Winding road leads Butler to NFL title

Published 9:18 am Monday, February 2, 2015

New England Patriots strong safety Malcolm Butler (21) intercepts a pass in front of Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette (83) during the second half of NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

New England Patriots strong safety Malcolm Butler (21) intercepts a pass in front of Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette (83) during the second half of NFL Super Bowl XLIX football game Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

In the hours following Super Bowl XLIX Sunday night, somewhere between the millionth replay of his game-clinching interception and the 2 a.m. debut of his “I’m going to Disneyland!” commercial, a lot of people were scrambling to figure out exactly who on earth Malcolm Butler was.

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman called him “that guy” in a postgame interview. ESPN’s “Sportscenter” showed the interception with 20 seconds left that sealed the New England Patriots’ 28-24 victory, followed by a segment detailing some notable facts about the rookie cornerback.

Even Butler’s teammates glowingly referred to him as “the kid,” “rookie” and “our young boy” after the game.

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In his hometown of Vicksburg, however, everyone already knows who Malcolm Butler is. He’s the humble hometown guy made good, who turned his life around in his darkest hour. He’s the teammate with an insatiable work ethic.

And now, just like the rest of the world knows him, a Super Bowl legend.

“I was screaming so loud tonight I scared some people,” laughed Alonzo Stevens, Butler’s football coach at Vicksburg High School. “I was so proud of him. When he got in trouble off the field, he never gave up on himself. He worked for this, too. He made them give him a roster spot. Everybody thought he was just passing through with the Patriots.”


Rocky road to stardom

Butler’s journey to Super Bowl stardom seems as unlikely as his emergence as one of the pivotal players in Sunday’s game.

He played in his freshman season at Vicksburg High, then sat out the next two years before returning to the team his senior year. He had 61 tackles and one interception, and showed enough potential to warrant a scholarship offer from Hinds Community College — which he promptly messed up by getting kicked out of school following an off-the-field incident halfway through his first semester.

Butler returned to Vicksburg and his job at Popeye’s Chicken, where the gravity of his wasted opportunity crashed down upon him. Butler enrolled in classes at Alcorn State to get his academic qualifications in order and was invited back to Hinds’ football team in the fall of 2010.

Butler went on to become a two-time All-Gulf South Conference player at West Alabama, signed a free agent contract with the Patriots last May, and made the NFL team’s roster with an impressive performance throughout training camp.

“He said, ‘I know I screwed up, coach,’” Stevens recalled. “He was just a model kid. He realized he had made a mistake and he didn’t let it slow him down.”

Les Lemons, who played with Butler at both Vicksburg High and Hinds, said Butler’s ability and work ethic were never in question.

“He always made big plays. I knew his work ethic and how he trains. He trains for those big-time opportunities,” Lemons said.

It was that approach that helped make Butler a Super Bowl hero.


Reserve to hero

He barely played in the first half of Sunday’s game against Seattle, then moved into the defensive lineup halfway through the third quarter with the Patriots trailing 24-14.

Butler broke up a deep pass along the sideline to prevent a third down completion that would have moved the Seahawks into field goal range in the third quarter. He had good coverage on Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse on another third down play in the fourth quarter, leading to a key sack.

Those stops helped New England rally for two touchdowns and a 28-24 lead with 2:02 remaining. Butler’s big game was just getting going, though.

On Seattle’s final drive, quarterback Russell Wilson kept throwing in the rookie’s direction. Wilson threw a pass deep down the right sideline intended for Kearse. Butler jumped, reached back and made a spectacular play to knock the ball down.

Unfortunately, the deflected pass fell straight onto Kearse’s legs, and the receiver made a highlight-reel play of his own to complete a 33-yard reception that gave Seattle the ball at the 5-yard line.

All around the country, fans gasped in astonishment. Butler had made a phenomenal play on the ball, only to be upstaged by one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history.

