More Than a Game
Old Mill football player A.J. Butler's special bond with stepdad
Views from high school sports from photographer Toni L. Sandys
While most of his team was still celebrating the win on the field at M&T Bank Stadium, Old Mill senior A.J. Butler, 17, headed to the stands. The Patriots had just defeated Wise to win the Maryland 4A football championship Friday.
His mom, Tammi Mackell, spotted him first and saw his eyes searching the crowd. To her dismay, she was not the first person he sought.
Instead, Butler went immediately to his stepdad, Brian Mackell, and gave him a big embrace.
"I had to laugh and tell her it's a man thing," Mackell joked.
"I told him I was very proud of him for playing what I consider to be one of the games of his life on the biggest stage that he may ever play on," Mackell said. "If that was his last game he definitely left his name out on the field for everybody to know."
Mackell, who first met Butler almost 10 years ago, should know. He's been to almost every game Butler has played, first as a coach and then as a stepdad. Mackell coached A.J. and a group of seven other players on the Old Mill team to three Arundel County youth championships starting when most of them were only 9.
"For them to come together as seniors [in high school] and do it again, that's quite something," Brian Mackell said.
Mackell, a coach for the past 18 years at the youth and high school level, has been coaching A.J. and his younger brothers, Corey, 14, and Brandon, 10, in football and life. After a long friendship with their mother, Mackell became the Butler boys' stepdad last June.
"I do my best to encourage the boys in every aspect of their life, whether it be sports or academics," he said.
Mackell said he thinks that's why Butler tracked him down first, instead of his mom.
"It's all of the side talks we've had," Brian said.
Late-night chats where Mackell has tried to impart more than his knowledge of football, helping the boys through issues greater than sports.
"I try to infuse a little bit of what I've been given and been blessed with," he said. Their mother and Brian "have been pushing them to be the best that they can. The rest will take care of itself."