The coach plunked down in his seat, immersed in the navy, electric green and wolf gray of the Seattle Seahawks. Alonzo Stevens is not a bashful man, so he shook hands with his Super Bowl-viewing neighbors and declared his allegiance to the Patriots, their cornerback, his player.
Even though he was at a Seahawks party in his native Vicksburg, Mississippi, he was poised to celebrate Malcolm Butler, the undrafted rookie for New England who once played for Stevens at Vicksburg High.
Malcolm's path to the NFL was fraught with missteps and disappointment, Stevens told them, but his irrepressibility had come to define him as a special talent who was afforded a second chance and parlayed it into a Super Bowl roster spot.
"I just wanted them to know his story,'' Stevens explained. "I was so very proud.''
The first half came and went without Butler taking the field for a single snap at cornerback, and the Seahawks fans couldn't resist.
"Coach, is your boy ever gonna play?'' they chortled.
Midway through the third quarter, Butler subbed for Kyle Arrington, who strained to cover the towering 6-foot-5 Chris Matthews. Patriots teammate Brandon Browner switched to Matthews, leaving Butler to mark Jermaine Kearse. Butler acquitted himself well in his first few snaps, stuffing Marshawn Lynch and breaking up a Russell Wilson pass to Kearse.
But the Patriots were faltering, trailing 24-14, and the Seahawks faithful sensed back-to-back Super Bowl championships were within their grasp. As they rollicked and exulted and waved their pennants, one of them cheerfully declared, "Hey Coach, your boy is running out of time!''
A coach's faith made all the difference
It was nearly over for Malcolm Butler before it barely began.
His freshman season with the Vicksburg High School Gators was a flash of dazzle, a burst of athleticism and promise that prompted Alonzo Stevens to dream of something grand. Butler played receiver and defensive back, exhibiting an unusual meld of confidence and humility.
"And that smile,'' Stevens said. "Worth a million dollars. Even when he did something boneheaded, it was hard to get mad at him.''
The coach was mesmerized by Malcolm Butler, but his rules were firm: no grades, no pads.
Butler knew that, but he didn't care much about school. All he wanted to do was play football. When Stevens had to notify Butler his poor academic standing had cost him his roster spot, the coach was crushed.
"We were counting on him for everything,'' Stevens said. "He was such an impact player, and when he didn't do what he was supposed to do, it hurt us, disappointed us.
"I had to kind of stay away for a minute.''
Butler was a natural in every sport he tried. While schoolwork was excruciating for him, his athletic exploits fueled his confidence and self-esteem.
"I always felt I was a good athlete,'' Butler explained, "but I remember someone telling me, 'You can do it out in the streets, but unless you go to school and do it there, you'll never get noticed.''' Butler coped with his exile from the football team by convincing himself he'd rather be a basketball player. He excelled in track and field, too, but his grades continued to plummet. By his junior season, Butler wasn't eligible for any of Vicksburg's sports teams.
Stevens took notice of Butler's new group of friends and sagged with that old, familiar heaviness that overtook him when he thought he was losing one of his kids.
"Malcolm kind of got in with the wrong group,'' Stevens said. "I was thinking, 'Oh man, here we go.' But he never strayed so far that we couldn't reel him back in.''
During fleeting encounters with him in the hallways, the coach told him, "You're messing up, Malcolm.'' Butler's eyes dropped before he answered, "Yeah, I know Coach, but I'm going to get it right.''
But how? His father wasn't around. It was a struggle to keep it all together. His mother, Deborah Butler, held down two jobs to support Malcolm and his four siblings, and money was tight, always tight. The 2012 census listed the medium income in Vicksburg as under $28,000. Malcolm worked weekends at Popeye's Chicken to help with the bills. His mother warned him that without an education, a fast-food minimum wage job could be his future. She urged him to hit the books, not the streets, and she wasn't the only one. "My coaches, my teachers, my mother, they all saw the potential in me,'' Butler said.
Les Lemons was the team's quarterback. His nickname was "Showtime" and he tried to lure Butler, his favorite receiver, back into the football fold and away from the dropouts and the drug users.
"I told Malcolm, 'Man, you don't need to be out there doing this and that, stuff you know isn't getting you anywhere,''' Lemons recounted. "I told him, 'Come work out with me. Come sit down with the coaches. See what you can do to get back on the field.'
"I wanted to help him,'' Lemons said, laughing, "but I was also the quarterback. I needed him.''
Butler needed football, too, but it was hard to swallow his pride, to admit he wanted help, to ask for forgiveness.
Stevens met him halfway. He extended the offer to return, spelled out the rules one more time, then welcomed Butler back. The heaviness lifted, but the coach worried too much time had passed.
"To be honest, I was thinking, 'There's no way he can be out of football two years and help me as a senior,'' Stevens admitted.
Butler returned as the fifth defensive back on the depth chart. There would be no favors, no shortcuts.
Turns out he didn't need any. His explosiveness and his confidence were intact.
