Malcolm Butler had just won a Super Bowl and revived a sleeping dynasty. His interception on the goal line had given the New England Patriots another title and prevented the Seattle Seahawks from winning a second straight.
Butler had effectively rewritten football history. Now, in a locker room inside University of Phoenix Stadium, Butler was learning the price of instant fame.
“Are we done?’’ he asked the gathering crowd. “Can we please be done?”
An undrafted free-agent rookie out of West Alabama, Butler had never before been asked to conduct interviews with television stations from around the world. He had never before struggled to find room to dress.
“Please?” he said. “Can you please let me put my pants on?”
Recovering from the flu this week, Butler is expected to play in a third Super Bowl in his fourth NFL season Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. He is also expected to leave the Patriots as a free agent. In so many ways, Butler is as emblematic of the Patriots’ intermittent dynasty as Tom Brady.
Butler’s presence on the roster speaks to Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s eye for underappreciated talent, and for players who fit his scheme more than the generic physical measurements favored at the NFL combine.
Butler’s famous play exemplifies Belichick’s ruthless gamesmanship and granular teaching, and his impending departure speaks to Belichick’s cut-bait personnel philosophy.
Most of all, Butler’s play offers a reminder that the Patriots are the greatest team in NFL history to never win a Super Bowl by blowout. Belichick and Brady have played in seven. All have swung on one play, or one player.
In 2010, Butler was working at a Popeye’s in his home state of Mississippi, making $7.25 an hour. He had been kicked off the Hinds Community College football team because of a drug charge. He would become a quality player at West Alabama, but when he ran a 4.62 40-yard-dash at his pro day, he erased any chance of being drafted.
A long shot in training camp, Butler displayed a knack for clinging to quick receivers and making plays on the ball. He made the team and became a part of the cornerback rotation.
During practices before Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots prepared for the Seahawks’ two-receiver bunch formation near the goal line. Brandon Browner, a powerful veteran cornerback, was assigned to jam the inside receiver. The other corner would start off behind Browner and sprint to the expected spot of a slant pass.
In practice, Butler tried to follow the receiver instead of cutting around Browner and was beaten for a touchdown. Belichick pulled him aside and corrected him.
In Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks took a 24-14 lead in the third quarter. Brady threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to give his team a 28-24 lead with 2:02 remaining.
Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse made a juggling catch at the Patriots 5-yard-line with 1:06 remaining, beating Butler on the play. Butler was in the game because cornerback Kyle Arrington had been beaten badly in the first half and came off the field thinking he would be famous for the play that led to the Patriots losing the Super Bowl.
On the next play, the Patriots stopped Marshawn Lynch at the 1. The Seahawks expected Belichick to take a timeout, but Belichick thought he sensed confusion on the Seattle sideline.
With his coaches begging him to stop the clock, Belichick instead called for his goal line defense. Butler returned to the field.
On second down, with 26 seconds remaining, and Lynch expecting the ball, Seattle called the play for which the Patriots had prepared. Browner jammed Kearse. Butler shot forward, off Browner’s right shoulder, and simultaneously hit and stole the ball from Ricardo Lockette.
Later, in the locker room, a Japanese TV crew told Butler how much that play meant to their country. “Uh, I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I guess, thank you for your support.”
As the crowd thinned and Butler finally donned pants, someone asked about Belichick’s tutelage.
Butler told of giving up that touchdown in practice, and Belichick pulling him aside, correcting him, and saying, “Now you know what to do.’’
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org