In a nondescript strip mall in Alabama, a little-known Division II prospect once trained for his shot at the NFL. He’s a star now, but Butler still comes back to this gym
NORTHPORT, Ala. — If you came here looking for a Super Bowl hero, you might be wondering if you’re in the right place.
The gym is in a strip mall on a highway just across the river from Tuscaloosa, sandwiched between an Army-Navy surplus store, a kids’ barbershop and an outdoors consignment shop. The front window panes are mirrored so you can’t see inside, and a piece of computer paper tacked to the front door warns not to enter the building unless you are a member or have spoken to management.
This 2,800 square-foot retail space used to house a bar that closed after losing its liquor license. Now, a little before noon on a Monday in January, eight NFL hopefuls are lined up on a strip of worn green turf, preparing to run a 40-yard dash. A man in a black sweatsuit, with a robust beard, has spent most of the last 15 minutes correcting his pupils’ starting form, with mixed results. Finally, he snaps.
“Division II guys, they are gonna give you one time to go, and if you mess up?” shouts Johnny Jackson, the co-founder of JDPI Sports Performance. “What did they tell Malcolm? What did every scout in the NFL tell him? You’ve got one time to get it right.”
He’s talking about Malcolm Butler, the Super Bowl XLIX hero who will have a chance to win his second ring in Houston on Sunday. Exactly three years ago, Butler was standing in the very same spot as these players, fresh out of West Alabama, wondering if anyone in the NFL would know his name. He was a long shot, like all these players are long shots, quarterbacks and receivers and defensive linemen who played out of the spotlight at FCS and Division II schools like Southern Illinois and West Florida and Arkansas Tech.
Since snatching the Super Bowl-clinching interception off Russell Wilson as a little-used rookie, Butler has become the top cornerback on the stingiest defense in the NFL, tasked with trailing the likes of Antonio Brown in the AFC Championship and (depending on the game plan) Julio Jones in Super Bowl 51. Despite the fact that everybody knows his name now, each of the past two offseasons Butler has returned to this gym in Alabama, where he can train like he did when he was anonymous.
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Other than an office, a bathroom and a small storage area in the back, the entirety of JDPI Sports Performance consists of a single room. Fluorescent light streams down from scattered ceiling panels, and there is a chalk box to prepare hands for gripping the weight bars. The wall decorations are 30-some pieces of paper printed with motivational sayings, hung haphazardly around the room.
If what you did yesterday seems big, you haven’t done anything today. —Lou Holtz
The man who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the man doing it.
A FAST 40 EQUALS $$$$$$$$$
On one wall is a giant white board with the Gym Rules, The Creed and JDPI Core Values handwritten in back erasable marker. No sitting in the gym. No yawning, either. The Creed includes doctrines such as, “I know that no matter how much talent I have, I still need to work harder than anyone else,” and, “I am a rare breed.” In the largest print reads a message: “NO ONE EVER DROWNED IN SWEAT.”
“We’re kind of like the Rocky version of a gym,” Jackson says. “We take pride in not having all the bells and whistles. No machines. Just old-school hard work. What you don’t see in football anymore.”
Jackson and his business partner, Tyler Duffy, opened the gym in 2012 after first meeting in a weight room at the University of Alabama when both were students there. The previous year, they’d signed on to work at a gym that was about to open in the area. But the deadly tornado that tore through Tuscaloosa area in April 2011 demolished the gym. Duffy had been there shortly before the storm hit, trying to squeeze in a workout, and narrowly escaped the storm’s path. The owner opted not to rebuild, so the two friends went into business on their own.
They took out a loan and borrowed money from Duffy’s parents. Their first clients were a handful of high school basketball players. It took them about two years to turn a profit, Jackson says, and during that time they were scouring live games and game footage for potential clients. That’s how they ended up in Livingston, Ala., at a November 2013 game between North Alabama and West Alabama.
“We went to the game to watch another guy, but I was like, ‘Who is that No. 7’? Jackson says, referring to Butler’s collegiate number. “He actually got beat bad on a play, but he went and chased the guy down and stopped him on the [2-yard-line]. His effort, that’s what stood out.”
Jackson says he purposely seeks out players on the margins of college football who may have been overlooked. He likes late bloomers. Butler was off the radar because of his circuitous path, from Hinds Community College, where he got kicked out; to working at the Popeye’s in his native Vicksburg, Miss.; re-enrolling at Hinds; and then to West Alabama, because his grades still weren’t quite good enough for Division I. He came to JPDI in the winter of 2014, to train for his shot at the pros.
