Little-known Malcolm Butler an unlikely hero for Patriots

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On the 32nd defensive snap by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, undrafted rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler came on the field for the first time. He was part of a coaching adjustment that ultimately saved the team's heart-pounding, 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

Think about that for a moment.

Not only was one of the heroes of Super Bowl XLIX a little-known player out of Division II West Alabama, but he also wasn't even part of the team's original championship game plan. That all changed after the opening drive of the third quarter, when the Patriots' coaching staff inserted Butler into the game for Kyle Arrington. The nickelback was having trouble matching the size and length of 6-foot-5, 218-pound receiver Chris Matthews on vertical routes. In turning to the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Butler as their fifth defensive back in sub packages, they entrusted a player teammates call "Strap" or "Scrap," depending on whom you ask.

Butler picked up the nickname shortly after signing with the Patriots on May 19, after teammates noticed him putting the "straps" on receivers on the practice field. Running back Brandon Bolden said he came up with it, and some teammates turned it into "Scrap" because Butler was always scrapping for the ball.

When Super Bowl XLIX was on the line Sunday night, it was Butler's scrappy play, along with instincts and athleticism, that delivered a championship to New England for the first time since the 2004 season.

Why were the Seahawks throwing the ball on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 20 seconds left? It's a question they'll be asking in Seattle for a long time. But in New England, it forever will be known as the play on which Butler did it -- his interception 1 yard in the end zone -- as he exploded on a slant intended for receiver Ricardo Lockette.

Because the Seahawks had three receivers on the field, the Patriots matched up with a unique, goal-line package that included six defensive linemen, two linebackers and three cornerbacks. Butler, who at that point had played 17 defensive snaps in the game, was the third corner.

"Goal line, preparation, the formation they were in with the two-receiver stack, I just knew they were throwing a pick route," he said. "It was on the line, we needed it, and I just beat him to the route and made the play."

Like others on both teams, Butler expressed some surprise that the Seahawks didn't run with Marshawn Lynch, but he also felt he picked up a clue as to what was coming when quarterback Russell Wilson looked in his direction before the play.

Part of what made the turn of events so unbelievable was what preceded it.

Two plays prior, Butler was in coverage on Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse's improbable, on-his-back, juggling, 33-yard catch down the right sideline that advanced the ball to the 5-yard line. First, David Tyree catches the ball on his helmet in Super Bowl XLII, and now this? Too cruel.

Butler was step-for-step in coverage on the play, but it was just a remarkable effort by Kearse.

"I went to the sideline, wasn't feeling too well, my teammates were trying to cheer me up and said I made a great play," Butler said while noting he felt he would be viewed as the reason the Patriots lost. "I just went up and deflected it. Nine times out of 10, it usually goes away from him. As I was looking, he was bobbling it and caught it. Just devastating."

Two plays later, though, "it was the best feeling ever."

"I thought I was going to have to wait until next season," Butler said of his first career interception.

He plans to put the football from the play in a case.

In recapping the play immediately after he left the field, he actually thought the ball was on the 3- or 4-yard line. He said he couldn't explain it, but he just knew what was coming in part because of his résumé.

"I'm pretty sure he knows I'm a rookie, and who wouldn't try a rookie?" he said. "I was ready."

He was ready, despite having played only 190 defensive snaps this season, including playoffs. Of that total, 14 came in the AFC Championship Game against the Colts, after he didn't play on defense in the divisional-round win over the Ravens.

That Butler was even on the roster in the first place was the surprise story of the early part of the Patriots' season.

In many ways, he is the underdog story of all underdog stories, after playing at West Alabama, going undrafted and having only the Patriots offer him a tryout well after most 90-man rosters had been filled. Before that, he had played only two seasons at Vicksburg High School in Mississippi and then gone to Hinds Community College, where he was kicked out as a freshman in 2009 and later found himself working a part-time job at Popeye's.

What he learned then was how much he missed football, and when he was invited back to Hinds in 2011, he promised himself to never again take his opportunities for granted. That propelled him to West Alabama in 2012 and 2013, where he proved himself one of the best players in the Gulf Coast Conference.

By the time he arrived in the NFL, it didn't take long for him to make an impression on his Patriots teammates with athleticism and explosiveness.

"In minicamp, he was lights-out. He was special," veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "He was doing exactly what he did in this game: flying around, breaking up passes, interceptions. When you have a guy who is a head-turner [and] has that 'it' factor, they stand out."

Ninkovich said he had a conversation with Butler shortly before the game, and he asked Butler, "Where were you a year ago today?"

"He just smiled at me," Ninkovich said. "He knows that a year ago, he was at a small school. He came from junior college, undrafted kid. Now he's playing in the biggest game of his life, of my life. It's amazing."

Amazing on multiple levels -- Butler's improbable journey and that he wasn't a big part of the original Super Bowl game plan. It took a critical coaching adjustment to open the door.

In the end, Butler played 18 defensive snaps in the game. Great moments on No. 18 are often reserved for the golf course, but on this night, it was the football field in Super Bowl XLIX.

"Unbelievable play," quarterback Tom Brady said. "I saw the interception and couldn't believe it."

You're not alone, Tom.

Malcolm Butler as the hero of Super Bowl XLIX?

No one could have seen this coming.