Malcolm Butler Will Conquer Again

The Patriots may have stopped believing in him. But he never stopped believing in himself. Now, the chip on his shoulder has caught on in Tennessee. Part 1 of Vs. Everybody—B/R Mag's look at the guys taking on the whole NFL this season.
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterSeptember 4, 2018

Down South in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the humidity sticks to your skin like goo, the nearest Dunkin' Donuts is 50 miles away, country music dominates the FM dial and the hyperbole borders on biblical. Here in Malcolm Butler's hometown, he is beyond revered. A godsend. David slaying Goliath.

Seriously, that's how one woman planning his football camp on this midsummer's day describes him. "Because David," she explains, "even when he rose, his brothers tried to throw him down. He remained humble."

Editor's note: Doubt them. Hate them. Count them out. It's these guys vs. everybody this NFL season.

Part 1 (Tuesday): Malcolm Butler
Part 2 (Wednesday): Jon Gruden
Part 3 (Thursday): Andrew Luck
Part 4 (Friday): Marcus Williams

Downtown, one bartender recalls Butler as an ultra-polite, ultra-down-to-earth upperclassman.

At Butler's old high school, at one end of the football field, Alonzo Stevens remembers Butler as a mix of two players he coached in college at Alcorn State: Steve McNair and Donald Driver. Both were incredibly tough—incredibly driven—and Butler, he says, was the two of them rolled up into one. That much was clear instantly to his high school coach. Don't let the Southern charm fool you, Stevens cautions, because when Butler steps onto the field, "He wants to take your head off."

At the other end of the field, during Butler's youth football camp, trainer Johnny Jackson taps open a video of one of his other clients. It's 6'2", 236-pound former Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough squatting 405 pounds, a clip that went viral just days prior. Then, Jackson's eyes widen. Butler? The 5'11", 190-pound corner? Jackson assures he can squat 415.

At city hall, Mayor George Flaggs Jr. isn't shy. Butler has re-energized the town's economy, he says, while simultaneously injecting a generation of kids in Vicksburg with hope.

"They've heard Dr. Martin Luther King talk about it," Flaggs says, "But they actually got to see Malcolm Butler be about it."

Then, he cranks it up a notch. A few miles away is where the Siege of Vicksburg took place, a critical blow to the Confederacy during the Civil War. To Flaggs, that context is crucial to understanding what Butler represents in Vicksburg.

"We've been able to rise above what was fought against in this city," he says.

No wonder a city of 24,000 drew 10,000 spectators for the "Malcolm Butler Day" parade that was held to commemorate his interception of Russell Wilson at the 1-yard line in 2015.

He is living proof that a boy from this city can become a Super Bowl hero.

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 04:  Malcolm Butler of the New England Patriots waves to fans during a Super Bowl victory parade on February 4, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in Super Bowl XLIX. (Photo by Billie Weis
Billie Weiss/Getty Images

The sight of Butler that day, in tears, hardly able to keep his body upright, will live on forever.


Forever an inspiration.

But, of course, there is another side to the Malcolm Butler story. He is, more recently, a Super Bowl zero. Three years after that interception, he stood on the sideline, benched by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, powerless, in tears as his team lost to the Eagles this February.

Maybe nobody in any sport has ever experienced such an exhilarating championship high followed by such a blindsiding championship low.

The greatest coach of all time humiliated him. Such embarrassment could be a knockout punch.

But it wasn't.

Butler has never forgotten his rock bottoms past, so this rock bottom will not finish him, either. After signing a five-year, $61 million deal with the Titans this offseason, he's hellbent on reclimbing the mountain.

Here in Vicksburg, the reminders to keep climbing are constant.

They're at the local Popeyes, where he worked after he was expelled from Hinds Community College as a freshman. They're in the words of Jackson, the man who saw Butler at another humiliating low in his life. They're even in those bloated game checks he's now getting from the Titans, which Butler has noticed are printed by the same company that printed his old Popeyes checks.

"I've been an underdog," Butler says, "my whole life."

Butler could have vanished long ago.

"I look at it like a scratch or a scab on your leg," he says. "Pain don't last that long. You're going to heal sooner or later. So I just kept praying, kept working hard. Things blow over, man. They're going to blow over. No matter how bad it is...

