By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
HOUSTON (CBS) — Last week, before the Patriots had left their home in Foxboro to travel to Super Bowl LI, head coach Bill Belichick was asked about the development both on and off the field of third-year cornerback Malcolm Butler.
“Long way from West Alabama,” Belichick said with a smile.
Indeed, as Butler readies himself to play in the biggest game in sports for the second time in his three-year professional career, there’s no doubt that Butler has traveled quite a distance in rapid fashion. And there may be no greater picture of this progress than a look at the final collegiate game he played for West Alabama.
Located in Livingston, Alabama (population: 3,485), the University of West Alabama has a little more than 2,000 enrolled students, and 76 percent are female. Competing in Division II athletics, it’s not exactly known as a sports powerhouse. In fact, when Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower — who attended the real Alabama in Tuscaloosa — was asked if he had any awareness of West Alabama when he was in college, he offered nothing but a blank stare and a one-word response: “Nah.”
Yet that’s where Butler spent his 2012 and 2013 seasons, compiling seven interceptions and returning 25 kicks for 700-plus yards and a touchdown. He was pretty good, obviously, but when he stepped onto the field on a Thursday night in mid-November of 2013, it had a very real chance of being the final game of his career. After all, not many cornerbacks make it from West Alabama to the pros.
Butler’s Tigers marched out to a 21-0 lead over Central State, before the Marauders scored twice to make it 21-14 early in the second quarter.
And then things got silly.
The second quarter saw both teams score 21 points apiece, before the Tigers rolled in the second half, to the tune of 49 unanswered second-half points. Included in that barrage was a 33-yard pick-six by Butler en route to a 91-28 victory.
It was a sweet moment for Butler, but he also knew it could very well be the end of his football road.
“Wow, I can’t believe we won 91 to whatever it was. Obviously, it wasn’t a good team. We were the better team, so I just went out there and took advantage of all the opportunities that I had,” Butler recalled this week. “During that game, my coach tried to take me out. I told him, ‘No, this is my last game. I’m not sure if I’ll play again.’ But after that, I was just thinking about the books and trying to get in somebody’s camp during the combine. And it happened, and things changed real fast.”
That it did. While Butler was busy working out and trying to get his shot, unbeknownst to him, a football team up in New England had somehow taken interest in him.
“I was on the side of the house doing ladder drills, and I get a strange number calling my phone, and it was the New England Patriots,” Butler said. “So once I hung the phone up, I started working a little harder, and I went to sleep and left the next day.”
It took no time at all for the Patriots to realize they had found a gem.
“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 we want to work with,” Bill Belichick said this week, while still keeping secret how exactly he stumbled upon the tape of this particular player.
Of course, Butler made the team, played sporadically throughout the year, and then was inserted into the grandest stage in sports. All he did was make a play that changed sports history.
“We’ve got a package called ‘O-line-three corner,’ and I came out for a play after that crazy [Jermaine Kearse catch] happened,” Butler detailed this week. “I came off the field and got another opportunity to go out there and it was just the play call. Three corners out there, so I’ve got to go out there.”
Butler said he was expecting a run, but he knew he’d have to read wide receiver Ricardo Lockette.
It takes supreme confidence to make it in the NFL, especially at cornerback. And it takes supreme confidence to make a play like that. But even the most confident young man can be surprised at his own accomplishments, and Butler’s emotions were so strong on his walk off the field that he has no real recollection of the moment.
“I really can’t even remember that part,” he said. “I won’t sit here and just give you a story. But it was a great moment, all I can remember is my teammates jumping on top of me. Some of them were crying so that made me shed a couple tears. That’s all I remember.”
Now, two full seasons later, Butler is an established cornerback in the NFL. He drew the assignment of manning up with Antonio Brown, arguably the best receiver in football, in the AFC Championship Game. He regularly is relied upon to fill the role of No. 1 cornerback, and he’s made the breakup of that Super Bowl-winning secondary a non-issue for Belichickk’s defense.
Still, he remains humble as ever. The broadcast cameras caught him and Brown exchanging respectful hugs and handshakes late in that AFC title game, as Butler admitted he sometimes still takes a step back to really take in what it is he’s doing for a job.
“I most definitely am still a fan of the game,” he said. “You’ve got to get your job done first, and you can enjoy it at the same time as long as you get the job done. After the game, with some of my favorite players, I go up and talk to ’em, have a chat, tell them how I’ve been a big fan of theirs for a long time. And that tells you right there, I’m still a fan of the game.”
At the same time, it works both ways, an opponents — whether they are former first-round picks or if they were street free agents like Butler — have told him how much they appreciate his story.
“A lot of guys give me compliments, and it’s an honor to hear that from some of the players that tell me that,” Butler shared. “They give me motivation and that makes me respect my opponents a lot more.”
Certainly one of those highly respected opponents is Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who also is in the conversation as being the best receiver in football. While Butler’s exact role Sunday night may or may not involve covering Jones one-on-one, this five-year-old tweet has been resurfaced recently once the Super Bowl matchup was set:
“That’s a perfect example that the past can always come up, and we all know that,” Butler said this week. “Just glad it wasn’t nothing out of the line. Just the competitor in me that I always had in me.”
As for what made him send the tweet?
“I was probably in my apartment, just having a vision of the NFL,” Butler said.
That vision has been realized 10 times over, and then some. He’s already made the defining play of a Super Bowl victory, and he’ll go for his second championship in three years this weekend. Instead of the 2,843 fans in attendance for that 91-28 victory in Livingston, he’ll be playing in front of more than 100 million fans watching around the country and millions more around the world.
Long way from West Alabama.