GLENDALE, Ariz. — The final addition to the Patriots’ season-long turnover bag should be bronzed and preserved in a prominent place for all eternity. That’s if the ball can ever be pried from Malcolm Butler’s heroic hands, of course.
Butler, an undrafted rookie from a Division 2 school located in Livingston, Ala., made the biggest play of his young life on Sunday night. It was also the biggest play of the Patriots’ season. Butler stepped in front of Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette and intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass in the end zone with 26 seconds left, preserving the Patriots’ 28-24 win in Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Perhaps the most memorable of the 49 Super Bowls came down to a 24-year-old from Vicksburg, Miss., by way of West Alabama, who shook off a déjà vu completion at his expense two plays before and somehow found himself on the field with the game on the line. Then he went out and won it.
“It’s the best feeling ever,” Butler said. “I had a feeling I was going to make a big play.”
The Seahawks appeared poised to steal yet another Super Bowl title away from the Patriots with a last-second touchdown, in a manner similar to what the New York Giants did seven years ago in the same stadium. After beast back Marshawn Lynch carried the ball 4 yards to the Patriots’ 1-yard line, the Seahawks were 36 inches away from a go-ahead touchdown, with inside of 30 seconds remaining.
But when the Seahawks lined up for the second-and-goal play, Butler noticed something.
“I remembered the formation they were in, two receivers stacked, I just knew they were going to [a] pick route,” Butler said. “I just beat him to the route and just made the play.”
Wilson looked right and tried to hit Lockette on a slant route, but Butler anticipated the play. He beat the Seattle receiver to the spot, catching the pass and setting off a massive celebration on the Patriots sideline, and in towns and cities across New England.
It was the first interception of Butler’s NFL career. It was also, according to the league, the only time this season that a team threw an interception from the opponent’s 1-yard line.
“The guy just made a great play. I think it was Butler who made the catch, I’m not sure,” said Wilson, who completed 12 of 21 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns, helping the Seahawks build a 24-14 fourth-quarter lead. “He kind of cut in front of it and made a play. I thought it was a touchdown, honestly. Unfortunate situation.”
Not for Butler and the Patriots, the only team to show any interest in signing the player who spent two seasons at Hinds (Miss.) Community College before transferring to West Alabama, where he played two more seasons.
Butler, signed in May and viewed as a long shot to make the roster when he showed up at training camp, began making plays almost immediately. He seemed to be around the ball in practices, then in preseason games. He survived the final cut, earned a spot on the team, and played in 11 regular-season games, starting one.
In a secondary that includes Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung, it was a little-known rookie wearing No. 21 who delivered the franchise its fourth Lombardi Trophy.
“We call him ‘Scrap’ because the first time we saw him he was just so scrappy and he found himself around the ball all the time,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “I think that was one of the main reasons he was in the game. Throughout the course of the year, he shows up at practice and he makes plays.
“With that moment, with him making that play, it’s just a fairy-tale end for him because of what he’s done all year for us. To be a rookie and basically win the ball game for us, that’s amazing.”
Two plays before Butler’s interception, he was defending Jermaine Kearse when Wilson went after the rookie on a deep ball. Butler and Kearse both jumped for the ball, and both got a hand on it. As both players fell to the turf, the ball hit off Kearse’s left leg, then was tapped twice by Kearse’s right hand. He somehow came down with the catch at the Patriots’ 5-yard line, a 33-yard completion that immediately brought to mind visions of David Tyree (2007) and Mario Manningham (2011) breaking Patriots hearts with mind-blowing receptions in the final minute.
“To see him catch it, it was devastating,” Butler said. “I came out after that play. I went to the sideline, I wasn’t feeling too well, but my teammates tried to cheer me up, they said I was going to make a play.”
He made one, which won the game and capped a journey that nobody, not even Butler, could have ever imagined.
“I always knew that I could play in this league,” Butler said. “Dedication and hard work. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s what you do when you get here.”
On Tuesday, Butler was barely sought during the Super Bowl’s annual Media Day. On Wednesday and Thursday, with the Patriots available at round tables for 45 minutes each day, Butler sat by himself and mostly killed the time scrolling through his phone. He was, in the eyes of the assembled media, not worth speaking with, so he was barely bothered, sitting alone in his anonymity.
After intercepting an improbable pass that will be etched in the memories of Patriots fans forever, Butler was hurried to a postgame podium. When Butler sat down, prince of the football world, he was surrounded by cameras and microphones, everybody trying to get a word with him. One word came to mind, at the scene, Butler’s play, a Super Bowl for the ages.