VICKSBURG, Miss. — Before Malcolm Mania engulfed this small, historic Civil War city, there was just one person who believed that someday Malcolm Butler would be a star, and that was the skinny, speedy teenager himself.
“He used to say, ‘I am going to be famous one day playing football in the NFL,’ ” says Keamellia Dee, co-manager of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, where Butler worked for $6.55 an hour as a senior at Vicksburg High School in 2008.
Butler never had it easy. His family lived in low-income housing, and his single mother, Deborah, worked at two nursing homes. Love was abundant, money wasn’t.
“From Day 1 he was a terror,” says his sister Demetra, 37, one of five siblings. “My granddaddy called him, ‘Roughhouse,’ ’cause he was bad. He’d be tearing down the house, getting into everything.”
Butler was shy with people he didn’t know and outgoing with those he did. He was addicted to Madden Football, hated math, and steered clear of the mighty Mississippi.
Dee remembers him as a hard worker with a good sense of humor.
“Just joking around, I’d tell him, ‘You ain’t going to be nothing,’ ” says Dee. The joking didn’t faze Butler. He even stepped up his bravado.
“He’d say, ‘When I become famous, I’ll give a shout-out to Popeyes,’ ” says Dee. “I was shocked when he did it.”
Butler got that chance, of course, when his miracle interception at the goal line clinched the Patriots’ victory in Super Bowl XLIX earlier this month.
Popeyes now has a marquee that reads, “Congratulations! Malcolm Butler.” It’s just under the ad for the return of butterfly shrimp.
Not bad for a kid who a few years ago was cleaning the bathrooms.
“Whatever we asked him to do, he would do,” says Dee. “It was always, ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir, no sir.’ ”
Great instincts on the field
Butler, 24, returned home during a Patriots bye week last November, and he was unchanged, according to Dee.
“He still comes back to say hi,” she says. “He always gets the chicken strips and biscuits with honey. He loves honey.
“He started out as a cashier on drive-thru, then he worked his way up to the batter fry cooking. Once he caught on, he was pretty fast.”
It was his speed that caught the attention of former Vicksburg High football coach Alonzo Stevens. Butler ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and was a ball hawk.
“He had great instincts,” says Stevens. “Coaches can teach a lot of things but they can’t teach instinct.”
But Butler had academic problems, was often late, and ran with a crowd that was going nowhere. He became ineligible to play football during his sophomore and junior years.
“He didn’t do what he was supposed to do,” says Stevens. “I was so mad at him. He got sidetracked.”
Once his grades improved, he played some basketball. But as a senior, Butler wanted to play football again. Stevens was skeptical of giving him another chance.
“I said OK to him, but now I’m thinking, ‘This will be a dummy holder [in practices] for me now,’ ” says Stevens. “There’s no way. He’s been away from football two years and come back and even have a partial impact?”
Butler not only made the team, he shined against South Panola, the No. 1 team in the state. He ran a 60-yard reverse for a touchdown and shut down its best receiver in the Red Carpet Bowl.
“Outside the lines, he’s Clark Kent,” says Stevens. “Put him out on the field, you’ve got a Superman. He’s not scared of nothing. That’s just his makeup.”
At Vicksburg High, people talk about Butler’s smile.
“He had a personality where he would go that extra mile,” said principal Deowarski McDonald. “He’s a charmer. He would flash that smile and win those teachers over, so if he did struggle with certain things, they’d go above and beyond to help him.”
His locker is still there in the old Gator Fieldhouse, with the name “M. Butler” penciled in the middle stall. Nearby on the wall are two quotes that would prove to be prophetic.
“Play the way you practice.” — Bo Schembechler, Michigan football coach.
“When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” — Franklin Roosevelt.
Run-ins with the law
Butler certainly needed a new deal after high school. He couldn’t play Division 1 football because of his grades. His lack of experience limited his options.
He played just five games at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., (population: 1,911) before being kicked off the team in 2009.
There was an altercation with a campus police officer in the school cafeteria after Butler was asked for his student ID. He produced it and started walking away, but got agitated when the officer pulled out his ticket book. Butler was charged with disorderly conduct/failure to comply, resisting arrest, and public profanity.
“He came to him the wrong way, talking to him in a nasty way, and that’s how the commotion started,” says Demetra Butler.
