By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (CBS) — The Patriots are just three days away from taking the field for Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, and all of their focus currently centers on the Philadelphia Eagles. Patriots fans, however, don’t need to be quite as laser-focused as the players, so Thursday offers the opportunity to soak in the third anniversary of one of the single greatest plays in Super Bowl history: the Malcolm Butler interception.
Well, “great” may be a matter of perspective. For the Patriots, the play saved the game and helped squash so much of the deflated football madness that had been surrounding the team for two weeks. It made Tom Brady’s unreal fourth quarter performance hold up for a victory. And the fact that it came in a situation where it seemed so obvious that the Seahawks would just let Marshawn Lynch bull his way into the end zone made it the single greatest shift of emotion to ever swing in a Super Bowl.
For the Seahawks, though? It may not be considered “great.” The play worked to tear apart the locker room, doing damage that has lingered ever since. Instead of winning back-to-back Super Bowls and establishing themselves as a dominant NFL dynasty, the Seahawks took the loss and have gone 2-2 in the playoffs since. This past offseason, they fired both of their coordinators. During the year, Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas were beefing in public. The Legion of Boom is no more, largely thanks to one Malcolm Butler.
And this week, Seahawks tight end Luke Willson provided incredible perspective on what the Malcolm Butler interception was like through his eyes. He was on the field for the play, and he admitted that he allowed his mind to wander and believe that the Seahawks had already won the game.
“[Jermaine] Kearse makes the unbelievable catch. I’m jogging along, going to the huddle, and I’m like, ‘Wow. That’s the David Tyree catch right there. What a win,’” Willson told Barstool’s Evening Yak show on Wednesday (link warning: some naughty language is involved). “And I’m like, OK, let’s finish this [thing] off, let’s go. So we call 19 Force is the play, and I’m like, 19 Force kind of relies on the tight end. So I’m like damn, I don’t want to be that guy who [messes things] up. I better make this block.
“So here I am in the huddle, and just to get a little sentimental, I’m like, you know what … and I’m a guy who is pretty focused. But at this point I’m like, ‘Oh, we’ve won this [thing], bro. This [thing’s] over.’ We get in the huddle and I legitimately thought we were gonna call 94 Buck. … We ran it a million times on the goal line. We motioned, so I’m like, oh, we have 94 Buck out of this … no we don’t have 94 Buck out of this. What is this play? And then we called a pass, and I was like, ‘Oh [shoot]! I’m gonna [bleeping] catch the game-winning Super Bowl touchdown! Let’s go!’”
At the line, Willson realized that he wouldn’t be catching the ball, because the Patriots were in man-to-man coverage. But he still felt good about the Seahawks’ chances.
“I’m like, we’ll be all right, we’ve run this play a bunch of times,” Willson said. “And then I ran it, and I had a corner on the back side, so I didn’t see it, but I heard everybody yelling and as weird as it sounds, I could hear guys celebrating that weren’t my teammates. And I turned around, and it was probably the worst moment of my life.”
Willson admitted that in the losing locker room, he was crying. But not all of his teammates went the sad route.
“Beyond the criers, there were the mad guys,” Willson said. “So we had a certain individual come in and, bam, busted his entire hand on a locker. Broke it. Shattered his hand. That set the tone right there — you have a guy come in and punch a wall and break every bone in his hand, or a large amount of bones, [things are] gonna get weird after that.
“People were demanding answers from coaches, in the moment, demanding answers. What sucked was like, there were no answers. What are you gonna say?”
Willson said that he would’ve gone with a run to Lynch, but he understands what went into Pete Carroll’s and Darell Bevell’s thought process in calling the pass. He also said he’s somewhat over the play in terms of emotions, but you can never fully get over such a moment.
“I’m not mad. It’s just like, it is what it is,” Willson said. “It’s a terrible moment.”
Willson’s story is fascinating because, for one, it’s raw and honest. But it also sheds a light on players’ mentality in that moment. Once the Seahawks got a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line with plenty of time left and with Lynch in the backfield, seemingly the whole world thought the game was over. The only chance the Patriots had to win the game was to let the Seahawks score and hope that Brady could engineer a desperation scoring drive in the final 30 seconds.
But it’s a credit to Malcolm Butler, Brandon Browner, Dont’a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny, and everyone else on the Patriots defense and sideline that decided to play until the clock hit zeroes.
Once this Sunday’s Super Bowl comes to an end, time will run out on Butler’s contract with the Patriots. He’s been an excellent player for the Patriots, who plucked him out of the little-known West Alabama football program and have helped turn him into an NFL star. He now has the chance to contribute to a third Super Bowl victory in a four-year span before hitting the free-agent market and making tens of millions of dollars.
The future is bright for Butler, but there’s just not a chance he — or anybody else — could ever again make a more improbable, more unbelievable play in the final seconds of a game to win a Super Bowl. We’re still close to that date, but as time passes, it will stand as truly one of the most unbelievable moments in sports history.