Glendale, Ariz. – It was an hour after he had made the play that decided Super Bowl XLIX, a play he could barely remember, and for the first time in his life Malcolm Butler had to ask a crowd to back up enough so he could take off his pants.
“Are we done?” he said politely and pleading. “Can we please be done?”
On the play that preserved the New England Patriots’ 28-24 victory over Seattle, Butler reacted like a football savant, jumping in front of receiver Ricardo Lockette to intercept Russell Wilson’s pass at the goal line.
After the game, Butler couldn’t remember how he caught the ball, or where he landed. “ I may have to see the film,” he said.
Now, in the Patriots’ locker room, people were approaching him as if he were accustomed to the demands of celebrity.
A teammate asked if he was going to be a guest on Jimmy Fallon’s show. “I don’t know,” Butler said. “Who is that?”
A camera crew told him the Patriots’ victory meant a lot in Japan, and asked him to address the nation. “Uh … I don’t know what to say,” he said. “I guess: Thank you for your support.”
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia grabbed Butler and kissed him, Patricia wielding his ridiculously thick beard as Butler tried to break free. “Man,” Butler said, exhaling loudly. “Man!”
Butler grew up in Vicksburg, Miss., and played for Hinds Junior College. He signed with West Alabama, a Division II school located in Livingston that is a member of the Gulf South Conference.
Football players rarely view West Alabama as a gateway to the NFL. Butler did. “But I knew I could play,” he said.
There were few scouts in agreement. He went undrafted and says the Patriots were the only team to show interest. He won a job in his first training camp and on Sunday night made his first career interception as a professional, with 20 seconds remaining in the Super Bowl.
His play allowed Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to become the subjects of sentences containing the word “legacy.” Butler had no need for grandiose perspective. He knew the game had come down to two plays — for him, consecutive plays.
Two plays before his interception, Wilson had thrown deep to Jermaine Kearse. Butler had tipped the ball, only to watch it fall onto Kearse’s legs, then hands for a 33-yard catch to the Patriots 5.
On the next play, the Patriots pulled Butler off the field, and Marshawn Lynch ran to the 1.
Patriots cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer yelled, “Goal line three-corners.” Butler sprinted onto the field, toward Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner, who was standing in front of two Seattle receivers. “Which one you got?” Butler asked. “I got top,” Browner said.
“The two receivers were stacked,” Butler said later. “I took the back.”
Patriots receiver Josh Boyce scored out of that formation against Butler in practice last week. Belichick pulled Butler aside. “Bill said, ‘Now you know what to do,’ ” Butler said.
Kearse shielded Browner, allowing Lockette to cut toward the goal line. For a moment, Lockette was open. Wilson threw a pass, hard and leading and accurate.
Butler lurched forward, beating Lockette to the ball, knocking him out of the way and snatching the ball almost from between Lockette’s hands. The skinny long shot from West Alabama had stolen the Super Bowl.
He held on to the ball. “I’m going to have to case it up somewhere,” he said.
He pulled a large commemorative T-shirt over his pads and put a matching cap on his head. He politely answered waves of questions asked in a handful of accents, from Bostonian to Japanese to Mexican to Olde English. He began undressing between questions, bewildered by the attention.
“I don’t even know how I caught it,” Butler said, over and over. “I just knew, by giving up that long catch, that it would be my fault if we lost.
“I’m just glad they threw the ball there.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be
heard at souhanunfiltered.com.