YOU THINK HE came out of nowhere.
Malcolm Butler understands that's how it seems, because he hijacked Super Bowl XLIX with a burst of skill and panache that was so stunning, so shocking, so audacious, it vaulted him from an anonymous bench-warming cornerback into a supernova gone viral.
It landed him at the ESPYS in July, where Antonio Brown, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, sought out Butler to pay homage. "What's up, man? You won the Super Bowl for the Patriots," Brown gushed. Butler, who had never seen the Steelers' receiver without a helmet on, shook his hand, then sheepishly asked, "I'm sorry, what's your name?"
Suddenly everyone -- from NFL stars to Hollywood starlets -- knew him. Who wouldn't embrace the rapid ascent of the undersized, undrafted Division II player who was plopping chicken into a deep fryer at Popeye's in his native Mississippi four years earlier, who had played on only 17 percent of the Patriots' snaps before coach Bill Belichick, ostensibly acting on a hunch, thrust him into the searing Super Bowl spotlight at the absolute most critical moment of his team's championship season?
It is a heartening narrative, but we know better. Belichick would never allow his team's Super Bowl chances to hinge on a hunch. His decisions are borne from hard evidence based on repetition, skill, technique and mental tenacity.
Ask Butler how he swayed Belichick to trust him and he grins, then throws up his hands. "He's a tough one to read," Butler says. "You don't know what's going on. You'll confuse yourself."
Sitting in a suite at the InterContinental hotel in Boston, guzzling a bottle of water, Butler is fresh from an appearance there, where he posed for pictures, glad-handed fans and even kissed a baby. It is Monday, his day off, and the Patriots have just lost a shocking game to the Eagles, a week after falling to the Broncos in overtime. Butler assures me there is no panic in the locker room. He appears as unruffled as he did when throngs of Patriots Nation accosted him minutes earlier in the hotel ballroom.
Butler exhibited the same meld of composure and chutzpah to his head coach, long before his Super Bowl interception.
"[My talents] are new to the world," Butler says, "but to my teammates and my coaches and the people who played with me, they know I can do some crazy things."
He vows not to be defined by one play, no matter how spectacular and unexpected it was. Butler cringes at comparisons between himself and David Tyree, the Giants receiver whose improbable helmet catch against the Patriots was a seminal Super Bowl moment -- but also his last NFL reception.
League history is littered with Super Bowl flash in the pans, among them Washington running back Timmy Smith, who rushed for a Super Bowl record 204 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie in Super Bowl XXII but was out of the league within three seasons, and Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown, who picked off two passes against Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX and was named MVP but recorded just one interception the rest of his career.
The one-hit-wonder moniker, says Butler, was "kind of insulting. But people just don't know." As expected, both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner left New England as free agents after they won their rings, quickly establishing the secondary as the biggest Patriots question mark heading into the 2015 season. Belichick called Butler into his office and informed him there was a tremendous opportunity before him. His message was succinct: Don't botch it.
It was a startling show of faith from Belichick. Because of Butler's and fellow corner Logan Ryan's inexperience, many felt the Patriots would retreat to zone coverage with pressure up front to offset the seemingly gaping hole in their defensive backfield.
But in a season in which the Patriots have been decimated by injuries, Butler has played 98 percent of the team's snaps, consistently drawing the opposition's elite receiver. He has emerged as one of the most indispensable players on New England's roster, perhaps the one defensive player the Patriots simply cannot do without if they want to repeat as champions.
MUCH LIKE HIS quarterback, a former lightly regarded sixth-round pick, Butler will never forget how close he came to missing out on the NFL altogether.
After his final season at West Alabama, where he led the team with 16 passes broken up, Butler decided he wanted to compete against the big boys at Alabama's pro day. His agent, Derek Simpson, arranged the invitation, but when Butler arrived, he was crestfallen to see the event sparsely attended, with no recognizable star players on the field.
What he didn't realize was that he had been invited only to the "small school" portion of Alabama pro day. The stars of the Crimson Tide would perform later, at 1 p.m., leaving Butler to compete against upstarts from Miles College. With little time to warm up or stretch, Butler ran a glacial 40, at 4.6 seconds. He had never run slower than a 4.5.
"I really did think the watch was broken," Butler says. "I'm thinking, 'Someone is trying to cheat me.'"
He checked with Frantzy Jourdain, a Patriots scout who had been following him for months, to make sure he was clocked properly. Jourdain had been onto Butler since January, when he went to scout two Division I prospects at a draft showcase called the Medal of Honor Bowl but left intrigued by the little Division II guy in the red cleats caked in mud. But now he had only bad news for Butler: the time was accurate.
"Malcolm, what happened?" Jourdain asked.
"I don't know," Butler admitted.
Butler had previously fielded a number of calls from various NFL scouts, but after the pro day, his phone stopped ringing.
