PHOENIX — Eight years after his game-sealing interception in Super Bowl XLIX, a visit to Arizona is still a trip down memory lane for former Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler.
“I saw the stadium and my heart just started racing,” Butler said Friday. “I’m thinking about when I was on the bus with [Rob Gronkowski] and [Julian Edelman], and I’m like, ‘Damn, they’re really going to play in the Super Bowl, and I’m not going to play.’ I remember sitting down at media day and no one was at my table. But, boom, I ended up playing in the game.”
Butler, an undrafted rookie in 2014, hadn’t played much that season. He was inactive for four games and did not log a single defensive snap in five others.
On a critical play in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks, though, the 24-year-old Butler was on the field — and delivered. He intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass at the goal line to preserve New England’s 28-24 victory and instantly become a franchise hero.
“Life changed a lot after that,” said Butler, who has been at the Super Bowl LVII site to promote a dietary supplement.
The day after Super Bowl XLIX, Butler appeared on “Good Morning America” and took a private jet to Walt Disney World. When he flew back to Massachusetts, an assortment of items, from letters to fruit baskets to baked goods, awaited him at the door of his apartment. People came knocking, too, hoping to get an autograph or photo.
“It was crazy,” Butler said. “It was so different and it happened so fast.”
The next season, Butler earned a larger role. No defensive player on the Patriots logged more regular-season snaps than Butler from 2015 to 2017. He didn’t miss a game over those three seasons.
Then, Butler’s life changed again.
In Super Bowl LII, which the Patriots lost to Philadelphia, 41-33, Butler didn’t play a single defensive snap. He was on the field for one play — a punt return. Five years later, Butler still doesn’t have an explanation for what happened.
“I’m just confused about it,” Butler said.
With his rookie contract expiring at the time, Butler knew his tenure with the Patriots was likely reaching its end. He wonders if his pending free agency was a factor.
“Just to get one snap in the game, on punt return, it’s kind of disrespectful,” Butler said. “But I knew I was headed out the door anyway. Sometimes I just feel like, ‘Was it done on purpose?’ Because I was headed out the door. Did you not want me to get in the game and shine? And then leave and go to another team?”
Coach Bill Belichick called the benching “a coaching decision” and hasn’t said much else about it since. The rampant speculation about what had happened initially bothered Butler, but the situation no longer weighs much on him — despite the lack of clarity.
“I’ve been over it,” Butler said. “When you feel like you really didn’t do anything, you can be free-hearted. You don’t feel bad. I’m still wondering what did I really do to deserve that? When it’s not your fault, man, your heart can rest. When you’re solid and you feel like you didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just in your heart. But if I feel like I didn’t do anything wrong, then somebody has to feel some kind of way. But it’s not me. I don’t feel any kind of way.”
The offseason after Super Bowl LII, Butler ended up signing a five-year, $61 million contract with Tennessee, where he played three seasons before getting released by the Titans. He then signed a one-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals but decided to retire prior to the start of the 2021 season.
As fate would have it, he came out of retirement last year to return to the Patriots on a two-year deal. Butler wanted to end his playing career in New England, but a hip injury suffered in the preseason finale led to an injury settlement with the team.
During Butler’s second stint with the Patriots, he could already sense trouble might be ahead for quarterback Mac Jones and the offense.
“They couldn’t move the ball,” he said. “When I was there, the offense was so predictable. They would line up and I would be like, ‘Yup. They’re [going to] do this.’ They just have to mix it up a little bit more. It was just too simple. The scheme was too simple. It was so complicated when [Tom] Brady was there.”
Butler scratched his head at the decision to put senior football advisor Matt Patricia, a longtime defensive coordinator, in charge of the offense.
“It was weird for him and it was weird for Mac,” Butler said.
Echoing owner Robert Kraft and former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, among others, Butler believes the hiring of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will put Jones in a better position to succeed, citing his familiarity with former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s system and strong schemes.
And as for the latest status of Butler’s relationship with Belichick?
“It’s not bad,” he said. “It’s not good. It’s just balanced. Bill is going to be Bill.”
Butler, who will turn 33 in March, doesn’t know what’s next for him.
After parting ways again with the Patriots, he worked out for the Miami Dolphins but nothing came of it. He’s still staying in shape, running, and lifting with hopes of possibly playing again.
Butler also plans to return to school for physical education. He’s also working on a book and documentary chronicling his career arc.
“Coming from a single-parent home, getting kicked out of school, going back to school, working at Popeyes, making it to the NFL, it’s a crazy timeline of my life,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
While Butler currently resides in Houston, New England will always hold a special place in his heart — even after the ups and downs.
“Tell New England, man, I love them,” he said.