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SCENE I The story of the Greatest Play in Modern Super Bowl History begins, like so many American success stories, where you'd least expect it. You can't raise the curtain and see cornerback Malcolm Butler breaking on the ball right at the goal, intercepting a Russell Wilson pass to win Tom Brady and Bill Belichick a fourth ring, because that would be cheating the story. It would be like watching the last five minutes of The Usual Suspects without seeing, and understanding, how we got there.
We begin instead in the back of a Popeyes in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 2010. That's where Butler gets a job -- washing dishes, taking orders, frying chicken -- after he is kicked off the Hinds Community College football team midway through his freshman year for a misdemeanor drug charge. He makes $7.25 per hour and lives in a mobile home. But he still believes, against all odds, he'll make it to the NFL one day.
SCENE II Patriots cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer could have looked elsewhere. In reality, he probably should have looked elsewhere when Butler runs an embarrassing 4.62 40 at his pro day in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 2014. But something about Butler, who continued working part time at Popeyes while playing two seasons at Division II West Alabama, convinces Boyer he's worth a camp invite after he goes undrafted. (After pleading for a redo, Butler runs a 4.4 in a private workout with the Patriots.) He has a three-day tryout. No one expects much; if he is lucky, he might survive the first cuts. But during training camp, Butler breaks up so many passes, Patriots veterans nickname him Scrap. Even Brady begins to wonder: Who's that guy running down so many balls?
SCENE III Don't give ground. If you see that formation, you have to be on it.
These are the words Belichick tells Butler during practice in the week leading up to this year's Super Bowl. If the Seahawks line up near the goal line with two wide receivers bunched together -- and according to Ernie Adams' research, they very well might -- it will be Brandon Browner's job to jam the holy hell out of the first receiver and the other corner's job to jump the second receiver's slant route. Who would the other corner be? Not even the Patriots are sure. Kyle Arrington, Patrick Chung and Butler split reps in practice, but when Butler tries to undercut the slant and is beaten for a touchdown in practice, Belichick gives him a short talk, planting the seed in his brain.
If you see that formation, you have to just jump it.
SCENE IV We've just witnessed a David Tyree miracle all over again.
That's what the world is thinking late in the fourth quarter when Wilson floats a ball to Jermaine Kearse and Butler jumps up and partially deflects it. As the two men tumble to the ground, the football pinballs around, bouncing off arms, legs and even Kearse's feet before it lands softly in the receiver's arms. Seattle trails 28-24, but the Seahawks now have the ball on the 5-yard line with 1:06 to play, poised to win a second straight Super Bowl. On the sideline, coach Pete Carroll can scarcely contain his glee.
Butler -- who is in the game only because Arrington had a bad first half -- is devastated. He walks to the sideline and yanks off his chin strap. If the Patriots lose, he'll blame himself for the rest of his life.
SCENE V Virtually no one will remember it, but on the play right after Kearse's juggling catch, Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower makes one of the most underrated tackles in NFL history. Without it, most people wouldn't even know Malcolm Butler's name, and Belichick and Brady would still be chasing a fourth ring.
Seattle lines up in the I-formation and calls a dive play, giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch and asking him to find a hole on the left side of the line. From the beginning, it looks to be perfectly executed. Fullback Will Tukuafu blows open a hole, Lynch cuts toward the end zone, and each of Seattle's linemen has a defender sealed off. But Hightower somehow bench-presses Seahawks tackle Russell Okung off his body, despite the fact that Okung stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 310 pounds. Then Hightower uses his right shoulder to knock Lynch -- the toughest, baddest, meanest running back in all of football -- off his feet at the 1-yard line.
That right shoulder, by the way? Hightower is playing with a torn labrum.
SCENE VI He can sense Seattle's hesitation. He can feel a hint of panic unfolding in front of him, even though the Seahawks appear to have every advantage. But in that moment, as Belichick stares at the chessboard -- as he watches Carroll and Wilson fidget and pace and anxiously weigh their options -- the Patriots' head coach does something no one is expecting. He waits.
His own sideline is frantic, coaches shouting into his headset as seconds tick off the clock. Bill, do you want the timeout? Bill? Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia asks him repeatedly what he wants to do, but Belichick ignores everyone and everything around him.
Finally, the decision. There will be no timeout. "I got it," he says, his words devoid of emotion. "Just play goal-line."
Patricia signals the call. Boyer barks into his headset that he wants Butler in the game in the Patriots' goal-line defense. More seconds bleed off the clock. The noise in University of Phoenix Stadium is deafening.
The rookie cornerback, the former Popeyes dishwasher, sprints onto the field and takes his position next to Browner as Seattle breaks its huddle.
SCENE VII How do you calculate the probability of a sports miracle? There is a beauty to viewing our games through the lens of science and statistics, in attempting to explain or predict outcomes with numbers. When the Seahawks come to the line of scrimmage with 26 seconds left, they have an 84.4 percent chance of winning, according to win probability analytics. But sports needs alchemy as much as science to be properly understood. There are too many variables, too many what-ifs, to ever truly know what will happen next: if Malcolm Butler hadn't been kicked off his junior college team and forced to get a job at a fast-food restaurant that motivated him to train harder to make the NFL; if he'd run a faster 40 time and been drafted by another team; if Adams had told the Patriots to study different plays in the week prior to the Super Bowl; if Hightower hadn't tackled the NFL's best runner using only an injured shoulder; if Belichick had called a timeout and Boyer had decided to keep Arrington in the game; so much might be different.
Instead, Butler breaks toward the ball, wedges himself in front of Ricardo Lockette and writes a big piece of NFL history.