"Every team I ever played on was a winning team,'' Butler said. "And on every team, I played a big role or took somebody's spot. That was never a problem. I was a competitor.'' In his senior season, he knocked down and picked off so many passes, opponents stopped throwing his way. Vicksburg's offensive coaches drooled over his football acumen and devised a number of creative ways to utilize his skills. In a game against Canton, they let him run a reverse and he bolted 50 yards for a touchdown. When Vicksburg got the ball back, they ran the reverse from the other side and Butler found the end zone again. As Stevens watched his prized player scurry away from increasingly agitated defenders, he started thinking the worst.
"I told my offensive coaches, 'Enough,'' Stevens said. "I didn't want him hurt. They said, 'Just one more time. Only this time we'll fake it to him.'''
Butler lined up, coerced the defense into tearing after him, then grinned as his teammate ran in untouched for the score.
Bouncing back from another misstep
Malcolm Butler had Division 1 skills without the matching grades, so he enrolled at Hinds Community College in Jackson, Mississippi, to play for the legendary Gene Murphy, who had produced countless winning seasons and dozens of NFL alums.
Murphy was impressed with the freshman's demeanor and his willingness to work, and named him a starter on his defense.
The football was near perfect, but it all unraveled in the school cafeteria, when Butler got into a disagreement with a campus police officer over an ID badge.
"I got into a little altercation with him,'' Butler said. "There weren't any punches thrown, nothing like that, but it was enough to get me kicked out.
"Everything was going pretty good at Hinds, but then I hit a speed bump.''
Murphy called Butler into his office and explained the rules were the same on campus for athletes and nonathletes -- no exceptions. He told his cornerback to pack his things and head on home to Vicksburg. "We try to get kids to take ownership of their actions,'' Murphy explained. "I've been doing this 40 years, and I wouldn't begin to count the number of young men who had to earn their way back, whether it was a lack of performance in a game or in the classroom or in an off-the-field situation.''
Gene Murphy often tells his athletes to "step up to the plate.'' He encouraged Butler to find a way to do the same.
Lemons, who was Butler's roommate at Hinds, had been converted to receiver and loved matching up against Butler in practice.
"And, then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere he's gone," Lemons said. "It was hard for him.
"But to be honest, I think it kind of helped him. That's when he got his mind right.''
Butler retreated to Vicksburg without football or a degree. He went back to Popeye's Chicken for $7.25 an hour, where he swept floors, washed dishes, battered the chicken and worked as a cashier.
Coach Stevens appeared regularly under the guise of craving a late-night snack, causing traffic jams in the drive-thru as he counseled his former star.
"You can't give up, Malcolm,'' Stevens said.
"Never will, Coach,'' Butler promised.
Lemons came home most weekends during the offseason and played pickup football in the city. Some days it was tackle, others it was touch, but Butler was always there, urging his friend afterward, "Hey man, can you throw me some extra passes? Let's work out, OK?"
"He was the best one out there,'' Lemons said.
Butler's game days became those weekend pickup games, and it haunted him. It was just what they had said; he was doing it in the streets, but nobody noticed.
That summer, he enrolled in classes at Alcorn State.
"If that incident at Hinds hadn't happened, I'd never be where I am today,'' Butler declared. "That's 100 percent true. When you have everything you love taken away from you, it's not a good feeling.''
Hinds assistant Dwike Wilson, a Vicksburg native, went to check on Butler. He liked what he saw, and Malcolm was invited to return to the Hinds CC squad for the 2011 season.
No one had to explain to Butler that he was out of second chances.
"There was a difference when Malcolm came back,'' Murphy said. "He was more focused. He had to go into the real world, in the business world, and he found out that wasn't what he wanted for his life.
"He wanted to get back to his passion, back on the field. He was a better man for it.''
Murphy was pleased to see Butler's impeccable timing had not diminished during his layoff.
"He's got one of the quickest breaks on the ball I've ever seen,'' Murphy said.
A successful year at Hinds led to a Division II scholarship offer from West Alabama, which had been eyeing Butler since his freshman season at Hinds.
Desmond Lindsey, who recruited Butler for head coach Will Hall, said there were a number of Division I prospects from the Hinds secondary, but "Malcolm had the most upside. His mannerisms, the confidence with which he dusted off those passes ... he was what we wanted.''
Butler made an instant impact at West Alabama. He was so locked in during practices, Lindsey said, he'd snare an interception with one hand and then turn and hand it back to the intended receiver with the other.
In 2013, his final college season, he was a Division II All-American (16 pass breakups, 2 interceptions). He also ran a kick return back 101 yards against rival North Alabama.
Not one NFL team drafted him, and the only one that even inquired about him was New England. Butler was invited to Patriots camp, and before he knew it he was lined up alongside Darrelle Revis. He called Alonzo Stevens and reported, "Coach, I've got No. 29!"
"Then he hesitated a second,'' Stevens recalled, "and said, 'Oh, the guy behind me has 29 too.''
