Surprising Super Bowl heroes have a history of fumbling away their fleeting fame. Malcolm Butler looks like a rare exception
This is an article from the Dec. 21, 2015 issue
THREE WEEKS after Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots' shooting star was still soaring. Actually, Butler was gliding, two stories high, on a float along the main drag of Vicksburg, Miss., past brick-covered inns and pawn shops and 8,000 well-wishers. February 17 officially kicked off Malcolm Butler Week in the rookie cornerback's hometown, and planners had done everything short of commissioning a statue. There was a jazz brunch with the mayor, a town-hall key ceremony and a parade that The Vicksburg Post compared in spectacle to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's march through town, with the Union Army, in the summer of 1863.
The procession stretched two miles. At every corner tailgaters grilled sausages and peddlers pushed T-shirts boasting, inevitably, THE BUTLER DID IT! Perched above it all, the unlikely hero waved like a politician, grinned like a teenager and occasionally yelled, "Ay, hit me up!" to a familiar face.
Post--Super Bowl life has been a tour de fabulous for the 25-year-old Butler. He departed Glendale, Ariz., last February on a private jet to Disneyland, then hosted a velvet-roped party in Las Vegas. He attended the Grammys, at which he presented the award for Best Rock Album and exchanged digits with Jamie Foxx. ("I still don't know if I should text him," Butler says.) By the time he returned to Massachusetts, he could barely go grocery shopping. On his first attempt, he called an audible in the dairy aisle, ditching his loaded basket for the exit after a flock of Sharpie-and iPhone-yielding fans swarmed. "Everything was surreal," says Jessie Lewis, his longtime barber and confidant. "But we all knew—Malcolm knew—that he could celebrate a moment but not live off it."
The ironic thing about shooting stars is that they're not stars at all—they're just tiny pieces of rock and dirt traveling so fast that they shine like the real thing. They burst through our sky without warning, seducing us with their glamour. But more often than not they burn out on their own.
When Butler made New England's roster on the basis of a three-day tryout in May 2014, he entered at the lowest level of free-agent signings. In the '14 regular season he played in only 17% of the Patriots' defensive snaps. He wasn't even supposed to be on the field for the Seahawks' befuddling final play in the Super Bowl; coaches had frantically waved him on as a last-second addition. Even in his afterglow, as he fielded calls this off-season from the producers of Dancing with the Stars, Butler was barely a lock to make New England's 53-man lineup come August.
As the parade in Vicksburg came to a finish, Butler extended a hand to his mother, Deborah, who'd shared his perch. He guided her down the float's steps, then kissed her cheek. "Come on, Ma," he said. "We're not done yet."
IN THE limited history of surprise Super Bowl stars—bench dwellers who play themselves into appearances on Monday's morning shows—the celebrating has tended to stop not long after the talk-show tapings. Perhaps you remember Redskins running back Timmy Smith? Thrust into a starting role as a rookie in Super Bowl XXII, he bulldozed the Broncos for a record 204 yards. Two-and-a-half years later he was out of the NFL; two years after that he was seeking employment with the Professional Spring Football League. Or David Tyree, the Super Bowl XLII darling who never caught another NFL pass after that game? The Giants wideout's next meaningful route was the one he took each morning after he accepted a gig at the league offices, where he'd strut past a life-sized decal of his acrobatic helmet grab on the way to his cubicle. Larry Brown, twice an interceptor of Neil O'Donnell in Super Bowl XXX? He earned one more start in his career and retired before he was 30. And so on.
"Everyone thought I was going to be a one-hit wonder," says Butler. "That I was going to be known for one game, one play, that I didn't have anything else. But I knew what track I was on before everything happened; I knew I could make it. I just needed to wait the whole off-season to [prove it]."
Butler's sample size is by no means conclusive, but it is time to consider: He might be a real star after all. The Patriots (11--2, with both losses attributable to an avalanche of injuries) are muscling toward another playoff run while Butler anchors the secondary. He has often been asked to shadow an opponent's most potent threat—Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Sammy Watkins, Jarvis Landry—and New England's pass defense hasn't seen any significant drop-off despite losing ace cornerback Darrelle Revis and his sidekick, Brandon Browner, in free agency. "I respect Butler so much for that [interception]," says Landry, who leads the Dolphins with four receiving touchdowns but was held scoreless, with 71 yards, going against the Super Bowl hero in Week 8 this year. "But I would respect him anyway for the way he's playing this year. He's as tough an assignment as anybody I've faced."
