Malcolm Butler took a very indirect road to NFL stardom (maybe it was all those wrenches he had to dodge) — one that started at a community college in Mississippi, and continued at West Alabama. Guys come from small schools all the time, just look at the New England Patriots’ latest second round pick, Kyle Dugger, if you don’t believe me. Butler’s start in the NFL, however, really sets him apart as one of the best underdog stories in NFL history.
After only playing two seasons of high school football, Butler didn’t have many options entering the next level. He eventually settled on Hinds Community College in Mississippi. He was kicked off the team half way through his freshman year, but the school would give him a second chance, and he would make the most of it, proving that he was no Average Joe (okay, no more Dodgeball jokes, I promise).
Butler eventually earned a spot at West Alabama, a Division-II school and earned All-Gulf South Conference honors in both 2012 and 2013. He finished his career with the Tigers with 89 tackles, seven interceptions, and 33 pass breakups. Interest in him for the NFL Draft was still slim to none, however, and, after going undrafted, no one was calling to offer him any deals after the fact.
The only team that was actually calling were the Patriots, but, even then, Butler was only a camp body.
What’s a camp body, you may ask? Well, when teams hold their rookie minicamps shortly after the draft, they typically don’t have enough guys to run full drills, so they sometimes bring in players to fill out the camp roster and allow them to go through drills in as complete a setting as possible. These players are typically paid for the weekend, and then are never heard from again. That was the position that Butler was in. All but forgotten about, with no teams interested in him at all. Until he got to camp.
Butler impressed enough at rookie minicamp to get a contract offer and and invite to training camp. There, No. 29 (his practice number) was all over the field. I distinctly remember seeing him make a ton of plays in camp that year, and I wasn’t the only one to notice — future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady made a comment about it as well. Butler was making some noise, and eventually ended up making the Patriots’ 53-man roster, just months after no team in NFL wanted him even as a free agent.
Butler was at the bottom of the pecking order, though, and served as the sixth cornerback behind Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner (who was suspended the first four games of the regular season), Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard, and Logan Ryan. Despite having a talented group ahead of him, Butler would end up playing in 11 games in his first regular season with one start. In all fairness, though, no one remembers him for his regular season performance.
After going 12-4, the Patriots earned the number one seed in the AFC, and went into the playoffs as the favorite to reach the Super Bowl. They almost got tripped up in their first postseason game, however, finding themselves down by 14 points twice to the visiting Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round. They would hold on to win, of course, but Butler would contribute zero defensive snaps. He did play in the infamous “Deflategate” blowout win over the Indianapolis Colts, and saw the field for 15 snaps.
Unbeknownst to everyone at the time, Butler would play a vital role in the next game, but only after the Patriots secondary would be pushed to their breaking point.
When the Patriots met the reigning champion Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl 49, they were once again without Alfonzo Dennard, who was injured towards the end of the regular season, meaning that Butler was now up to the fifth spot on the cornerback depth chart. The Seahawks were a running team, but had a phenomenal quarterback in Russell Wilson, and some explosive receivers, in Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and, as it turned out, Chris Matthews.
Matthews was a crazy story too, as he had never made it in the NFL, and was working as a security guard when he got his tryout with the Seahawks after spending three years in the CFL. He would go on to torch the Patriots, and Kyle Arrington in particular, during the Super Bowl: in the first half and on the first drive of the second, Matthews caught three passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots responded by taking out Arrington, putting the bigger Brandon Browner on him (who allowed just one more catch for nine yards while matched up against Matthews), and threw Butler into the rotation.
The undrafted rookie immediately did what he had been doing all season going back to minicamp: he made some solid plays. He had a beautiful pass breakup against Jermaine Kearse on a third down play with the Patriots down 10. If the Seahawks pick that up, the Patriots might not ever have a chance to come back.
Before I continue, I just have to note that, going back and rewatching this game, it stands out how amazing of a job Chris Collinsworth did calling it. He says a few things that are borderline prophetic. Early in the fourth quarter he makes a note (while talking about a nice play by Seahawks cornerback Tharold Simon) that sometimes it’s the guys you least expect that wind up having the biggest impact. Of course, “They came right back to it, Al,” after the Edelman touchdown. Then, after a gorgeous pass break up by Butler on the final drive, “Can you imagine what this rookie is thinking?” while breaking down the play.
And finally, one that gives me goosebumps every time, “But they’re not in yet.”
So that brings us to the Patriots 5-yard line with 1:06 to go in the game and Seattle down four points. Before we talk about what happened next, however, we have to talk about Butler’s impact one play earlier. First, the contest on the Jermaine Kearse catch was fantastic, he literally could not have played it better than he did. Then, after Kearse made the ridiculous catch, he had the awareness to get up and knock him out of bounds, saving a touchdown right there. I don’t think that part of it gets mentioned quite enough.
What came next was the greatest play in NFL history.
The Seahawks, after a Marshawn Lynch run to the 1-yard line, were on the verge of scoring and winning the game. The Patriots basically stole it, though, thanks to Butler undercutting a Russell Wilson passing attempt on 2nd-and-goal.
Butler was thrown into the spotlight, and became not just a Super Bowl hero but one of the Patriots’ starting cornerbacks the following season after both Revis and Browner left in free agency. He played well too in his second season, squaring off against great receivers like Odell Beckham Jr, Antonio Brown, and DeAndre Hopkins, and, for the most part, held his own against all of them. In 2016, he was part of the defense that led the Patriots to the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
What happened the next season, however, would leave a blemish that many Patriots fans find hard to forget. Butler was going to be a free agent after the 2017 campaign, and he was pushing for a new contract — not surprising, since he was still getting paid such a small salary, and was playing a ton of snaps as a fixture on the Patriots defense. Instead of doing that, however, the team gave a five-year, $65 million contract to Stephon Gilmore.
Butler would go into the season assuming that it would be his last in New England. Was it perfect? No, but he started every game in the regular season and played almost every snap. Then came the Super Bowl and Butler was famously benched, with the iconic picture being him crying on the sideline during the anthem. We haven’t gotten the real story, and we might never get it, but, after the Patriots secondary was carved up by Nick Foles, many people blamed New England’s loss partially on Butler’s benching.
Whether or not they would have won if he had played is immaterial, though: his tenure with the Patriots will always be remembered by the bookended Super Bowls. One because of an amazing play by an undrafted rookie, and one because of a curious coaching decision about an establish veteran. Things still worked out pretty well for Butler, who signed a five-year, $61 million deal with the Tennessee Titans one month after the Super Bowl. His play hasn’t quite lived up to expectations on the Titans, but he did start 20 games in his first two years before going on injured reserve this past season with a broken wrist.
On the list of improbable Super Bowl heroes, Butler ranks incredibly high.
David Tyree is on there, as is Chris Matthews, but the biggest difference between Butler and them is that he has gone on to continue to be a solid contributor since he was first thrust into the spotlight. The mere fact that Butler has played for as long as he has, and played as well as he has, already makes him a great underdog story. If he can continue his play for the remainder of his contract with Titans, and possibly even beyond that, his legend will just continue to grow — just like the legend of Peter La Fleur, after his amazing blindfolded victory over White Goodman in sudden death (we both know you wanted that reference, so you’re welcome).
Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast
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