By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
HOUSTON (CBS) — For many men who dedicate their lives to the sport of football, the opportunity to play in a Super Bowl never presents itself. It is a dream shared by nearly every player from Pop Warner through the pros, but one that is realized by only a select few.
That much is evident when examining the roster of the NFC-champion Atlanta Falcons, who employ just four players to have played in a Super Bowl before. The rest of the roster will be playing in football’s grandest game for the first time.
When a player sticks around for a few years on the Patriots, however, he tends to accrue some Super Bowl playing experience. And though 30 members of this year’s roster will be stepping onto the Super Bowl stage for the first time, the rest of the team has all been there before.
And with those Super Bowl trips serving as a reliable source of reflection, it’s a fair time to look back and see where certain players were in their careers compared to where they are right now.
In the history of professional football, there’s just no story quite like Malcolm Butler’s.
This is a young man who played his college ball at the University of West Alabama, a Division-II program that has produced only a handful of NFL players (and certainly none of any great consequence) in its 80 some-odd years of existence. Yet Bill Belichick saw something in the feisty cornerback and decided to invite him to training camp as a longshot to actually make the team.
Eight months later, thrust into the spotlight after starting the game as a backup, there he was, making perhaps the most incredible play in Super Bowl history.
Now, if you ask Bill how he possibly stumbled upon the tape of a kid playing his games in the Gulf South Conference, he’ll give you a very nice answer about how much he admires the player. But the coach will not reveal his secret.
“Just digging through some guys at the end of the draft. When the draft was over, there was a number of players that were not signed that we still were interested in. We invited Malcolm up for rookie minicamp. We had probably 10 to 15 players like that, players that finished their college careers but were not signed by a team,” Belichick said Tuesday at the Patriots team hotel in Houston. “They were essentially there for a tryout, an extended tryout during that period.”
It did not take long for Belichick and the coaching staff to realize they had found something in the 5-foot-11 corner out of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
“I’d say once we saw Malcolm on the field after the first workout, it was pretty obvious that we felt like this was the type of kid that you want to work with. He was obviously raw technique-wise and all of that, but he was the type of kid that you want to work with.”
The Patriots cut Jemea Thomas, a defensive back out of Georgia Tech on whom they spent a sixth-round pick, and kept Butler. They felt he might prove useful in the long run.
He certainly did.
Prior to that now-famous play back in 2014, those who followed the team closely were aware of Butler’s existence, but not much else. He turned a lot of heads during training camp with his surprisingly high level of play, but that didn’t actually translate into too much playing time during the year. He played in just 11 games, starting one and breaking up just three passes all season long without making any interceptions.
He remained likewise anonymous through the Patriots’ first two postseason victories that year, getting on the field for zero defensive snaps in the divisional round before playing in 15 snaps in the blowout AFC title game win over the Colts.
But when Kyle Arrington repeatedly could not handle receiver Chris Matthews in the Super Bowl, the Patriots coaching staff did not hesitate to send Butler onto the world’s biggest sporting stage.
This was no longer a Thursday night game against Concordia College in front of an estimated 4,000 people or a Saturday night meeting with something called Shorter University in front of fewer than 2,000 people. This was the Super Bowl, with 114 million Americans tuned in, and many more watching all around the world.
And Butler made the most of the opportunity — which would have truly been once-in-a-lifetime if he didn’t perform. He played lockdown defense, allowed one miracle circus catch, and then made a play that changed sports history.
It was not the worst introduction a player has ever had to the masses.
Fast-forward two years, and Butler is an established No. 1 cornerback, asked weekly to square up with some of the best receivers in the world. Whether that means manning up with Julio Jones or sticking to Mohamed Sanu in Super Bowl LI, Butler’s job will not be easy come Sunday evening.
But with that kind of backstory, it’s quite clear that the moment won’t be too big, that the spotlight won’t shine too bright, and that the stage won’t be overwhelming for the once-unknown and slightly undersized cornerback out of West Alabama.
Julian Edelman’s story may not be quite the underdog story that is Malcolm Butler’s. But it’s pretty close.
As has been echoed by TV analysts ad nauseam for eight years, Julian Edelman played quarterback at Kent State, where he caught exactly one pass in his three years with the Golden Flashes. He was not named in any mock drafts back in 2009, he was not invited to participate in the NFL combine, and he certainly was not on anybody’s radar.
Except for Belichick’s.
The Patriots’ head coach drafted Edelman with the 232nd overall pick and as the 28th receiver overall taken in the draft. He scored just three total touchdowns in his first three years as he acclimated to the NFL, and prior to his first Super Bowl appearance in 2011, he ended up playing on both sides of the football, playing slot corner in the AFC Championship Game while also catching a pass, getting a rushing attempt and returning two punts.
The Patriots probably could have used him on defense in that Super Bowl, but instead they used him solely as a kick returner. As a receiver, he was targeted with zero passes. He was a non-factor, forced to watch a crushing Super Bowl loss largely from the sidelines.
His 2012 season was a mess. He missed a month with one injury, returned to the field, scored four touchdowns in a two-week span (two receiving, two rushing), played some defense, returned punts, suffered a concussion, came back, and then suffered a season-ending foot injury that sidelined him just as he was coming into his own.
You know what has happened since: 356 receptions, 3,826 yards, 20 touchdowns in 55 regular-season games. He’s also played in nine playoff games, averaging eight catches and 96 yards per game while returning 19 punts for an average of 11.6 yards per return. He’s also scored three touchdowns in that span, with a Super Bowl-winning score mixed in.