"You've got to have that strong mind."

The Patriots stopped believing in Butler, but he never stopped believing in himself.

So do not be shocked if he's back to making game-changing interceptions. To being considered one of the league's top shutdown corners. Even to playing in the Super Bowl. Soon.

"It's hard to break me," he says, eyes piercing. "I'm a tough one, man.

"I'm a tough one."

Part of Butler absolutely wanted to approach Belichick that night in Minneapolis. But looking back, he insists he wouldn't change a thing.

"We all are going to make some decisions—some good ones, some bad ones," Butler says.

"It just didn't work out good for me or the New England Patriots organization."

Steven Senne/Associated Press

He should be lobbing grenades one by one at Belichick. Because, hello, Butler is filthy rich now. There's no need to play nice. He's free of Belichick.

But not once in the days he spends with Bleacher Report in Vicksburg does he criticize the head coach he has every reason to criticize. Not once does he speak of Belichick with He Who Must Not Be Named disgust in his voice.

Belichick should be a villain, a traitor, a vile despot who took Butler's precious fairy tale story, tore it to shreds and burned it to ashes. All that's missing is a lightning bolt on Butler's forehead. Yet as he lounges at his favorite gumbo spot in Vicksburg, hand on a knee, in a plain white tee, the complete absence of animosity is striking.

Butler doesn't trash his former team. He looks back fondly.

He cherishes the moment the "508" area code flashed across his phone and he headed to rookie camp as a tryout long shot, vowing to friends, "I'm not coming back home." On to training camp, he told those same friends, "A play a day keeps the coaches away," and lived his words. He picked off Jimmy Garoppolo constantly and, after his first time robbing Tom Brady, called Jackson to shout, "I got him!" (No explanation on whom was needed.)

There was an angry call to Jackson after a mid-December game, when Butler was used sparingly. Jackson slowed his roll—pointed out that Belichick had been playing him in important situations—and next thing Butler knew, he was stepping in front of a Russell Wilson bullet to win his team the Super Bowl.

He estimates he's been asked about that play "millions" of times. He never gets sick of it.

Again, he relives his one shining moment with pride.

"I was thinking to myself, If they run it, I'm not going to make the tackle. Unless it's a toss that comes my way. There's nothing I can do to make that tackle if he runs the ball in. But I said, If they do throw this ball, I'm going to be here. I saw Wilson kind of peeking over, looking, as he came out of the huddle. Those eyes don't lie.

"I said, If the receiver jabs right, I'm gone. If it's a double move, I'm beat. And I just went."

Butler's mind transports to that night, and he cannot help but speak in the present tense. He hangs on to this glory, still, years later. In that stack formation, Butler knew Seattle wasn't running a double move, so he tapped corner Brandon Browner. "Who you got? Who you got?" Browner mucked up the route. Butler attacked. Game over.

After that came a tidal wave of attention, forcing Butler to grow up in a hurry.

Once his world slowed down, he buckled down and refused to fade away.

"Things really do happen like that," Butler says. "Tyree, the Helmet Catch. He played, what, two, three more snaps? And he's done. I wasn't going to be that person. I wasn't going to allow that. I knew I wasn't going to be the 'one-hit wonder' the little kids hit me with on Instagram. I couldn't just drop off like that.

"I had to keep going. I had to establish myself. Once you're up like that, you have to add a little more to your resume and stay hungry. Stay hungry."

Butler started in 2015, won another Super Bowl in 2016 and played a team-high 97.8 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps in 2017.

Then, Belichick erased him from the game plan, just like that, in what will go down as one of the greatest mysteries in Super Bowl history. Browner, by then an ex-player, ranted on Instagram that Butler was "not the first to get caught with weed," though Butler swiftly denied that that's what happened, as well as reports of missing curfew.

Multiple Patriots players didn't respond when reached for comment. And there's Belichick, supplying zero clarity as always. Butler simply says in Vicksburg that Belichick gave him a chance to begin with and that he harbors "no bad blood."

He says he respects Belichick and respects authority.

Butler even calls 2017 a "down year," one he refuses to let happen again.