“My first reaction was, ‘My boy made ESPN for the wrong reason,” said Lemons, who is in the Air Force and was watching at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Butler felt the same way.

“I felt like I did my job, but it still hurt that he caught it,” Butler, who finished with three solo tackles and three pass defenses, told NFL Network. “I felt like anyone else would feel, that it was my fault that we didn’t win the game. I just had to come out and make a play and step up.”


Making the play

His chance at redemption came two plays later. With the clock ticking down and Seattle at the 1-yard line, Wilson tried to throw a quick slant to Ricardo Lockette. Butler was ready.

The rookie recognized the play immediately and reacted like a seasoned veteran. He set up three yards deep in the end zone, with teammate Brandon Browner and Seattle receivers Kearse and Lockette in a bunch formation directly front of him.

At the snap, Kearse ran straight ahead to take Browner out of the play while Lockette cut underneath on a slant route to the goal line. Butler made a beeline toward the spot where Wilson needed to throw the ball to Lockette and beat the receiver there by a fraction of a second to snag the first interception of his career.

Butler collided with Lockette, got knocked back into the end zone, then sprawled forward to the 1-yard line and directly into NFL lore.

“Studying film, preparation, I knew the route combination,” Butler told ESPN after the game. “I knew that was the stack, and they were trying to pick me and Browner, and I just beat them to the point and jumped the route. I jumped the route and made a play. I knew our team needed it.”


‘The Interception Man’

In Arizona, Butler spent the next few hours in a blizzard of confetti and attention. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady won the MVP, but Butler was the first person interviewed by NBC on the field after the game.

For perhaps the first time Butler  — who in the regular season had a total of 15 tackles, was inactive for four games and only played 14 defensive snaps in the AFC championship game against Indianapolis — had to speak at the podium at the postgame press conference. Teammates crowed not only about Butler’s play, but about his contributions throughout the season.

“We called him ‘The Interception Man’ in practice because he’d come up with four or five every day. His number got called, and he made the biggest play of his life,” Patriots All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis told ESPN.

As Sunday turned into Monday, ESPN’s continuing Super Bowl coverage told the tale of Butler’s amazing life story. At 2 a.m., the familiar strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star” played on television speakers nationwide and Butler, along with teammate Julian Edelman, happily exclaimed “We’re Going to Disneyland!” into the camera.

Yes, the undrafted free agent with the rags-to-riches story got the ultimate fairy tale ending to his long and winding road by landing the coveted Disneyland commercial.

“I’m just blessed and thankful, and just cherish the moment,” Butler told ESPN. “It’s a dream come true.”

Butler’s play cemented the Patriots as one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history and, perhaps, ended Seattle’s quest to become one. The man nicknamed ‘Scraps’ and ‘The Interception Man’ for his tenacity and ability in practice, the rookie who was such an afterthought that he shared his number with another player in the preseason, had become a household name literally overnight.

“Has anybody seen Malcolm? I want to give him a big old hug,” Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said during a postgame press conference.


A hometown ‘Super Bowl’ hero

In Vicksburg — and likely throughout New England as well — Butler quickly ascended to folk hero status. He’s the third player from Vicksburg to play in a Super Bowl, and the first to win one. In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, he posted on Facebook and Twitter messages of appreciation for the support his hometown had showed him, and its residents seemed eager to shower him with even more love.

“He got himself right back on track and now he’s the first one to go from Vicksburg to winning a ring. He is a living testimony,” said Jessie Lewis, Butler’s barber when he’s in town and whose son Raphael Harris played with Butler at Vicksburg High. “I’m just happy for Malcolm. He is one of the nicest guys you can be.”

Lemons, who played quarterback at VHS and Hinds, said he was beaming as he headed off to work late Sunday night.

“I’ve been telling everybody that I threw him balls,” Lemons said with a laugh. “It’s cool knowing he put Vicksburg and Mississippi on the map. It’s good for people to follow his footsteps. Hopefully it’ll encourage kids to follow their dreams.”



About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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