Vicksburg native Butler overcomes missteps to earn free agent shot in the NFL with the New England PatriotsPublished 1:45am Sunday, July 13, 2014
Malcolm Butler’s road to the NFL started with a mistake.
It then wound through the drive-thru lane of a Popeye’s chicken restaurant, and into Division II obscurity before finally leading to an opportunity with one of professional football’s most prestigious franchises.
Four years after he was dismissed from Hinds Community College’s football team following a run-in with campus police, Butler is preparing to begin training camp with the NFL’s New England Patriots on July 23.
As an undrafted free agent, the Vicksburg native faces an uphill climb to make the regular-season roster. He’s got a chance, though, and that’s all he wants.
“It’s a tough road, but that’s all you can ask for is an opportunity. I’m going to make the best of my opportunity,” said Butler, who plays cornerback. “I’m not trying to come back home.”
Butler knows a thing or two about succeeding in the face of long odds. He didn’t play football in 10th or 11th grade, but did well enough as a senior to earn a scholarship to Hinds. Halfway through the 2010 season, he lost it.
During lunch one day, a Hinds campus police officer asked Butler to leave a dining hall and he didn’t. As the situation escalated, an argument ensued and Butler was detained.
“A fight wouldn’t be the right way to characterize it. That implies fists were swinging, and that wasn’t the case at all,” Hinds head football coach Gene Murphy said. “He didn’t calm down like he should have. That led to him getting in more trouble, to the point he had to be dismissed from school.”
Leaving Hinds was a low point in Butler’s life, but also one of the best things that ever happened to him.
He returned to Vicksburg and his job at Popeye’s, where he worked the drive-thru window and would often see friends and former classmates. It made him realize he needed to get his life back on track and move forward.
“That’s why I’m here right now, is because of that mistake. If that didn’t happen, I’d probably be the manager at Popeye’s right now,” Butler said.
Butler enrolled in classes at Alcorn State the following spring. Hinds coaches kept an eye on him, too. Seeing the maturity with which he was handling the situation, they invited him back to Raymond for the fall 2011 semester.
“I never gave up on him. He was a guy I always felt like he learned from his mistakes and moved forward,” Murphy said. “He looked back over the steps he’d taken and knew he made some wrong ones. Some people have short memories and don’t remember where they went wrong. He has a long memory. He knew were he took the wrong step.”
Given a second chance, Butler wasn’t about to step out of line again. He was a model citizen off the field, and a superstar on it.
In his one full season at Hinds, he had 43 tackles, three interceptions and 12 pass break-ups. He was a second-team All-State selection and earned a scholarship to Division II West Alabama.
Although he felt like he had the talent to play at the Division I level, Butler said he felt his earlier mistake kept him from getting a chance with a bigger school. He was determined, though, to make the most of the situation.
“I went to D-II because I knew wherever I went, I messed up and it put me behind,” Butler said. “I was ready to move on. I had a lot to prove.”
Butler did that, and more. He was a two-time All-Gulf South Conference selection at West Alabama as he intercepted seven passes in 2012 and 2013. He was a shutdown cornerback and an outstanding returnman, averaging 28.8 yards per kickoff return for his career.
West Alabama went 8-3 and won a share of the Gulf South Conference championship last season. Butler had 45 total tackles, two interceptions and 16 pass breakups.
Butler’s success put him on the radar of NFL teams, but not as a highly coveted draft pick. His fate was to wait for a phone call and a free agent offer after the draft.
“I wasn’t expecting to get drafted. I was expecting to get a shot,” Butler said.
It didn’t come from the team he was expecting, though.
Heading into the draft, Butler had been in contact with several teams about possible free agent offers. The New York Jets, in particular, seemed especially interested.
Before a formal offer ever arrived from the Jets, a call came from a different area code slightly farther up Interstate 95.
“I saw the area code and it was 508. I said, ‘Wait, that’s Foxborough,’” Butler recalled with a laugh.
Foxborough, Massachusetts is the home of the New England Patriots, the franchise that has won three Super Bowls and appeared in two more in the past 13 seasons. On May 12, two days after the NFL draft, Butler signed with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent.
“You can go through a whole lot, and you just can’t stop there. You have to keep going,” Butler said. “Anybody in any situation, if you give up it’s done. You don’t have a chance. It’s done. It’s taught me a lot, this whole thing.”
That never-say-die attitude is one Butler knows he needs to keep if he wants to have any chance at making the Patriots’ opening-day roster.
He’s one of six cornerbacks on the roster heading into training camp, and the team will likely keep four or five. Of the six, he’s the only rookie. The Patriots’ other cornerbacks include free agent acquisition Darrelle Revis, a five-time Pro Bowler, and returning starter Kyle Arrington.
One thing in Butler’s favor, however, might be the Patriots’ track record of plucking players from small schools and other teams’ scrap heaps.
Just among the team’s cornerbacks, Arrington has played in every game the past four seasons for New England after he was waived by two other teams. Browner spent four seasons in the Canadian Football League. Alfonzo Dennard made the team as a seventh-round draft pick in 2012.
The Patriots are also famous for their low-key, disciplined approach, which Butler said he was a big fan of.
“It’s all about discipline, respect, the program and pride,” he said. “It’s a good fit for me. They’re hard on you. They’re going to get the most out of you.”
As he embarks on a summer filled with promise, Butler seems well-suited for the tough road ahead. He’s acknowledging the challenge, determined to do whatever he can to leave his mark, and not have any regrets.
He’s also determined to spend the next few years in chilly Foxborough, and not steamy Vicksburg.
“I’m not coming home,” he said, before catching himself and adding with a laugh, “I’m coming to visit. Not to stay.”