The night of that game didn't hurt most. No, this scab opened up in the days and weeks after the loss. Everyone around Butler was feeling bad, so he started feeling bad for himself. It was a vicious cycle. Plus, the timing of this was straight out of a horror movie. After fighting...and clawing...and overcoming Powerball odds to be in position to get his precious payday, Butler suddenly had one massive "Buyer Beware" red flag attached to his name in free agency.

He didn't heal overnight.

"It's not simple," Butler says. "You can move on, but it's still going to be there. It takes time to move on. It takes time. It takes time to get over certain things that really put a dent in you."

And at some point, Butler realized he was built to make this another career-defining moment.

"I'm going to fight," he promises. "I'm coming.

"I'm coming."

The first coach to detect greatness in Butler wants everyone to picture a mountain.

A jolly, stocky gent with a turquoise towel draped over his shoulder, Stevens speaks in a scratchy, soothing Southern dialect as he leans against a back fence.

There are two sides of a mountain, he says: "The smooth side, where you climb, and the rough side, where you stumble." Moving his cupped hand up and down, Stevens assures that Butler has been climbing and failing his entire life.

To understand Butler's next move in 2018, understand Butler at two specific lows.

First, at Popeyes.

Poor grades prevented Butler from even playing his sophomore and junior years of high school, but he did enough as a senior to punch a ticket to Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi. And then he blew it. Expelled from school for reasons he won't discuss, Butler crash-landed at the "Louisiana Kitchen" on Pemberton Square Boulevard. Stevens remembers ordering a two-piece at the drive-thru window and not believing his eyes when Butler handed him the bag.

"I'm going to get it right," Butler told him.

Stevens was skeptical. Very skeptical. But with each subsequent visit, he became less so. Butler told him he was going to enroll at Alcorn State to earn credits so he wouldn't fall too far behind. Butler told him he'd personally apologize to his head coach at Hinds.

Not once did Stevens see a kid feeling sorry for himself.

Soon, off Butler went to play football again at D-II West Alabama.

This is the same kid who'd get into receivers' faces on 3rd-and-15 in high school. The same kid with zero off switch, who'd hear Stevens screaming at him and scream back, "I got it!" The same kid who Stevens loved to use as a threat in practice, telling his other players they'd have to run until Butler was tired.

The play that defines Butler, to Stevens, isn't that pick in the Super Bowl. It was moments earlier, when he dove to deflect a pass, which then pinballed off every part of Jermaine Kearse's body before Kearse somehow caught it. Almost everybody forgets, he notes, how Butler popped up to knock him out of bounds.

Not ironically, it was the exact type of play Johnny Jackson saw Butler make at West Alabama that made him want to train Butler. He recalls seeing Butler pop up off the dirt against North Alabama to chase down and tackle a receiver at the 2-yard line. He knew then that he needed to train him.

And they trained. And trained. Jackson grew to love this "strappy" maniac with the "cat-like reflexes." Yet when it was time to blip the NFL radar at Alabama's pro day—maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the fact that Jackson wasn't on hand—Butler ran a disappointing 4.62 in the 40-yard dash. No worries. At 4 a.m. the next morning, Jackson drove Butler to North Alabama to make up for it at that school's pro day.

Then came another rock bottom.

Butler stepped up to the line and was waved off. Scouts yelled, "We don't want to see him!"

Tail between his legs, Butler got into Jackson's car and told him he was done with football.

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20:  Malcolm Butler #21 of the New England Patriots warms up before the game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 20, 2015 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Jerome Davis/Getty Images)
Jerome Davis/Getty Images

Which, of course, enraged Jackson.

All along, the trainer planned on linking Butler with a Patriots scout he knew: Frantzy Jourdain. He shows a screenshot of Jourdain's business card on his phone—he was going to send this to Butler. After a thunderstorm had ruined Jackson's plans to meet up with Jourdain, he was able to still get his number. But beyond livid, beyond fed up with Butler's defeatist attitude, Jackson decided not to say a peep and kept that screenshot to himself. Why would he extend that life raft? The fire that drew Jackson to Butler to begin with was, evidently, extinguished.

Says Jackson: "I was so pissed. I was going to be a selfish prick."

Until one day at a red light, Jackson asked his wife if he should send Jourdain's number to Butler, she said "yes," and the rest is history.