"They all disappeared," Butler says. "I was heartbroken."
His college coaches Will Hall and Desmond Lindsey did their best to drum up interest, but because of Butler's lack of size (5-foot-11), his speed was a critical component in measuring his success at the next level. A 4.6 time looked to be his death knell.
"Some scouts looked at him and said, 'He's a waste of our time,'" Lindsey says. "But the one thing that has always separated Malcolm is that he believes in himself, even when nobody else might."
Butler was at a loss what to do next. Jourdain had promised to call him, but days passed and Butler heard nothing. Maybe he forgot. Maybe he lost his number. Butler took a deep breath and called Jourdain himself.
"I need you to get me a shot," he said.
"I wouldn't be on the phone with you if I didn't think you deserved one," Jourdain answered. (The Patriots would not make Jourdain available for this story.)
After the draft came and went, New England, as promised, called him in. Butler performed all the same drills he did at the Alabama pro day, and after he completed the 40-yard dash, he glanced over, hoping for a sign. The stone-faced staff gave no indication either way.
"It had to be faster than a 4.6," Butler says, "or I wouldn't be here."
JOURDAIN'S RECOMMENDATION MIGHT have earned Butler an audition with New England, but during OTAs, it was Butler's physicality and toughness that resonated with the discerning Belichick, who noted his ability to break to the ball with uncommon explosiveness and his dogged ability to stay with the play.
"He knocked down five fade routes in a row," Patriots defensive back Logan Ryan recalls. "He's this small guy jumping up and smacking all these balls down. We were saying, 'Who the hell is this guy?'"
Butler, relegated to the scout team, announced his arrival in training camp by intercepting a crisp Tom Brady sideline pass to Julian Edelman. The coaching staff might have been tempted to chock it up to adrenaline -- the sheer desperation of a young player thirsting to be noticed -- except it kept happening, again and again and again.
"He had the most interceptions of all the DBs," Browner recalls. "He picked Brady off consistently." Butler hounded receivers so closely and with such ferocity that linebacker Jamie Collins nicknamed him Strap. His teammates anticipated his emergence because they had seen it before in practice. Although he is respectful, humble, Butler's confidence is unmistakable. He had been planning for a moment like Super Bowl XLIX, he says, for his entire life.
In fact, he suggests, his greatness is behind schedule.
"Actually, I was supposed to be here two or three years ago," Butler says. "If I had done everything right." He didn't. He derailed his dreams at nearly every level: when he didn't pay enough attention to his grades in high school, when a skirmish with a campus police officer got him tossed out of Hinds Community College (leading to his celebrated Popeye's gig), when his initial lack of accountability at West Alabama nearly sunk his Division II career before it began.
By the time he showed up at Patriots training camp, he was already 24 years old, in a hurry to construct his résumé in front of a veteran secondary with pretty hefty credentials of its own.
"Once you realize what you've been doing wrong," Butler says, "you realize the time you've wasted."
It didn't take long for Revis and Browner to home in on Butler's keen instincts and unusual skills. Browner was struck, in particular, by his new teammate's "ridiculous" makeup speed.
Throughout the season, Revis, the four-time All-Pro, stressed to Butler the importance of breaking down film, of refining his technique, of continuing to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. Revis imparted this advice knowing he could well be grooming his potential replacement.
He'd seen the potential early: Before Butler had even taken a snap in uniform, or, for that matter, before he even made the 53-man roster, Revis tracked him in training camp, turning to a team member and remarking, "That kid is the best defensive back out here."
THE FIRST STEP toward cementing his status as a shutdown corner, Butler says, was to move on from his Super Bowl heroics.
"That play couldn't do anything for me this year except keep a bunch of pressure on me," Butler explains. "That's what I'm known for, and I'll always carry it with me, but as far as I'm concerned, I was starting from scratch."
During the offseason, Butler returned to Alabama to work with his trainer, Johnny Jackson at JDPI Sports Performance. He arrived obsessed with perfecting his technique -- a directive from the Patriots coaching staff -- but Jackson's focus was to match the physical workouts with equally taxing mental training.
Jackson says he trains anywhere from 50 to 100 athletes at a given time -- from high school to pro -- but designed a program specifically for Butler. He fired passes to Butler while the cornerback's eyes were closed to increase his awareness. He had Butler start with his back to the ball, then wheel around and jump as he launched a pass.
One of the drills required Butler to squat, balance on one foot and cradle two footballs while Jackson threw a third at him. It was devised to improve core strength, balance and judgment.
"So now Malcolm has a decision to make," Jackson explains. "Does he try to catch the ball with his body? Does he drop one ball to catch another? We wanted him thinking all the time."
He threw passes Butler was required to snare one-handed. There were the deep balls that Jackson threw, then ordered Butler to track down in a full sprint. All were meant to mimic game action.
