CAMPTON HILLS – Tyler Buterbaugh lives a stone's throw from the St. Charles Farm equestrian center in Campton Hills, making it all the more bewildering that the 15-year-old hasn't given horseback riding a serious go.
Finding a sport that Buterbaugh hasn't tried is a bigger surprise than anything Buterbaugh might pull off at the upcoming World Dwarf Games in East Lansing, Mich.
Buterbaugh is training to compete in five events at the international competition that begins Aug. 3. The World Dwarf Games occur every four years, and this year's edition is billed as the largest sporting event in history exclusively for athletes with dwarfism.
While Buterbaugh intends to compete in basketball, football, track and field, floor hockey and volleyball, he proudly calls football – a sport he played at Aurora Christian as a freshman last year – his "main sport."
At 4-foot-2, 90 pounds, Buterbaugh has no qualms about absorbing contact as a linebacker or running back.
"I don't really care what people think about me playing football, saying about me being too short," Buterbaugh said. "I'm just going out playing what I like to play, and just doing what I'm good at."
As much as Buterbaugh refuses to shy from competing against much taller athletes in various sports – wrestling, taekwondo and baseball are among the others he has played – taking on other dwarf athletes, or "short people," as his father prefers, is naturally appealing.
"It's more fair," Buterbaugh said. "I have more of a chance to win. Like in basketball, they'll just easily block me. If I go up against someone with my height, I'll be able to shoot over them."
Buterbaugh was born with achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. Dwarfism runs in the family. His father, David, and mother, Kelly, are of short stature, as is one of his two younger brothers, Foster.
While his father used to be a power-lifter and there are four taekwondo black belts among the immediate family, playing high school football at Buterbaugh's size requires above-and-beyond courage.
"As a mom, my first inkling was, oh my gosh, what if something happens, what about his head, can he try something different?" Kelly Buterbaugh said. "It's just the mother part of me worries about his back, his head, and I've had a lot of moms say 'Are you worried about him out on the field?' And I'm like, 'Yeah,' but I feel like it's good for his self-esteem and just his feeling of involvement and inclusion, and then I just pray to God that nothing happens to him."
Buterbaugh was a two-way player last fall for Aurora Christian's freshman and JV football teams, even scoring a memorable touchdown in a JV game against Guerin. Dave Ward, one of the Eagles' coaches, designed a play specifically for Buterbaugh coming out of a timeout with the Eagles one yard from a touchdown.
With three backs in the backfield, the Eagles rushed toward the line without a huddle and, after a silent count, Buterbaugh took the snap directly and surged into the end zone. Ward compared the sense of fulfillment from that play to winning a state championship, which the Eagles' varsity team has accomplished each of the past two years.
"The way he played the game and his dedication to the game, you could tell his size never came into his mindset," Ward said. "You'd tell him to get in there on 1-and-1 drills and he'd get in there and go right at kids who weigh [almost] four times as much as he does."
Buterbaugh attended Thompson Middle School in St. Charles before transferring as an eighth grader to Aurora Christian, where he originally played basketball and football before focusing on football as a freshman.
Aside from the physical challenges, his size has created many moments that have tested his fortitude. There are the inevitable stares, and he seethed when recounting some people who have snapped photographs of him for their apparent amusement.
Still, David Buterbaugh said that the public's treatment of short people seems to be improving, much like the trajectory that other minority groups are experiencing.
"I think every year, every generation, it gets better and better," said David Buterbaugh, a laser quality specialist with Caterpillar Inc. in Montgomery. "I think [the reality show, 'Little People, Big World'] kind of opened up a lot of eyes. … Back when my mom grew up and my dad grew up, it was really bad. Short people couldn't even get work, get jobs. They didn't think people of short stature was capable of doing a regular job. I think [Tyler] has got it better than I did, sure."
Kelly Buterbaugh said even well-intentioned interactions with classmates can sometimes be problematic.
"The kids, especially when they were younger, would always try and do everything for the boys," Kelly Buterbaugh said. "They kind of treated them like they were younger. And so we had to kind of say 'No, he can do that,' with an accommodation, with a stool, with something else. … But I think overall this community has been pretty accepting of our family and encouraging them in sports."
Buterbaugh is a role model for his younger brothers, and hopes his willingness to stand up for himself rubs off on 10-year-old Foster.
"I've been always telling him, don't take crap from anyone, who cares what they say," Buterbaugh said. "Who are they judge to you?"
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Dwarf Athletic Association of America, an organization through which Buterbaugh previously has competed and that is sponsoring this year's World Dwarf Games. About 400 athletes from 17 countries have registered for the Games, slated for Aug. 3-10 on the campus of Michigan State University.
One of Buterbaugh's female cousins, from Rochelle, is among the participants. Kelly Buterbaugh said her son is burning off nerves with daily training sessions leading up to the Games.
"He's a little nervous about what he's going to come up against, so I think he's very competitive and he wants to do his best," Kelly Buterbaugh said. "I think he's realizing he might have quite the competition."
Unlike Olympic and Paralympic athletes, there are no Olympic Committee funds to help dwarf athletes prepare for or compete in the World Dwarf Games. Those interested in supporting Tyler Buterbaugh’s participation in the Games can make contributions to DAAA/Tyler Buterbaugh Athlete Account, 708 Gravenstein Hwy, North #118, Sebastopol, CA, 95472, or visit daaa.org. The cost of participation is about $1,100. For information on the World Dwarf Games – which will take place Aug. 3 through 10 on the campus of Michigan State University – visit 2013worlddwarfgames.org.