Because Butler has plugged in so well, the Patriots have maintained most of the same pure man coverages they ran with Revis and Browner. In games this season against the Jets and the Colts, the Patriots assigned Butler to smother the opponent's No. 2 receiver, with no safety help, while teammates double-teamed the top threat—again, a model they employed with Revis.
To be clear Butler is not Revis. While the six-time Pro Bowler can suffocate any receiver with impeccable footwork and breakneck instincts, Butler must rely on his makeup speed (which, in short bursts, is above average) and strong handwork when the ball arrives. He is a willing tackler in run support, but he's no Tyrann Mathieu. He allows lapses, like an 87-yard TD to Beckham on the Giants' second play in Week 10—but he tends to make up for them. After Beckham's score, Butler limited the Giants' stud to three catches for 17 yards on 11 targets. In the end it was Butler's best complete start as a pro, capped by a game-saving pass breakup with 2:06 remaining: As Beckham grasped the ball in the end zone, Butler jabbed the receiver's arm and jarred the ball loose. No catch.
After a 27--26 Patriots win, Beckham sought out Butler at midfield. They hugged, and with a handful of photographers hovering, Beckham leaned in closer to whisper, "Man, way to compete."
THOSE IN Vicksburg who knew Butler were sure that he had talent, but come Friday nights they rarely saw it. At Vicksburg High he cut classes, strolled onto campus at his own discretion and produced the kind of grades that left him academically ineligible during his sophomore and junior seasons. Butler's principal summoned him several times, and while each visit concluded with Butler saying Yes, sir, and Sorry, sir, it changed nothing. "Good kid on a bad track," says his high school coach, Alonzo Stevens. "He just couldn't snap out of it."
By Butler's senior year he had buttoned up just enough to play football, and then to continue on at Hinds Community College in nearby Raymond, Miss. But once again he regressed. Five games into his collegiate career, Butler was booted for what he and the school will only describe as disciplinary reasons. (Conflicting reports have suggested anything from possession of drug paraphernalia to an altercation with a campus police officer.)
That left Butler, in 2009, grounded in Vicksburg. Deborah had always worked two jobs to support her five children; if Malcolm was at home, she figured, he'd better work too. He picked up a $7.25-an-hour gig battering chicken at Popeyes. There, as sizzling oil splattered his face and old classmates popped by to chide him, Butler found the motivation he needed. Stevens rolled up to the drive-through twice a week, ordering a two-piece chicken meal and offering his own two pieces in return: "You have what it takes," the coach would say. "You just need to work harder."
It is here that Butler's ascent began. Before shifts he lifted weights in his old high school gym; at dusk, he returned to run suicides. He enrolled in summer classes at Alcorn State and in the fall of 2011 visited Hinds, professing remorse. The tiny community college's coaches offered a second chance, and Butler seized it. Midway through his first full season he began drawing comparisons with another old Hinds standout: nine-year NFL cornerback Fred Smoot.
Before the 2012 season, Butler transferred to D-II West Alabama, where he piled up accolades and earned an invite to the '14 Medal of Honor Bowl, a showcase for fringe prospects. Former NFL coach (and current Jets offensive coordinator) Chan Gailey led Butler's squad. Impressed by the cornerback, Gailey phoned a few football friends, and at least a dozen scouts followed up with Butler's agent, Derek Simpson. But once Butler clocked a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day, all contact ceased. For a marginal prospect, a middling 40 time is a death sentence.
In the 57 days between his client's pro day and the draft, Simpson did not hear from a single NFL team. Another week passed after the draft, dozens of untaken players were signed as free agents, and ... still nothing for Butler.
Hope finally sprung in the second week of May, when New England cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer inquired about Butler's availability. "Right now he is [free]," Simpson bluffed, feigning outside interest. The Patriots flew Butler to Foxborough and within the hour had him lacing up his cleats for a timed 40. If he repeated his 4.6, he was sure, he wouldn't even get to stay for a three-day tryout.
