If it wasn’t for a package called “O-line-three corner,” or for those famous two words shouted by then-safeties coach Brian Flores, Malcolm Butler wouldn’t have found himself on the goal line with 26 seconds remaining in Super Bowl XLIX.
The rookie by way of Hinds Community College and West Alabama had left the field for the previous play – a four-yard Marshawn Lynch run destined for a touchdown if not for Dont’a Hightower’s last-gasp tackle – after being a first-hand witness to Jermaine Kearse’s improbable 33-yard reception down the right sideline.
But “O-line-three corner” was called upon in a 28-24 game. And “Malcolm, go!” was born.
“I came off the field and got another opportunity to go out there, and it was just the play call,” Butler told reporters during Thursday’s media availability in Houston. “Three corners out there, so I’ve got to go out there.”
What followed was a sequence of events frozen in time yet still replaying on social media. A rub-route slant. A jam. A beeline to the football. A mid-air collision. A pass that never reached its intended destination. A dive out of the end zone.
“I was expecting run but I told myself, ‘I’m going to read the wide receiver,’” Butler said of the play that scout-team receiver Josh Boyce had beat him on earlier in the week.
Butler wouldn’t be beaten twice.
It’s strange to think that the highlight of Butler’s career potentially arrived on the 18th snap of his 14th NFL game. It’s still unfair to say that it defined him. But the 26-year-old knows it’s hard to exceed what occurred on the one-yard line that night in Glendale, Ariz.
“I’m going to always remember it, one of the biggest plays in my life,” Butler said. “Biggest moment in my life, so I’m going to always remember it."
Butler stands far removed from his days on the fringe of the New England Patriots’ 53-man roster as an undrafted tryout who logged 11 tackles and three pass deflections during the 2015 regular season. He’s no longer buried on a depth chart featuring the likes of Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington.
He’s not sitting at a table speaking with only one reporter during media week, either.
“We got well-acquainted,” Butler recalls.
Yes, he still has the red Chevy Colorado that Super Bowl XLIX MVP Tom Brady handed him the keys to. But even in the celebration, whether it be the trip Disney World, the hometown parade in Vicksburg, Miss., the circuit of television appearances he went through, or even the ESPYs, it remained a mystery whether Butler’s play against the Seattle Seahawks’ Ricardo Lockette would match, well, his play.
That was something No. 21 set out to affirm.
“It is in me. It is built in me. I always want more. I always work hard. I always want to be the best, and the hard work will pay off,” Butler said on opening night. “I have seen numerous players known for one play – they make a big play and fall off the map. I just put in my mind that I refuse to be one of those guys, which I did not have doubt of anyway. I just kept building, kept working and just ignored the noise. I just kept working, and it has turned out great.”
Now with a Pro Bowl nod and two seasons as a full-time starter under his belt, it has. Butler has intercepted six passes since then. Including the playoffs, he’s broken up 36. And this campaign, according to Pro Football Focus, the 90 passes thrown his direction have netted a 78.2 quarterback rating.
He has stayed on the stage.
“Last Super Bowl I didn't even know if I would be on the field, but I prepared like I would be,” Butler said. “This year, it’s totally different. I’m expecting to play, I’ve got a role I’ve got to go out there and execute. I didn’t expect all of the media like my first year when I first got here going into the league. I’ve got a bigger idea of what to expect since I’ve been to one already.”
Butler is one of 14 former undrafted free agents on the Patriots’ active roster heading into Super Bowl LI. An additional 19 reside on the Atlanta Falcons’ 53. And between the two sides, four of whom – running back D.J. Foster, tight end Joshua Perkins, and cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and Brian Poole – are rookies.
It is unclear whether one will have a “Malcolm, go!” moment when Sunday’s 6:30 p.m. ET kickoff arrives at NRG Stadium, or, if a play of such magnitude will ever be rivaled by another undrafted rookie.
But you never know what will come of a substitution.
“Most definitely,” Butler said. “It’s going to be a player that’s not going to expect to play. He’s going to get his opportunity to go out there, and I’m a valuable lesson of just be ready when your name is called.”