Meet Malcolm Butler. no. 21 of the New England Patriots, kneeling before the 2015 AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts, held at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, on Jan. 18 …
One game later, with only seconds left on the clock, Butler made an interception that not only prevented a Seattle Seahawks score but sealed the Super Bowl XLIX victory for his team, 28-24.
“Thank You God for the opportunity. We’ll be back… I will never waiver on who He has called me to be… Thanks 12s. #GoHawks”
Followed by …
“#BVD I will love You, O LORD, my strength. (Psalms 18:1 NKJV)”
(Note: #BVD stands for “Bible Verse of the Day”)
But as I stood there, amazed at the last-minute reversal that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for my Hawks, during the confusion and unfortunate melee that marked the strange end to the game, the camera kept switching to Butler on the sidelines. He was overcome with emotion, tears running down his face, embracing his teammates and coaches one after the other, his head buried against one’s chest for a bit, as as he gripped the other man’s arms to steady himself.
And I marveled at the wonder and joy on his face, amid the turmoil. Then the announcers started saying that Butler was a virtually unknown rookie, that he’d been an unsigned free agent until the Patriots picked him up in the spring, that he was a smaller-than-usual cornerback from a small school, who’d had to give up his football dreams for a while to work at Popeye’s.
But he straightened up, fought his way back to the gridiron … and almost ended up marked forever in Super Bowl infamy.
Two plays earlier, Butler was covering the Seahawks’ Jermaine Kearse when the wide receiver made a bobbling, juggling catch that almost didn’t happen. But, despite Butler’s efforts to knock the ball away, the catch was ultimately good. Without his last-second redemption, Butler might been tagged with the blame for losing the game for his team.
Quoted after the game at NFL.com, Butler said, “I just went up and deflected it. Nine times out of 10 it usually goes away from him, but as I was looking, I saw him bobble it, catch it. Which was … devastating.”
Within minutes, though, the devastation turned to jubilation, as Butler’s interception prevented the Seahawks from capitalizing on the same sort of fourth-quarter theatrics that helped Seattle overcome the Green Bay Packers to get to the Super Bowl.
“I knew what was going to happen,” said Butler in the same article. “I don’t know how I knew. I just knew. I just beat him to the point and caught the ball.”
In that moment, the 24-year-old from Vicksburg, Mississippi, who played for the Division II team at West Alabama University, cemented a place in NFL history.
Quoted in an article at FoxSports.com, Desmond Lindsey, an assistant coach at the University of West Georgia, who recruited Butler for West Alabama, said:
“I just kept thinking, ‘Wow, what a blessing for that kid’ … This is guy who was never worried about, ‘How many pairs of cleats do I get? Or, how many pairs of gloves he’s going to get from the school. He just wants to play football. And that’s what Division II football is all about. You have to sacrifice lot of things in Division II to be successful, and he really did.”
Butler played two seasons of high-school football, but his time on the team at Hinds Community College was cut short, possibly for something drug-related (but that’s not confirmed). So, he went to work for Popeye’s Chicken, took some summer courses at Alcorn State University to catch up, returned to Hinds the following season (keeping his job) and eventually got noticed by college scouts (click here for a great story on him from the archives of the Providence Journal).
Lacking the grades for some of the bigger schools, Butler went off to West Alabama (still working at Popeye’s). There, according to FoxSports.com, he worked, joined a work-study program in the school’s fitness and wellness program, and mentored younger teammates — along with worrying how he was going to take care of his mom, who raised him and four siblings.
Butler still has some work to do on his physical-education degree, but Lindsey told FoxSports.com, “I defnitely think he’ll go back to finish up, because he always said, ‘I can’t go back to Vicksburg without getting my degree.'”
On Jan. 28, Butler tweeted: “BE HUMBLE……BE BLESSED”
So, as I stood there watching Butler — who said he had a vision before the big play — a thought came to me, a thought about the difference between human calculation and God’s calculation. Maybe, just maybe, this Super Bowl wasn’t about Seattle and Boston, it wasn’t about Russell Wilson and Tom Brady, or Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick, and it wasn’t about the NFL or NBC or anybody big and important like that.
Maybe, it was all about Malcolm Butler, a hardscrabble, determined kid who nearly lost it all and then won it all.
Top photo: Screenshot of CBS coverage of Super Bowl XLIX