Two weeks later, he called again.
"Coach, I just picked off Tom Brady in practice!"
"I told him, 'That's great, Malcolm, but don't too it too often,''' Stevens said.
Butler was active for 11 of the Patriots' 16 games, mostly as a special-teams contributor, but he earned his paycheck in practice as a valuable member of the scout team. Butler's explosiveness enabled him to flummox Tom Brady by jumping the receivers' routes and picking off the franchise quarterback's passes.
"I did that a lot,'' Butler concurred. "I just didn't have a chance do it in the games.''
From zero to hero in the blink of an eye
The coach fidgeted in his seat as the Super Bowl game clock dwindled down under two minutes. Alonzo Stevens held his breath as Butler followed Kearse step for step to deflect a long pass downfield, yet somehow Kearse corralled the football that bandied about his body like a pinball in an arcade. The replay highlighted the miraculous catch and as the Seahawks contingent roared, Stevens bowed his head.
Hinds coach Gene Murphy, watching from his living room, was more focused on what happened next.
"When the receiver caught the ball, both he and Malcolm were laying on the ground,'' Murphy noted. "Most rookies wouldn't have the game awareness that Malcolm did.
"As soon as he saw the receiver had caught it, he knew to get up and push the guy out of bounds. If he doesn't, that receiver's going in the end zone.''
The improbable catch was against solid coverage, but that's not how it felt to Butler as he headed for the sideline.
"I felt like the loss was on me,'' he said.
As the final seconds ticked off, the Patriots were in their goal-line defense when his coaches called for goal-line corner 3, and then shouted, "Malcolm, GO!" He knew this play. In practice three days earlier, Patriots receiver Josh Boyce had beaten Butler on a goal-line slant from backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Butler had mistakenly stepped back from the play and allowed too much separation.
Coach Bill Belichick chided Butler, "Seattle's going to run that play, Malcolm. Don't get beat on it.''
Now just seconds were left in the Super Bowl, and as Butler sprinted onto the field, he said he was thinking, "We're in goal-line corner 3. Why 3 corner on the goal line when they have Marshawn Lynch?"
"In my head," Butler said, "I'm going over the play from practice. I said to myself, 'If they run that play, I'm going to be there. If they run something else, I'm in trouble.'''
They ran the play. He jumped the route. He intercepted Russell Wilson's pass in one of the most dramatic plays in Super Bowl history.
It was all a blur after that. Alonzo Stevens jumped and hollered and hugged all those stunned Seahawks fans who couldn't believe the coach's player had just stolen the game from them. Butler wandered to the sidelines, too overwhelmed to comprehend what he had just done.
After the Super Bowl win, a grateful Brady said it was nice to see Butler pick someone else off for a change. He gave him a hug and, later, the MVP truck.
The impact of instant fame
Malcolm Butler's Super Bowl had a most excellent ending, but the story is far from over.
His football career, he contends, is just beginning. He is determined not to become David Tyree, the Giants receiver who made the miraculous helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII, but then never caught another pass in the NFL.
The attention has been exhilarating, the scrutiny at times a little unsettling. Butler went to the Grammys, to Vegas, and back to Vicksburg, where they will hold a parade in his honor on Saturday.
Some days, it's a little overwhelming.
"He understands his life has changed drastically,'' said Desmond Lindsey, who remains a confidant. "There are a lot of people in his life now for all the wrong reasons.
"The guy you see on 'SportsCenter', he's representing everybody from Vicksburg to Hinds to West Alabama. All of us are reaping the benefits of his success, but he knows if he does something negative, it will reverberate to all those places.''
Gene Murphy knows all about the cold-blooded business of the NFL. He knows there are no guarantees awaiting his former cornerback when he returns to Foxborough.
"But if he plays 10 more years or no more years, nobody can ever take this away from him,'' said Murphy. "He got himself to the top of the mountain.
"Malcolm is humble enough to understand that he's got to get down off that mountain and climb it again. He has to earn it.''
Butler has experienced the power of 24-hour news cycles, social media and this arching whirl of media attention that can raise you to dizzying heights, then slam you back to the dirt before you know what's hit you.
That, he acknowledged, has already started.
"You can call it what you want,'' Butler said. "You can call it one play or luck or whatever. But I know my ability. I know how hard I work, how hard New England is going to be on my butt when I get back there.
"One play doesn't define me. Ask my teammates. If you come to practice, you'll see I do things like that week in and week out.''
Everyone needs a second chance now and then. Butler figures he's hit his quota. Football is his life, always has been, and, he says, he won't jeopardize it again.
"I've got to get better. I can't do anything else but get better,'' he said.
Stevens tells anyone in the state of Mississippi who will listen that a second chance can change everything. He saw it firsthand, he says, from the hallways of Vicksburg High to the Popeye's drive-thru to the NFL's grandest stage.
"I've always told kids to follow their dreams and to never give up,'' Stevens said. "Now all I have to do is point at Malcolm Butler.''