BILL PLASCHKE

The waitress always wanted to be a sports commentator — and she is

"It's hard. I look at some of these women on TV today and think, 'Wow, that could have been me,'" she says. "But I was a single mom with two girls to raise. I needed to work."

In the summer of 1997, while having breakfast at the Peppertree, she asked a manager if they were hiring. He asked if she could start the next day. She did, and has been a fixture there ever since, doing the two things she loves, helping people and talking ball.

"Sports can give everyone such a great high, who would not want to talk sports?" she says. "Everyone has a team and everyone wants to talk about their team, and I'm right there with them."

During the last 16 years she has missed only a few days of work because she not only follows the great athletes, she emulates them. She plays with pain. She has worked on a broken foot caused by the strain of spending all day on her feet. She has worked after undergoing surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome caused by the constant curl of her hand around her order-taking pen. She has endured five surgeries for hernias caused by lifting trays. And, oh yeah, then there are the burns on her arms.

"But to come to work and see one person smile and say they are happy to see me, that makes it all worth it," Butkus says. "When I hear that I make people happy, I think, no, it's the people who make me happy."

It is her dream to talk about sports on the air, but she has never even been able to get her call through a sports talk radio show. Still, her devotion is undying. The TV in her modest San Dimas house is turned to ESPN whenever she is home, even when she sleeps. Her TiVo is 97% full with sports events. Her 19 tattoos include a goal post on her shoulders and a Chiefs emblem literally branded into the middle of her back.

"It's not like talking to someone who just shows up in a team T-shirt," says Barb Ireland, a retired engineer. "She knows her stuff. Everyone learns something from her."

Sometimes they take that education to Las Vegas, bet on teams she recommends and return to tip her with part of the winnings. But mostly, the good folks at the Peppertree Cafe have learned that despite all its ills, sports is just another word for inclusion, for acceptance, for home.

And, it turns out, the waitress who has spent her life longing to change her world with her love of sports has been doing it all along.

When Butkus' father, Tom, died nearly two years ago, Butkus honored him at his funeral by reading a poem recounting his lessons of togetherness. She later read it to her boss, Dallas, who was impressed.

"You know, you should do something with your life," he told her.

She said she paused for a second before looking around the Peppertree Cafe and finding her reply.

"I am doing something," she told him. "I'm here."

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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