With his training complete, Butler was eager to return to New England for his second season. But his first post-Super Bowl stumble occurred when his flight was canceled en route to OTAs. An irked Belichick banished him from the workouts, even though Butler called the team ahead of time to explain his predicament. If the purpose of the harsh penalty was to mentally challenge his newly minted No. 1 corner, Belichick certainly wasn't sharing. But Butler's ability to shake it off was duly noted by his peers.
"He handled it smoothly," safety Devin McCourty says. "We didn't need to have guys running to him and saying, 'We need to talk.' It happened. Life goes on."
Though Butler was excited by the prospect of anchoring the secondary, when the time came to actually take the field for the Patriots' prime-time season opener against Pittsburgh, he was surprised by his pregame jitters. With Revis and Browner long gone, he was left to his own devices.
"When I got out there and my heart was beating fast -- too fast -- it was up to me to say, 'Calm down, settle,'" Butler says. "No one else could do that for me."
The Steelers presented an immediate challenge for Butler -- particularly in the form of Antonio Brown, the immensely talented receiver Butler had unknowingly dissed at the ESPYS.
Butler had no trouble identifying Brown after he caught nine balls for 133 yards and a touchdown against him. Butler was around the ball for much of the day, but Brown managed to stay a tick ahead. Although the Patriots won 28-21, Butler left the locker room with his head bowed.
"I felt down a little bit," he admits. "I had never been in that position before, with all eyes on you, against the toughest receiver in the NFL and expectations through the roof."
Jackson was watching from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and quickly dialed his client to remind him about moving on from negative plays.
As the season progressed, Butler proved adept at doing just that. While he continued to experience hiccups, he steadily improved, quickly establishing himself as a resilient, aggressive corner whose relentless pursuit of the ball set him apart. That was never more clear than in Week 10 against the Giants. On New York's first possession of the game, Odell Beckham Jr. broke free for an 87-yard touchdown pass -- the longest in the Bill Belichick era.
McCourty, the safety, says now that he took a bad angle on the play and the TD was actually his fault. "I should have been there," he says. But whoever was most to blame, Butler flushed the play and then spent the rest of the day making Beckham all but disappear. With just seconds left, the game came down to Beckham Jr. running toward the corner of the end zone, with Butler marking him stride-for-stride. Initially, it appeared Beckham Jr. had successfully corralled the ball for a touchdown, but that was before Butler smacked it free.
Watching from Tuscaloosa, Johnny Jackson whooped with delight. Thirty weeks earlier, he says, Butler made the same play against Chad Toocheck, a former West Alabama teammate, in one of their workouts.
Asked specifically about what he was thinking when Beckham hauled in the ball, Butler says, "I know he has it, but you gotta finish. He thought he did, but he didn't know I wasn't finished."
MALCOLM BUTLER SAYS he's able to identify the fine line between confidence and arrogance. He continues to take voluminous notes during team meetings, just as Revis taught him. Following a November game in which he shut down Bills star receiver Sammy Watkins (three catches, 39 yards), Butler went back to the film room to check on his footwork.
In many ways, Butler is still a raw talent, particularly when it comes to the nuances of the game. Jets receiver Eric Decker, for instance, burned Butler for six catches and 94 yards and drew three flags on him in October. "I'm not saying I'm the best," Butler says, "but that's what I'm working towards." McCourty maintains that when Butler perfects his technique, "look out. The sky's the limit."
Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo marvels at Butler's ability to track receivers as though he's one himself. "A lot of DBs get stuck at the top of routes, but Malcolm comes out of them very quickly, like a receiver," he explains. "That's a rare thing."
After New England started the season 10-0, back-to-back losses left a young secondary looking to Butler and Ryan for answers.
"I'm the No. 1 corner, but when it comes to being a leader, Logan has been around awhile, so he has the upper hand on that," Butler says.
They responded Sunday against the Texans. While Ryan, with help from the Patriots' safeties, locked down DeAndre Hopkins, Butler was matched up with Nate Washington. After Washington torched him for an early 49-yard gain, Butler recovered to break up two throws to him in the end zone. On each play, it appeared Washington had the touchdown until Butler jarred the ball free in the final seconds of the possession. The Texans receiver finished the day with the lone catch.
It was the type of performance that, like so many before it, made Belichick seem clairvoyant. He'd let Revis bolt to the Jets for five years and $70 million, with $39 million guaranteed. And while Revis has endured a season marred by injuries and mixed results, the Patriots are paying Butler just $510,000 this year and have him locked up next season at similar short money.
Butler is still learning on the job, still growing accustomed to the bulls-eye on his back. He doesn't know what he will be doing for an encore, but he knows people are wondering, because they keep asking.
"I knew there would be a lot of pressure," Butler says. "I knew I couldn't live up to all of it, but I put so much pressure on myself, what's a little more?"