A Hero’s Welcome for Malcolm Butler

An undrafted free agent who once worked at Popeyes for $7.25 an hour became the unlikely star of Super Bowl XLIX. The MMQB followed him back home to Vicksburg, Miss., where everyone already knew his name
Publish date:

VICKSBURG, Miss. — A sultry breeze rolls off the Yazoo River, and it looks like Malcolm Butler might drift with it … into a slumber. It’s Saturday afternoon, nearly three weeks since his goal-line interception in the waning moments of Super Bowl XLIX, and the Patriots’ rookie cornerback is lounging on a red rocking chair on the porch of a 150-year-old bed and breakfast in his hometown.

For the past three hours Butler entertained 150 guests for brunch. The guest list was only 30, but his community college coach brought along two assistants, two members of the public relations staff, plus a photographer, and, well, you know how these things go. Butler worked the room, mingling with a saxophonist, the mayor, two beauty pageant queens and countless friends and family as the B&B served fried chicken, grits, fresh fruit and individual bags of Chick-fil-A potato chips.

Butler smiled. He shook hands. He kept saying, “Thank you, sir,” and “Appreciate it, ma’am,” and “I’m blessed.” He autographed enlarged copies of The Vicksburg Post and grinned for countless photographs. He briefly disappeared upstairs to record a video interview with Patriots TV and then stepped outside for an impromptu photo shoot with Sports Illustrated. Now he’s enjoying a calm moment on the porch, the chair rocking slowly, his eyes fluttering on the verge of a nap.

His is the hero’s journey told anew. Before he became an instant star in the Arizona desert, he was a once-cut JUCO player who went from working at Popeyes for $7.25 an hour to an undrafted free agent in the NFL. When he charged in front of Ricardo Lockette’s slant route and picked off Russell Wilson’s bullet of a pass, the 24-year-old became a legend in all six New England states on the order of Carlton Fisk waving the ball fair, Bobby Orr flying through the air, Larry Bird’s crooked finger and Curt Schilling’s bloody sock.

And yet Butler, who made the rookie minimum of $420,000 last season, will find himself fighting for a roster spot in August. That’s the cold reality of Bill Belichick’s NFL, even after you find yourself taking a selfie with LL Cool J and getting Jamie Foxx’s cell number at the Grammy’s. That’s why Butler says he’s dedicating himself to four pillars: staying humble, being appreciative, remaining focused and continuing to work hard. But today is all about celebrating the past.

“Hey Malcolm, you ready?” shouts Milton Moore, a lieutenant with the Vicksburg Sheriff’s Department who is shadowing Butler for the day.

“Yeah, let’s do it,” Butler says, jumping up from the rocking chair. “I just gotta change first.”

He looks down at his lavender dress shirt and paisley tie.

“My buddy is going to bring over a jersey,” he says. “I can’t be wearing this to my parade.”

In Vicksburg, Miss., February 21 is Malcolm Butler Day.

Among the 114.2 million people who watched Super Bowl XLIX—the largest audience ever for any TV show in U.S. history—few outside Vicksburg had any idea who Butler was as he jogged on to the field as the Patriots’ nickel back in the game’s final minute.

“Hey, wait. Is that who I think it is?” asked Lucy Derosset, tugging on her husband’s sleeve. Derosset likes football just as much as anyone down in Mississippi, but her eyes were constantly searching for No. 21 in white, her onetime pupil in the eighth grade. Butler was never the best student, she says, but he was always the sweetest. When Derosset’s husband would bring their 2-year-old daughter to see mom at school, Malcolm would always carry her around on his hip. He’d walk her down the hallways and try to teach her his name. “Makk-um. Makk-um,” was the best she could muster by June.

In high school, Butler would cut classes or stroll in late, and he wasn’t eligible to play football as a sophomore or a junior because of poor grades. Jessie Lewis, who has cut Butler’s hair for 10 years but views him more as a nephew or a little brother, would often sit on a corner near Vicksburg High School and chide Butler anytime he saw him walking away from school grounds. “Boy, what are you doing? Get back there! You’re better than that!” Lewis would say. “You’re special. Don’t let it waste away.”

As Butler took the field for the Patriots’ final stand, Lewis stood up and shouted, “No way! No, no, no way!”

At the American Legion, Alonzo Stevens found himself surrounded by Seahawks jerseys. Nearly the entire viewing party was rooting for Seattle, so Stevens, the football coach at Vicksburg High, was playfully taunted and teased all day. “Hey, is your boy ever gonna get in?”

It was ultimately a fair question. Butler played in only 11 games during the regular season, and he was on the field for only 182 of New England’s 1,096 defensive snaps. An ESPN.com story in early January broke down each of the Patriots’ position groups and the value of each player. All the scouting report said of Butler was that he “shows promise for the future.” Then again, he didn’t exactly have a reputation for seizing opportunity.

It was Stevens who had pulled for Butler to get his act together for a senior season that opened the door to Hinds Community College—a door that closed not long after Butler was pulled over by police in 2009 and found to have a bag of marijuana under his seat. The coaches later kicked him off the team, and so Butler returned to Vicksburg, where he battered chicken at Popeyes. Stevens would stop by the restaurant all the time, often causing gridlock in the drive-through lane as he counseled Butler. “Keep working hard,” he’d say. “If working at Popeyes is your plan, work so hard that you own the place.”