Butler returned to work full time at Popeyes. The roar of the crowd was gone; there was just the hiss of the fryolater. It was the crossroads of his life.
“He was pretty much bummed, but he didn’t let it stop him,” says Dee. “He didn’t let it get him down.”
Butler supporters headed for Popeyes to offer support. That included Jenny Drake, the English teacher who got him through “Macbeth” and told him it would be no tragedy to someday run a Popeyes.
“I told him to keep his head up high,” says Drake.
Coach Stevens would head over on Sunday after church, order the thigh-and-wing combo, and Butler would immediately recognize his voice coming though the drive-thru.
Butler acknowledged his mistakes to Stevens.
“He said, ‘Coach, I messed up,’ ” says Stevens. “I said, ‘Malcolm you only get so many chances.’ He said, ‘I know, Coach. I’m gonna get it right.’
“When he did something, he’d own up to it. That’s what I love about him.”
Butler attended Alcorn State to get his grades up in the summer of 2010 so he could be reinstated at Hinds.
But on May 5, 2011, he was pulled over by Raymond Police for an expired tag. Police said he had a suspended license, several unpaid tickets, and no insurance. They found a small bag of marijuana under the seat and issued a ticket for possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor charge that saved the department money by not having to get the pot tested.
Back on the football field at Hinds, Butler was successful, making second-team all-state.
But he did not appear in court to answer the charge. Later, he didn’t complete a seven-day community service sentence as part of probation. According to police, he was arrested on Jan. 4, 2012, and spent two days in the Hinds County Detention Center.
Confident and inspirational
According to Stevens, Butler learned from his mistakes and matured. In the fall, he transferred to West Alabama, a Division 2 school, and became a two-time All-Gulf South Conference selection at cornerback. There he gained a reputation as a playmaker.
His confidence in his talents was evident in his tweets.
“I’m the diamond in the dirt that ain’t been found,” he wrote in September 2013.
“Watch how I shock the world,” he tweeted in January 2014.
But Butler also worried about his mother, says Stevens.
“He got the picture,” says the retired coach. “He said, ‘My mother worked two jobs. I love my mother. I want to do the right thing for my mother. I don’t want her to work like this for the rest of her life.’ ”
Butler went undrafted last spring, but the Patriots signed him in May as a free agent. And he didn’t forget his roots. Butler spent two days of the team’s bye week at Vicksburg High addressing the Gator team, which included his nephew Kareeme Butler, and the school pep rally.
Current Vicksburg coach Marcus Rogers says Butler’s honesty was inspirational.
“He said, ‘I sat in the gym at pep rallies and didn’t play football,’ ” says Rogers. “But he never quit. He told them, ‘If you can believe it, you can achieve it. Never give up on your dreams and don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do.’ ”
Butler flew his mother into town for the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts at Foxborough; it was her first time on a plane. Then she was cheering for him at the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. Right after the game, she called home, crying with joy.
“She was screaming, ‘He did it! He did it!’ ” says Demetra.
Vicksburg (population: 23,856) is now getting ready for a celebration and parade on Saturday, when Butler will receive the key to the city.
Barber Marvin Ward of Marvelous Kutz used to give young Malcolm his favorite taper fade cut. He regrets not taking any pictures.
“He wasn’t a football star at that time,” says Ward. “I’m going to try to cut his hair before the parade. I’ll probably save the clippings and sell them to y’all on eBay,” he says with a laugh.
Patricia Miller, 49, and five of her children live in the former Butler home on Athens Avenue, just 4 miles from the Vicksburg National Cemetery, where 12,000 unknown Union soldiers are buried.
She says Butler will never be forgotten in this town.
“If he were to come here right now, everybody would give him a hug and shake his hand,” she says. “He makes the other kids want to stay in school and get your college degree like he did.”
Butler has been on a victory tour: Disneyland, the Auto Mile to get Tom Brady’s truck (everyone here thinks Butler was the MVP anyway), and the Grammys.
He even called Coach Rogers after the Grammy ceremony.
“I told him he’s a star, but remember your roots, stay strong, and stay spiritual,” says Rogers. “He said, ‘Coach, I’m going to keep it all in perspective, stay humble, and work 10 times harder.’ ”