college football.

 “The rigor of playing college football, the physical demand, along with the mental demands of the classroom, I wouldn't change it,” said Wilmore. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I wouldn't change it for anything, because it’s the foundation for everything else that’s happened in my life.”

Wilmore’s path to the stars was a bit hazy in 1982 when he entered the Tennessee Tech football program as a 5-9, 175-pound freshman walk-on. He had chosen the school for its engineering program, and then worked his way to a starting spot at defensive end. He started the final three games of his freshman season before tearing the ACL in his right knee, which necessitated surgery.

The injury tested his determination, as did a coaching change, but Wilmore persevered. By the end of his senior season, playing outside linebacker, he had etched his name in the record books: his 21 tackles against Austin Peay were the second-most in a game in school history, and the 143 tackles he amassed in 1985 were the third-most recorded over a season by a Golden Eagle.   

“I was small, slow and weak,” said Wilmore, who had grown two inches and packed on around 15 pounds by the end of his college career. “That’s not a good combination for football. But I had determination; I was very determined to get to the ball. Somehow, some way, I could get to the ball. That determination has taken me a long way — not just in football, but in life.”

Current TCU head coach Gary Patterson was a Tennessee Tech assistant in 1983-84. Even then, Patterson knew Wilmore was bound for success, no matter what he pursued after his playing days.  

“Barry is a tremendous person who always had a plan for what he wanted to get accomplished,” Patterson said. “He was beyond his time.”

Capt. Barry “Butch” Wilmore. NASA Photo

The challenge of landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier drew Wilmore to the Navy after college, along with a strong tug to do his part for his country. He went on to amass 663 carrier landings and more than 7,000 flight hours. He flew missions during Desert Storm, Desert Shield and Southern Watch, among others, during a 30-year Navy career that ended last December. Along the way, Wilmore became best known professionally as “Butch,” his Navy call sign.

In July 2000, the self-professed “Navy guy” was on exchange as an instructor at the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California when he got a life-changing call from NASA. Wilmore vividly remembers returning from a flight and an officer seeking him out: “Hey, some dude from NASA called you, a Charlie Precourt.” Since Precourt was the NASA chief of the astronaut corps, Wilmore knew that he had been selected to be an astronaut from a pool of thousands of applicants.  

“That’s a pretty good feeling when you get that word,” Wilmore said. “You don’t know what the future holds, and the chance to literally leave the planet, there’s not a lot of people that have had that opportunity. When I launched in 2009, I was the 505th human all-time to leave the planet.

“… You think back to all of human history, and my first thought was, ‘Why me?’”

Wilmore has made two trips into space: an 11-day trip as a space shuttle pilot in 2009 and a 167-day sojourn aboard the International Space Station that ended in March 2015. As an active astronaut eligible for spaceflight assignment, the 54-year-old Wilmore can still be found taking part in spacewalk training in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA’s Johnson Space Center one day and flying a T-38 jet the next. “Butch is a great example of how football can prepare young men for success in life, and can even build the foundation for a career as a distinguished astronaut,” fellow NASA astronaut and former Illinois football walk-on-turned-team-captain Mike Hopkins said. “Whether it is on the gridiron or in the vacuum of space, he’s the guy you want on your team.”

Wilmore said it is a misperception that astronauts only fly in space; their primary job is to support human spaceflight. For him, that includes working on the Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful rocket in the world.

“People look at a rocket launch and they see it go — of course, they realize there’s a lot that goes into it, but there’s just an amazing amount of work and effort and thousands of people across the nation putting their passion into it before you actually see the end product,” he said.

A hint of a Tennessee twang can still be heard in Wilmore’s voice. He was raised in Mt. Juliet, just outside of Nashville and just over an hour’s drive from Tennessee Tech’s campus. Wilmore’s wife, Deanna, also is a Tennessee Tech grad, although the two didn’t start dating until being introduced by a former football teammate years after graduation.

Wilmore’s ties to the school remain strong. Tennessee Tech inducted him into its athletics hall of fame in 2003, and granted him its Outstanding Alumnus award in 2010 and an honorary doctorate in 2012. In 2016, he was appointed to the Tennessee Tech Board of Trustees, a role he will serve until his term expires in 2021. And he was back inside Tucker Stadium, the home of Golden Eagles football, in August 2017 taking part in a viewing of a total solar eclipse alongside his parents and daughters.

"Barry demonstrates how heroes can be humble, and how an extraordinary life can come through preparation, perspiration and opportunity," said Phil Oldham, Tennessee Tech’s president.

While commander of the International Space Station during the 2014 college football season, Wilmore had NASA uplink the SEC Network to watch Tennessee football — he received a master’s degree in aviation systems from Tennessee in 1994 to go with an electrical engineering master’s from Tennessee Tech the same year. He also finagled a way to watch Tennessee Tech play while in space.

“I’d strap on a headgear right now and go play if they’d let me,” he said.