To those involved, it was just another play. But to the rest of the world, the "Butt Fumble" will live on, a play that is unfortunately synonymous with its central victim as it is now a cultural reference throughout sports.
The play needs no describing, such is how engrained it is in the lexicon of sports.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2012 on national television, the Jets were in a bad spot. After a scoreless first quarter, the Jets had fallen behind 14-0 to their rival, the New England Patriots. It was midway through the second quarter and the Patriots had scored touchdowns twice via the arm of quarterback Tom Brady.
MetLife Stadium was stunned.
With the ball on their own 31-yard line, the Jets held a 1st and 10 and were in their jumbo package. After those disastrous two touchdowns from the Patriots, which had come in quick succession, the Jets needed to settle down. A run play was coming, it was obvious from their formation.
No one had a better view of what would happen next than fullback Lex Hilliard. In fact, he says the play was supposed to go to him. The verbiage of the play is lost on Hilliard, but he remembers it was supposed to be a “weakside fullback dive.”
Instead, the ball didn’t go to Hilliard. Sanchez went to hand off the ball but Hilliard wasn’t there. Whether he expected Hilliard elsewhere or was confused, the ball never got to the fullback.
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez tried to turn a broken play into something and wheeled to his right, where there was initially some space. He was going to take off for a few yards, turn something from nothing.
Sanchez instead ran into the backside of Jets guard Brandon Moore.
And not just the backside, the behind, the rear end of his offensive lineman. Sanchez’s head slammed against Moore’s posterior. The ball popped out. The Patriots scored.
The Jets would lose 49-19 to the Patriots. The only bigger loser that day was Sanchez. The term “#ButtFumble” began to trend on Twitter.
“It’s kind of sad to say that this play keeps coming back all these years,” Hilliard told SportsIllsutrated.com.
“Everyone in the stadium knew it was going to be a dive, including the defense. Mark knew – he knew he was going to be getting pressure right there. It’s one of those plays, I mean, you mess up in your head and you re-live it over and over and over again. How many years later?”
On the sideline, Hilliard remembers Sanchez saying, “I messed up.”
It was Patriots defensive back Steve Gregory who picked up the “Butt Fumble” and carried it, un-touched, into the endzone.
Gregory’s touchdown made it 21-0. At the time, the idea of ‘butt fumble’ was a bit lost on everyone, including the players involved in the play. Gregory is now a defensive assistant with the Detroit Lions.
There would have been no “Butt Fumble” if not for the Patriots massive defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. On the play, Wilfork straight-up got leverage and pushed Moore back into the pocket.
As Sanchez tried to sneak and get yardage, Wilfork was pushing Moore into the quarterback’s projected path.
“I know Vince had knocked the lineman back into the backfield. The play was kind of busted so Sanchez was just trying to just salvage,” Gregory told SportsIllustrated.com.
“From my vantage point, during the play, I was just coming in and the ball popped out. So, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. And just scoop it up and score.”
It was especially poignant for him given that it was “kind of in his backyard.” Gregory grew up close to MetLife Stadium in Staten Island.
No one on the field or the sidelines had realized what happened. What had stood out more was that on the ensuing kickoff, the Jets fumbled and Julian Edelman picked up the ball for a 22-yard touchdown. The score was 28-0, with three of the touchdowns coming in the span of 56 seconds.
The Patriots were happy to be up by four touchdowns. They had still felt the sting from two years ago of the Jets knocking them out of the playoffs.
A chance to embarrass the Jets on their home field on national television was a bit of revenge. No one at that point knew just how the ball had been jarred loose.
Or that the play would become bigger than the game itself or dwarf all those involved with the exception of the unfortunate Sanchez.
“Didn’t really understand the full impact of it till after I saw it on TV,” Gregory said.
“I knew what happened but the term ‘Butt Fumble’ or the comedy part of the play wasn’t really sure about that till afterward. Then we get in the locker room, we celebrate the win, we get on the plane and head back home – it wasn’t till I saw it on television.”
“Butt Fumble” still lives on.
The play on Google returns over 112,000 hits. Look up Mark Sanchez and “fumble” is one of the suggested searches.
The first return on that particular search is a YouTube video on the Thanksgiving fumble. The first hard link – a Wikipedia entry for “butt fumble.”
The play was endlessly replayed on television and across the internet on different platforms. Sanchez was made fun of for having the distinction of trying to make a play happen and instead having a fumble forced by the blunt force from one of his teammate’s butts.
That very moment, in many ways, haunted Sanchez and the remainder of his time with the Jets. The former first-round pick was in the midst of a difficult season with the Jets and “Butt Fumble” became the obituary for his time in New York.
The highlight, or rather the lowlight, simply wouldn’t go away.
It ran for 40 straight weeks on ESPN’s “Not Top 10: Worst of the Worst” as the worst play of the week. ESPN, in an unprecedented move, had to retire the moment or else the streak likely could have gone on longer.
Every year, it is remembered and replayed prior to the slate of Thanksgiving games.
“We wouldn’t be talking about this if Mark got sacked or something else,” Hilliard said.
“But the fact that it hit somebody’s butt and the ball goes on the ground. It’s like, what makes that such a big play? It’s not. It’s an accident.”
The Jets would finish the season 6-10, missing the playoffs for a second straight season. In New England, it was another banner season as they won the AFC East and finished 12-4.
Sanchez would last one more season in New York as the Jets starting quarterback would then bounce around the league before retiring this year. His career seemed to take a dive around the time of “Butt Fumble.” Most blame that moment for being when the Jets realized that their quarterback would never mature into the “Sanchise” so many had hoped for.
Not many remember that the Patriots went on to lose the AFC Championship Game that year to the Baltimore Ravens. That there was a play called “Butt Fumble,” however, has proven to be entirely unforgettable.