It was in Super Bowl XLIX that Edelman ascended to a very high tier of NFL receivers, as he consistently got open against the vaunted Seattle secondary, catching nine passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in what was, truly, an MVP-worthy performance.
It went beyond stats, as Edelman showed his toughness time after time. He famously absorbed a shot from Kam Chancellor over the middle and hung on to the football before promptly popping back to his feet in an effort to gain more yards.
“I was like [5 feet away] when that happened,” fellow receiver Danny Amendola said Monday night. “He’s a tough kid.”
Later in that drive, his hip clearly gave out on him, but he stayed in the game. And with a chance to take the lead in the final minutes, Tom Brady looked only to one man. He came through.
Now, Edelman arrives at the Super Bowl with that reputation intact. He’ll face expectations. He’ll be a focus of the Falcons’ defense all week long and all night on Sunday.
He’ll also be much more of a leader. When wearing a microphone for NFL Films in the AFC Championship Game vs. Pittsburgh, Edelman was shown offering some advice to receiver Chris Hogan, who hadn’t played a playoff game prior to this season.
“Let’s go, one more,” Edelman told Hogan. “Wait until you feel the next feeling. Wait until you feel that next feeling.”
Edelman also told Brady that he won’t be happy until they get one more victory.
On Tuesday, in the midst of a swarm of reporters, he talked about that moment.
“I was definitely happy … [but] there is still some meat on the bone,” Edelman said. “I like to bring those ribs right down to the bone. Got to get all the meat.”
On Sunday, against the same coach in charge of that defense two years ago, there will be plenty of meat to be had. And, with 614 receiving yards over his last six playoff games, there’s a good chance Edelman will be able to find it.
Of course, no underdog story is complete without the tale of Tom Brady. Yes, he’s the ultra-rich, ultra-successful MVP now, but his draft day rejection back in 2000 remains the foundation of the tenacity the quarterback has managed to maintain throughout his Hall of Fame career.
Now that he’s 517 touchdowns, 70,000 yards and 207 victories in, the “underdog” label has most certainly been stripped away from the greatest player in Patriots history and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. In fact, with one more win on Sunday, most folks will be forced to stop putting the word “arguably” in that sentence at all. His spot atop the all-time quarterbacking hierarchy will be secured.
His history in the Super Bowls is known well enough that it need not be rehashed here. What remains a mystery to outsiders is how on earth Brady is still doing what he is doing at age 39.
Ask any player on the Patriots — offense, defense, and anywhere in between — and they’ll all tell you the same thing: the man’s fire burns as strong as ever.
Here’s the story from his teammates and coaches, directly:
Wide receiver Danny Amendola: “He demands a lot. He’s the ultimate competitor. He’s our team leader. He gets us all going. He gets us playing hard and he’s the reason why we play so hard. The guy comes in the building every day with next-level focus and intensity. He brings the team up. It’s cool to have a leader like that.”
Cornerback Logan Ryan: “It is extremely competitive [at practice], and that makes him him. I don’t know the reason, I don’t want to say it’s because of the draft or whatever it may be. I’m sure it was his whole life. The guy’s a true winner. He brings it every day and he’ll continue to bring it every day. He challenges me daily and if I don’t step up, he’s going to embarrass me. So really I think it just makes us go out there and not be afraid of anything and compete.”
Cornerback Malcolm Butler: “He comes to work and he works hard like he has not accomplished anything. He always wants to win.”
Safety Duron Harmon: “He’s emotional, he works hard, he puts everything he does and everything he has into this sport. You’ve got to think about it, he’s 39 and he’s playing at a level that people wish they could play at in their prime. He puts everything into it. Practices are like games to him. He’s out there, he’s getting people right, he’s getting excited, he’s yelling — it’s just like a game. When you see a leader do that each and every day it’s hard for the whole team not to try to replicate that energy, that emotion. I would say he definitely helps drive this team.”
Tackle Nate Solder: “I think what amazes me about him is whenever he talks to the team — which isn’t always — it’s very passionate. He knows each one of his teammates, he knows the ins and outs of the game. It’s pretty unique to watch him play.”
Running back LeGarrette Blount: “He’s an amazing teammate. He’s a great supporter and he’s very energetic. He can get anybody going in a matter of seconds. If he needs to light that fire, he knows exactly what to do and what to say in order to get that lit so you can play your best game.”
In addition to the passion, the other word that every member of the organization applies to Brady is “consistency.”
“For eight years, I’ve seen the same Tom every day,” safety Patrick Chung said. “That doesn’t change. He’s just even-keeled, calm, competitive, passionate about what he does. He’s just chill. He’s been the same for eight years.”
“Tom works very hard and prepares well. He always has,” said Bill Belichick, the man responsible for drafting Brady in the first place. “He’s very diligent in his preparation. It’s not an up and down thing. It’s consistent every week in terms of learning the defense, learning their schemes and their players. Just getting our game plan so he knows what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. … He’s a great role model for all of us. Any player and any coach. All of us.”
The message from the Patriots is clear: After all these years, after all those touchdowns thrown and hits taken, there’s still no player they’d rather have leading the team than the lanky sixth-round pick out of Michigan who “lacks a strong arm.” And on Sunday, he’ll be leading them out of the tunnel to play in his seventh Super Bowl in his 15 seasons as a starting quarterback.
Since the year 2000, Brady has set the perfect example for his team. The fact that so many other underdogs have risen to superstar status on the Patriots is no coincidence.