THIS BEGINS on an Uber ride, of all places, with a far-fetched prediction and a proud mother. This begins with Deborah Butler, whose son, a third-string rookie cornerback out of Division II West Alabama, was about to play in Super Bowl XLIX. She shared that fact with her driver, and he responded with a prediction: Malcolm Butler was going to make a big play for the Patriots.
For the first half of Sunday's game that seemed unlikely; Butler was buried on the bench. But at the start of the second half, New England yanked Kyle Arrington after he gave up two long completions during a second quarter in which the Seahawks put up 14 points. Butler, a 24-year-old undrafted free agent who wasn't even signed until after minicamp, was going to get a crack at the Super Bowl.
And here's the thing: He played well. Really well. He broke up two long passes to receiver Jermaine Kearse and made three tackles. But the big play, that still hadn't taken place, not as Seattle opened up a 10-point lead, not as the third quarter turned to the fourth, not as the Patriots battled back to go up 28--24. It almost happened on Russell Wilson's 33-yard heave to Kearse at the five-yard line with a minute to go. But Kearse, improbably, came up with a juggling catch.
Two plays later, with the ball at the one and 26 seconds left, Butler lined up three yards deep in his end zone. "Just like anybody else would feel," he recalls thinking, "I felt like the game was on me." And then he noticed: In a situation where most teams—especially one with Marshawn Lynch—would run, the Seahawks lined up in a formation that screamed pass, a shotgun with three receivers to the right. Butler had seen it before, in a midweek practice, and wideout Josh Boyce had burned him. He wasn't going to let Seattle's Ricardo Lockette do the same. "I knew it was coming," Butler says, "so I beat him to the spot."
This was a gamble. The Seahawks might have been bluffing, or he could have been reading the play all wrong, but when you have maybe one shot to hold on to a victory, you take your chances. "It was going to be a touchdown," Wilson said after the game.
Butler remembers every detail of the lead-up. His brain was spinning back to that practice, ahead to who knows what would come next. But the moment he burst toward the goal line, muscled past Lockette and felt the ball hit his hands, everything went blank. Was it an easy catch? No idea. What happened after? Not a clue. It doesn't matter, though. The highlight will outlast the rookie.
Tom Brady remembers. He lost it on the sideline. "I saw the interception and couldn't believe it," the quarterback said. Cornerback Logan Ryan says he wasn't surprised, that Butler led the team in interceptions in practice all season. "It didn't seem like the moment was too big for him," Ryan said. He paused. "I don't even think he realized how big it was."
Talk to Butler about the play, and he'll make it sound as if the read had been drilled into him. Talk to Boyce, though, and you'll hear differently: New England had gone over that scenario just once. The team had drilled hundreds of plays, and this was one bullet point in the notes. Where many a rookie would have needed extra tutoring, Butler nailed it.
And so the unlikely hero soaked in the moment in the locker room, explaining his path from Vicksburg (Miss.) High to the NFL, from the practice play to that one, life-altering moment on Sunday. He hammed and he laughed, and then he paused. Someone was pushing his way through the throng of reporters. It was defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, stocky, bearded, oozing gruff. He looked his rookie up and down, and leaned in and planted a kiss on Butler's left cheek. As he turned away, he whispered two words: "Thank you."