Suddenly five years ago felt like five lifetimes ago.

In the final minute of the Super Bowl, with Seattle just a yard away from winning back-to-back Lombardi Trophies and sticking it to Belichick and Tom Brady’s legacies, the Patriots put three cornerbacks—including Butler—in man coverage against three receivers.

“There’s my boy!” Stevens shouted.

It all happened so fast. The snap. The route combination. The route recognition. As Wilson cocked his arm to throw, Butler pounced and pinned the ball against his right shoulder, stumbling to the ground as teammates mobbed him.

“Oh my goodness!” Lucky Derosset shrieked.

A few moments later, NBC’s Michelle Tafoya grabbed Butler for a postgame interview. “Aw, don’t cry, ’cause you’re gonna make me cry,” Lewis said to himself, a lump forming his throat as he watched Butler standing alongside Brady.

Within the hour, the mayor of Vicksburg began preparing to throw Butler a parade. Twenty days later, the brunch crowd of 150 became nearly 3,000 locals lining the streets.

Image placeholder title

Dressed in a navy Patriots jersey and dark khakis, Butler climbs aboard the float and extends his arm out for his mother, Deborah, who worked two jobs and raised five children by herself in a two-bedroom home. Malcolm and Deborah are supposed to be the only ones riding on the top deck, but siblings, nephews, nieces, cousins and second cousins all pile on to experience the spotlight. Most are wearing Patriots jerseys or handmade shirts. The most popular is a screened photo of Butler’s hotel selfie he posted on Instagram before the Super Bowl.

“I need to get on, I just need to!” says Aaliyah Berry, a 13-year-old cousin. At school, nobody believes she is related to Butler. One boy, a bit of a bully, flat out called her a liar. Validation washes over her when she spots the bully a few blocks into the float’s journey down Washington St.

Vicksburg hosts five parades a year, and each usually features about 50 entries such as floats, bands, and festooned cars. Malcolm Butler Day has 127 entries. The town of about 25,000 is known as a Civil War landmark, a sprawling community on the bluffs with four riverfront Casinos and a main drag of antique stores, pawn shops and brick inns on a brick road. This is where the parade begins, with some residents setting up smokers of chicken and pork. Butler’s float is first, followed by the boy scouts, who have handmade signs:




(After winning MVP honors and the accompanying pick-up truck, Brady donated the vehicle to Butler. He later posed for photos with a red truck, but requested a black one that is being shipped to Vicksburg.)

The boy scouts march on, followed by junior cheerleaders who have the number 21 painted on their faces. Then there’s the Special Olympics float, the Alcorn State marching band, the Vicksburg High football team. On and on the procession goes, including a Popeyes float replete with two men dancing in chicken costumes.

“Wow,” Butler says from atop his perch. He wraps his arm around his mother’s shoulder. “Can you believe this?”

Speechless, she wipes her cheek.

The streets are lined for nearly a mile. Butler waves to his left, then to his right, and then back to his left again. His smile never disappears.

“I love you Malcolm!” a group of four girls squeals in unison.

“Throw down your watch!” someone shouts.

Below, a group of middle-aged men conspire.

“They won, but they cheated,” one grumbles.

“What are you talking about?” his friend argues.

“How can you explain that deflated ball?”

“Does it matter? A kid from Vicksburg won it!”

Butler can’t hear any of this. He is high above it all, scanning the crowd. He keeps smiling, keeps waving. Then he recognizes someone.

“Oh shoot,” he says. “That’s what’s-his-face from high school!”

Butler snaps his finger but can’t recall his name. “Ay, hit me up!” Butler shouts down.

Then Butler looks up, realizing their foreheads are on a collision course with a power line. He turns back, “Everyone duck!” About 50 Butlers crouch low, giggling as they pass under the wire to safety. Butler gets up and keeps waving, keeps smiling.

Image placeholder title

You know that scene in Jerry Maguire when Tom Cruise’s character announces that he’s taking his one client to start a new agency? In real life that’s Derek Simpson, and that has been his friends’ go-to punch line all year. An attorney in Huntsville, Ala., with a private practice, Simpson had always dreamed of being a football agent. He got certified three years ago, and Butler is his only client ever to make a 53-man roster.

“My friends would joke, ‘How’s your one client doing?” Simpson says. “Well...”

Simpson remembers finagling Butler, who played his final two years of college at Division II West Alabama, into Alabama’s pro day last spring. Nearly half of the NFL’s 32 teams had a rep there, but Butler ran a 4.6 and Simpson never received a single text, email or call from anyone. The draft came and went, and still no call. Simpson felt awful, but as he sat at his dining room table formulating plans to set Butler up for the CFL, the phone finally rang. It was Josh Boyer, New England’s cornerbacks coach, offering a tryout. Butler got on a plane that evening, ran a 4.4 and the Patriots signed him to a free-agent contract.

“I’ll never forget getting a call from Malcolm a few days into training camp,” Simpson says. “He sounded like a little kid who just had his first kiss. He was like, ‘Guess what? Guess what? I just picked off Brady in practice!’ ”

Simpson is waiting for Butler as he gets off the float at the end of the parade route. Butler holds his mother’s hand as she steps off, and then gives Simpson a hug.

“Congrats,” Simpson says. “You did it.”

Butler smiles, but shakes his head. There’s a look in his eye that says it all. There are still many more miles of road ahead of him.