Now pacing at midfield of Butler's camp, Jackson is smiling and speechless.

"I don't know if you believe in divine intervention," he says, "but there is no way any of this happens.

"This kid was destined to be here."

No wonder Butler didn't break this offseason. The NFL team that took a chance on him abruptly decided he was not good enough...but Butler was prepared.

One book in particular served as the perfect prescription: Tony Dungy's Uncommon. Football never changes, Butler learned from the book. Neither does lifting weights or running wind sprints. What changes are people's attitudes. Butler realized he could run a wind sprint that is "uncommon." He couldn't control the brutal timing of his benching, couldn't control whether any of the 31 other teams would pay up, but he could look inward.

"He deserves all the credit to not break down emotionally," Jackson says. "You've got to have a strong backbone and a lot intestinal fortitude not to break down. Most people would've cracked."

He signed for $61 million, and the fact that Butler still never trashed the Patriots, Jackson smirks, is the true definition of "power."

"When you know you can throw those grenades," he explains, "and you keep them in your pocket, that's powerful. That's uncommon."

So nobody here has a doubt what's next: Butler will climb, will conquer again. The same kid who boldly asked the Patriots to take back the No. 29 they had assigned him and give him 21 instead—"Wear 6½ if that's what they tell you to wear," Stevens yelled to him on the phone—is starting anew.

Mayor Flaggs could hear the enthusiasm in Butler's voice the day he signed with Tennessee, and Jackson believes Butler will be playing free again this season. Last season, he believes, Butler "played tense," with "mental blocks," afraid to ever take Super Bowl 49-like gambles.

That won't be the case in 2018. The grenades may be tucked safely away, but everyone in Vicksburg knows that Belichick poked a bear, that he did the equivalent of waving Butler off at the start of another 40. Only this time, there were 103.4 million witnesses.

From Flaggs in the mayor's office: "We were taught in Vicksburg that when people say, 'You can't,' you say, 'You can.' It's in the blood of this city."

To Stevens, pointing at the football field: "He's going to do it like he's supposed to do it—in between those lines."

To Jackson, who's now smacking his hands together: "God, he's going to be motivated. Who wouldn't? He's got a chip on his shoulder."

Even if Butler himself won't say it.

"I'll say it!" Jackson shouts. "Yeah, there's a fire lit. There has to be a fire lit there! And there's nothing wrong with that. It's a great thing. It's adversity. How are you going to respond to it? You don't have to respond to it negatively. Are you going to bitch and moan about it, or are you going to work your tail off and, when your opportunity comes, you're knocking on the door?"

The fire has been lit, again, so the fire is now spreading. In Nashville. With Butler motivated like never before, the rest of the Titans will not hold back.

Take it from Logan Ryan.

The ex-Patriot who helped recruit Butler to town kindly points out that the Titans went 5-1 in the AFC South a year ago "and only got better."

"And we're going to work," he says. "We're as confident as anybody."

There's no doubt in his mind Tennessee can have the best secondary in the league.

"We saw Jacksonville kind of come out of nowhere last year with it," Ryan says, "so we feel like that could be us."

Such is the Malcolm Butler Effect. Belief is real in Tennessee. Players like Ryan view Butler as their missing piece.

Ryan says Butler is a competitor who "fears no man," who perfectly fits the punch-in-the-mouth ethos this Titans defense is building. There is no cornerback in the NFL he'd rather play with.

Their motto in the secondary, with Butler, is simple: My Man Catch No Balls. Position coach Kerry Coombs coined the term, and his players ran with it by printing "MMCNB" onto T-shirts and repeating the words at practice.

Butler with secondary coach Kerry Coombs
Butler with secondary coach Kerry CoombsMark Humphrey/Associated Press

All summer, each practice was handled with the tenacity of a playoff game by Butler, Ryan, Adoree' Jackson, Kevin Byard, every Titans DB—because their plan, in 2018, is to incinerate the receivers in front of them.

With the chip on Butler's shoulder more pronounced than ever, that attitude is contagious.

