In 2013, Malcolm Butler was a college All-American — a Division II All-American, that is, from the little-known University of West Alabama.
Butler was lightly regarded by pro scouts and went undrafted last spring. In a New England Patriots secondary headlined by All-Pro Darrelle Revis and featuring high profile performers like Brandon Browner and Devin McCourty, he was hardly recognizable to most fans.
Yet on Sunday night in Arizona, with the world watching and Super Bowl XLIX hanging in the balance, Butler solidified his place in New England sports lore when his goal-line interception of Russell Wilson in the final seconds gave the Patriots a riveting, improbable 28-24 win and their fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Here’s what you need to know about him:
1. Butler Was Once Kicked Off His Community College Team & Ended Up Working at Popeye’s
Butler was a solid player at Vicksburg High School in Mississippi, where he averaged 5 tackles per game as a senior. But he was so lightly recruited that he played two seasons at Hinds Community College before transferring to West Alabama.
In 2010, he played only five games before being dismissed from the program and ending up working at Popeye’s with his football future uncertain at best.
Hinds’ coaches let Butler back on the team in 2011, and Butler performed well, making 43 tackles and intercepting three passes, returning one for a touchdown.
West Alabama coach Brett Gilliland, who recruited Butler despite knowing of his up-and-down tenure at Hinds, told TMZ Sports that Butler “was dealt some bad hands in life.”
“There was a time when he wasn’t on the right path,” Gilliland told the site. “He got his life back on track. … Then last night happened.”
In 2012, Butler made his debut at West Alabama, earning first-team all-conference honors in the Gulf South Conference after intercepting five passes, breaking up nine more and making 49 tackles, 43 of them solo.
In 2013, Butler broke up a conference-best 16 passes, picked off two passes and blocked a field goal while also averaging 27.9 yards on 13 kickoff returns. He earned his second straight all-conference selection in addition to a Division II All-America honor.
2. NFL Teams Paid Almost no Attention to Butler at West Alabama
Butler was one of the best Division II players in the country in 2013, but NFL scouts weren’t exactly flocking to the school’s campus in Livingston to watch him play.
His coaches set up a pro day for him, but as USA Today’s Tom Pelissero writes, attendance from NFL scouts wasn’t overwhelming, despite West Alabama scheduling the workout the same day as Pro Day at Alabama, whose campus is just an hour up Interstate 20 in Tuscaloosa.
Pelissero reports that the Patriots did not have a scout at Butler’s pro day. Like the other 31 NFL teams, New England passed on Butler in the draft. And Butler wasn’t even among the bevy of undrafted free agents signed in the days immediately following the draft. But according to Pelissero, Chan Gailey, now the New York Jets’ offensive coordinator, had coached Butler in the Medal of Honor Bowl all-star game, helped facilitate a tryout with the Patriots, thinking New England would be a good fit because of Bill Belichik’s willingness to look past draft status.
3. Butler Made the League Minimum in 2014 After Signing as an Undrafted Free Agent
Butler impressed Belichick enough in his tryout to earn a roster spot and a three-year, $1.3 million contract, according to Spotrac.
He made the league minimum rookie salary of $420,000 in 2014 and had no signing bonus.
According to Spotrac, the Patriots have a salary cap hit of $510,000 in 2015 and $600,000 in 2016, but none of that money is guaranteed. He can become a restricted free agent in 2017.
Butler’s regular season numbers were what you’d expect for an undrafted rookie making the league minimum. He played in 11 games in the regular season, making 15 tackles. He didn’t even play in the Patriots’ divisional round win over the Ravens and got only sporadic action in New England’s blowout win over Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game.
In the Super Bowl, he wasn’t part of New England’s initial rotation of cornerbacks. But in the second half, he replaced Kyle Arrington as the third corner in the Pats’ nickel package, putting him on the field with the championship on the line.
4. Butler Grew Up in Mississippi & Has 4 Siblings
Malcolm Terel Butler was born on March 2, 1990 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. According to his West Alabama bio, he’s one of Deborah Butler’s five children.
Even before becoming a Super Bowl hero, he was a role model for athletes at Vicksburg, where he fired up the crowd at a pep rally in November before the football team’s last game of the season. Watch the video os his homecoming above.
His bio lists Everybody Hates Chris as his favorite TV show, Friday Night Lights as his favorite movie and The Emmitt Till Book as his favorite book. According to his bio, if he hadn’t become a player, he would have wanted to become a coach or a barber.
5. Butler Was Afraid He Was in Danger of Being the Goat Rather Than the Hero on Sunday
In a span of less than a minute on the game clock on Sunday, Butler was involved in two of the wildest plays in Super Bowl history.
The second play went much better for Butler than the first.
With the Seahawks trailing by 4 and trying to mount a game-winning scoring drive, Wilson lofted a pass down the right sideline to Jermaine Kearse, who was being covered by Butler.
Butler tipped the ball, but Kearse made a spectacular catch, juggling the ball before catching it while lying on his back at the Patriots’ 5-yard-line with 1:14 left. Watch the video here:
The play put Seattle in prime position to score a game-winning touchdown, leaving Butler worried that his failure to break up the pass would cost the Patriots a championship.
Butler told MassLive.com the play was “devastating.”
I went to the sideline. I wasn’t feeling too well but you know my teammates tried to cheer me up. They said I made a great play. Just landed in his hands. When I got back out there I just had to make a play.
Two plays later, he went from potential goat to certifiable hero.