BOSTON (CBS) — Tom Brady and Bill Belichick won their fourth Super Bowl title on Sunday night, but it was the unlikeliest of heroes who helped seal the win for the Patriots.
After going undrafted out of West Alabama, Malcolm Butler wasn’t sure if he was meant for the NFL. Without a job in the pros, he was either going to become a high school coach or a barber.
Luckily for New England, he instead traded in those shears to take an offer from them ahead of rookie minicamp. The 24-year-old made enough plays in practice and during the preseason to earn him a spot on the team, and he played a limited role in the secondary during the regular season. He even became the team’s unofficial barber.
But nothing could have prepared the world for what happened Sunday night, when the former Division II corner saved Super Bowl XLIX for New England.
With just 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots holding on to a 28-24 lead, the Seahawks were threatening at the New England one-yard line. With Marshawn Lynch doing his thing out of the backfield throughout the game (he finished with 102 rushing yards on 24 carries), nearly everyone at University of Phoenix Stadium thought Seattle would run it up the middle with their big-bodied back and punch it into the end zone.
But the Seahawks weren’t running, and the Patriots defense knew it. Russell Wilson stepped back and fired the ball to Ricardo Lockett, but Butler beat the receiver and out-muscled him for the ball, coming down with the game-sealing interception for the Patriots with 20 seconds to go.
After recording no interceptions during the regular season, the rookie came through with a pick when it mattered most. Butler said he remembered the formation from practice, and made the play on instincts.
“I just had a feeling what was going to happen and made the play,” he said after the game, still soaking in the fact that he was a Super Bowl champion. “Might as well go ahead and just do what you gotta do best. I knew what was going to happen. I just knew. I just beat him to the punch and got the ball.”
Butler’s pick came just two players after Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse made a circus-grab to get the Seahawks to the New England five-yard line. Butler had some good coverage on Kearse down the field and even tipped away Wilson’s pass, but the receiver somehow came down with a bobbling 33-yard reception — all while on his back.
It could have been David Tyree 2.0 for the Patriots, but Butler was determined to make amends.
“I didn’t want to be the reason — part of the reason we lost the game,” he said. “I just went out there and made a play.
“I had a vision that I was going to make a big play, and it came true. I’m just blessed. I can’t explain it right now. It’s crazy.”
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When the game started, Butler was an unlikely candidate to be on the field in such a crucial moment. But Kyle Arrington struggled mightily throughout the game, so Belichick called upon his fifth defensive back to help the secondary slow the Seahawks.
Butler’s teammates have seen him put in the effort throughout the season, and aren’t surprised the result of all that hard work showed on Sunday night.
“Malcom, from OTAs, all the way up until today, he had the most interceptions in practice out of anyone,” said corner Brandon Browner. “So we knew he got ball skills. He didn’t have none on the season, and he took the right time to get his first interception.”
“Unbelievable,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater. “He wasn’t even a free agent, he was a tryout guy who comes in and works his tail off, does everything he is asked to do. When his number was called in the big game, he keeps competing and makes the play of the game. I love Malcolm for his effort and attitude, just like I do everybody on this team.”
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While seeing Butler’s name as a Super Bowl hero may be surprising, his emergence shouldn’t be given Belichick ability to pluck playmakers from depths that very few can. Julian Edelman, who caught nine passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX, was a seventh round pick. Brady, who earned his third Super Bowl MVP on Sunday night, will go down as the most famous sixth round pick to ever play the game.
There is no telling how the rest of Butler’s career will play out, but the undrafted rookie will always have his game-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX to hang his head on. The Patriots’ motto all season, and basically throughout Belichick’s tenure as head coach, was simple: Do Your Job.
Butler did his job, and won the Patriots their fourth Super Bowl in franchise history.
“You can never quit. That’s how I got here — I never quit,” he said after the game. “If you just keep working hard and believe, anything can happen.”