Butler clocked a 4.4.
FOUR MILES north of Alabama's Tuscaloosa campus, across the Black Warrior River on Route 82, sits a strip mall of businesses cut from one long beige box. Sandwiched between two of those stores—Second Season Outdoors & Consignment and Convivial Health—lies the gym where the Super Bowl XLIX hero trains.
Butler began working out with Johnny Jackson, a former strength and conditioning coach for the Crimson Tide, at JDPI Performance before his pro day. After Butler signed with New England that spring (three years, $1,530,000), Jackson doubled as a therapist. Butler would call a couple times every week, and Jackson would finish every conversation with the same mantra: "A play a day keeps the coaches away." In other words, force your coaches to keep you around.
Patriots players say nobody picked off Tom Brady in practice last year more than Butler, who survived cut after cut to make the 53-man roster in August while picking up the nickname Scrap. "He was always there, always working," says safety Devin McCourty. And he was mimicking Revis at every step. In meetings, if Revis jotted down something that a coach said, Butler did too; if Revis arrived five minutes early, one day later Butler did the same. The rookie was a healthy scratch four times last season, but in his free time he taught himself how to behave like an elite player.
After the Super Bowl, Butler returned to JDPI, but this time he directed the show. He arrived last March with a detailed packet from Patriots coaches, centering on technique. "Technique, technique, technique—that's all I heard," says Jackson. "Finally I gave in." They repeated the same hip drills hundreds of times.
In coach Bill Belichick's universe, the little details are everything. But Butler had big-picture things to worry about too. While he rented an apartment near JDPI, he also jetted to an autograph signing in Miami one week, an appearance in Boston the next. "Catch-22," says Jackson. "This was the time he could go make his money—but he still had work to do. It was Malcolm's starting position to lose, but the way the Patriots are run, if he had too many distractions, he was out. I wouldn't say I was worried, but it was a fine line."
And then Butler crossed it. With the Patriots' OTAs slated to begin on May 26, he scheduled a flight from Jackson, Miss., to Boston, one day in advance. But when rolling thunderstorms swept the South, he was stranded. He called to warn the team that his flight had been canceled, but it didn't matter to Belichick, a guy who once sent four players home because they were late to work during a blizzard and who last season benched running back Jonas Gray—fresh off a 201-yard, four-TD outing—because he slept through a meeting.
Those OTAs were voluntary. So when Belichick withheld Butler from two of the three weeks of workouts, you can bet the players' association's lawyers took issue. Against the returning hero's wishes, the NFLPA filed a complaint.
Butler simply wanted the headlines to go away; he wanted to be just another teammate. "I think it was a wake-up call," says Jackson. "Just as fast as things can go up, they can go down."
THREE MONTHS before Super Bowl XLIX, during the Patriots' bye week in November 2014, Butler returned to his hometown and immediately called up Marcus Rogers. "Hey, I just landed," he told the current football coach at Vicksburg High. "Get your guys together; I can be at the field in an hour."
"He loves talking to [my players]," Rogers says. "And you can only imagine what they think of him."
On this trip, Butler made his usual stops: He swung by Lewis's barbershop, where he hopped right into the chair, then he drove past Popeyes on the main drag and down to his old school. Fortune had aligned Vicksburg High's homecoming with Butler's week off, and he arrived just in time for the pep rally leading into the final Friday-night game of the season. Wearing baggy basketball shorts and a red long-sleeve T-shirt, he stepped in front of a noisy gym full of revved-up teenagers. When Rogers handed Butler a microphone, the students hushed.
Butler paced center court, flinging his arms a bit nervously, like someone who hasn't done much public speaking. "Hey, one thing I want to say," Butler finally piped up, "is there's no better place than in school, doing the right thing and being all that you can be." He shouted out to the football team, and the students erupted.
"I remember that day well," Rogers says. "Because back then we already thought he was a superstar."
By the numbers, Butler has the Pats' secondary playing on par with Revis's title-winning outfit of 2014
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
|20+ yd passes||62||53*|
*PROJECTED, BASED ON FIRST 13 GAMES