On a handful of occasions, Butler rolled into the shopping center parking lot a few minutes late for his workout, and Jackson would greet him with a standard line: “Bill Belichick would cut your ass!” He had no idea, of course, that Butler would end up playing for Bill Belichick. But Jackson had seen firsthand how Nick Saban ran the Alabama program during the time he spent as an intern strength and conditioning coach for the Crimson Tide, and he knew Belichick ruled the Patriots the same way. This year, Jackson is getting the same point across to his young players by handing late arrivers a note that reads, “I need your playbook.”
The credo that small-school guys have less margin for error could be written on the whiteboard. Butler’s disastrous Pro Day 40-yard dash lives on as a cautionary tale in this gym. Butler had been included in Alabama’s Pro Day as one of the small-school players, and when it came time to run his 40-yard dash, he choked. He got nervous, and he was clocked at 4.6 seconds, slower than in practice and certainly not enough for a Division II cornerback stand out. The draft came and went, and he wasn’t even offered an undrafted free agent contract.
“No one knew who Malcolm was,” Jackson told his group of NFL hopefuls on Monday. “No one knows who you are.”
Of course, most of the country knows the rest of the story: Butler got to run one more time, in a tryout for the most successful franchise in the NFL. He was clocked at 4.4 seconds. The Patriots signed him.
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Jackson pulls out a cardboard box containing a variety of balls, including tennis and bocce, and a few fresh decks of cards stored in an Emergen-C box.
Each of the past two offseasons, Butler has returned to Tuscaloosa hell-bent on improving his technique. He still works on building his strength here, including one of his least favorite exercises, squats with a band around his knees, that’s essential to his being a strong tackler. But Jackson also brainstormed new ways to drill the cornerback techniques he’s taught by his coaches in New England.
Some are typical. Butler will shuffle side to side while punching at a soft blue pad, mimicking the action of trying to knock a receiver off his mark. He’ll hook a resistance band around his waist, sprint in place and then charge toward the wall on command, building his acceleration. He’ll also do read and react drills wearing the resistance band, responding to cues from Jackson that signal him to burst forward, get back, swivel his hips right or swivel his hips left. “A big part of Malcolm’s game is change of direction,” Jackson says.
But then there’s the box of tricks. Jackson demonstrates some of the wacky drills he designed for Butler with the pre-draft group in the gym today. One of the receivers takes his shoes off, and stands on one leg atop a stack of three of those foam pads. He’s squirming around, struggling to keep balance. Then, he puts one hand behind his back, while Jackson fires tennis balls at him in all directions. He has to catch them with one hand, standing on one leg, on an unsteady surface. When he falls, Jackson shouts, “Next man up!”
Next, Jackson does the same drill but instead flings playing cards the player’s direction. The cards move like a butterfly that’s flitting through the air, in unpredictable flight. How did he come up with using playing cards?
“Trying to be the Steve Jobs of the gym,” Jackson says. “Gotta get creative.”
Malcolm Butler does this drill here: catching cards while balancing on 1 foot."We get creative here. I'm the Steve Jobs of the gym"- Jackson pic.twitter.com/mADUePsPbd— The MMQB (@theMMQB) January 30, 2017
The card tricks continue on solid ground. The players try to catch the cards when they are thrown from behind them, as if they are taking off from the line of scrimmage. They also backpedal, break on the ball and come forward to try to snatch the card in its wild flight.
“The best ping pong player I have ever seen is Julio Jones,” Jackson comments, as he breaks a sweat from flinging these cards. “I started to put two and two together. If you are a good ping pong player, you’ll probably be a good receiver.” Or a good DB.
Jackson knows his star pupil’s likely Super Bowl nemesis from his time with the Alabama strength and conditioning program. He recalls one time when Jones had to leave a workout early for a meeting. Jones returned, changed back into his workout clothes, and completed the workout even though everyone else was gone and no coach had asked him to finish.
He hasn’t shared that story, or any like it, with Butler. It's not like he needs any extra motivation. The real takeaway from Butler’s 2012 tweet, in which he wrote about his desire to “check Julio Jones,” is that he’s been looking forward to this kind of matchup since his first year at West Alabama.
In the back office of JDPI, a framed picture of Butler’s Super Bowl XLIX play, taken at the exact moment Butler is securing the ball, hangs on the wall with a handwritten message from Butler: “To: JDPI. You gotta be a dog to stay HERE!” Butler comes back here, to this gym in a strip mall in the middle of Alabama, out of loyalty. And also, because it’s a place where a Super Bowl hero who made the play feels more like a small-school kid desperate to make a play.
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