"He wins his matchup," Ryan says. "I'm confident I can win mine. We're confident 'KB' can win his. We're confident Adoree' can win his. There's not a lot of open windows to throw the ball. When you have that, and you match it up with the pass rush we know that we have and our linebackers, then there's not a lot of windows. We want to make everything tough on everybody.

"I do sense that chip. It's fresh. He's running out with juice every day. We're treating every rep like it's game day. There's no chill days."

And anyone who thinks Butler is trying to prove one coach wrong isn't seeing the forest for the trees.

"Every team passed on him," Ryan says. "He's an All-Pro, and every team passed on him seven times—even the team that brought him in. So, he's had that. That's how Malcolm Butler is. He's proving everybody who passed on him wrong day in and day out."

Like Flaggs, like Jackson, like Stevens, the Titans DBs watched last year's Super Bowl in complete shock. Safety Johnathan Cyprien couldn't believe Belichick didn't even use Butler in a single sub-package. But seeing the aftermath of that slight, that shock, firsthand is a beautiful thing. Butler hasn't uttered one word about that night to him privately.

Not that he has to. His play is screaming.

"He takes it personal on anybody who lines up in front of him to try to catch a pass," says Cyprien, who will miss the 2018 season with a torn ACL. "Even in practice. I can just imagine the game."

Calling Butler "a fighter," Ryan assures Butler will keep on fighting, because that's all he knows.

As for the newcomer himself, Butler doesn't hold back. He sees absolutely no reason the Titans cannot contend for a ring with Mike Vrabel in charge, with fellow ex-Pat Dion Lewis signing, with so many studs returning.

They'll contend this season, too.

"Most definitely," Butler says. "Keep progressing, and we've got no choice but to make it there."

And all roads in the AFC, of course, go through Foxborough.

Only Malcolm Butler knows if this latest scab has truly healed or if the wound's still open and susceptible to infection. There's a reason Tom Brady said in May that he wished Butler had played. A reason Belichick was still being grilled on it in late July. A reason we're all still baffled on the matter in September.

FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 27:   Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots talks with  Malcolm Butler #21 as they enter the locker room for half time during their game against the Jacksonville Jaguarsat Gillette Stadium on September 27, 2015 in Foxboro, Mass
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Even now, seven months later, the benching is mind-boggling.

Is there a skeleton Butler's hiding in his closet? As Stevens says, laughing, Butler will "pee in that bottle," and if the Titans didn't have him do so before shelling out the $61 million deal, "shame on them." The one team that'd seem to have insight into what might have happened in New England, other than the Patriots, is the Titans, whose general manager, Jon Robinson, worked for the Patriots from 2002 to 2013, and whose head coach won three Super Bowls playing for Belichick.

If there are no skeletons, Butler has every reason to hold a grudge. Randy Moss. Jamie Collins. Chandler Jones. He's the latest Patriot to be effectively kicked into the back alley.

Nevertheless, Butler thinks back to the last four seasons and smiles. The sight of Brady, "awkward" and "weird," toting around a Trapper Keeper that he claims is fatter than James Harrison's arms will always be cherished. As will that first camp, that first Brady interception, that decision to jump Wilson's slant. Dungy's book and a new contract certainly helped him move on. But most of all, Butler realized that if anybody in the league can come back from such a public shaming, damnit, it's him.

That he's built for this.

His benching may be inconceivable, but so is his very existence in the NFL.

"You have to prepare for war," Butler says, "at a time of peace."

As his youth camp wraps up, Butler takes shelter from the 95-degree heat in a nearby equipment shed. It's not much cooler in here. Musty, instead of humid. With a new challenge ahead, Butler adds that he's following one other motto: All gas, no brakes. He plays the Patriots on Nov. 11 and may again in the playoffs, but his story is bigger than exacting revenge on one coach.

He expects to stand atop another mountain. Soon.

"History will repeat itself," Butler says. "It's life. There are just different levels of mistakes and bounce-backs. That's exactly what it is, because you move up, go to another level and make another mistake and you bounce back from that. Just a circle of emotions.

"Getting back up."

With that, Butler heads back outside, chats up a young camper for a few minutes and asks the boy if he can take his scooter bike for a whirl. It looks too cool. He must. Given the go-ahead, Butler hops in, slams the gas pedal and zips around the track without a care in the world.

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.


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