Maybe the least surprised person in the country that it was undrafted rookie free agent Malcolm Butler that produced the biggest play of the Super Bowl Sunday night to save the NFL title for the Patriots was watching the game at a buddy’s house in Hattiesburg, Miss.
As soon as Butler broke on Russell Wilson’s pass to make the crucial red zone interception, one of Desmond Lindsey’s old high school teammates gave him a big hug to celebrate what was a truly surreal moment.
Lindsey, an assistant coach at the University of West Georgia, was the man who recruited the Super Bowl star to Division II West Alabama.
"I just kept thinking, ‘Wow. What a blessing for that kid," Lindsey told FOX Sports early Monday morning over the phone. He couldn’t help but think about the windy path Butler had taken to get into the national spotlight on sport’s biggest stage. It all seemed to fit so perfectly, the coach thought.
"This is a kid who has never given up on anything," said Lindsey. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder. I think that shows even in him getting through the season and even just getting to OTAs with the Patriots."
In a game with a bunch of "shut-down" corners and freakish DBs, Butler has rather underwhelming measurables. His old coaches say he’s about 5-11ish, maybe 185. On a good day, he may have run low 4.5s in the 40. Maybe. Stuff like that seldom makes scout’s hearts race, especially when a guy doesn’t come from major college football.
"The thing is Malcolm has great ball skills and he never gets down," says Will Hall, the former head coach at West Alabama, who grew up around Mississippi JC ball. "He’s such a great kid, so humble. He deserves this. We’re so happy for him."
Lindsey’s story epitomizes D-II football, away from the hype of the recruiting "star" system.
"This is a guy who was never worried about how many pairs of cleats do I get? Or how many pairs of gloves is he gonna get from the school," said Lindsey, who was West Alabama’s WR coach and recruiting coordinator. "He just wants to play football. And that’s what Division II football is all about. You have to sacrifice a lot of things in Division II to be successful, and he really did."
Butler grew up in Vicksburg, Miss. He’d played only two seasons of high school football and went off to Hinds Community College (the same JC program that produced a bunch of future NFL stars, Fred Smoot among them.) However he got kicked off the team. Word is, the matter was drug-related. Butler got a job working at Popeye’s frying up chicken. He returned to Hinds the following season and kept working at Popeye’s.
College recruiters took note of him and the way he attacked the football. According to Lindsey, Butler drew interest from Conference-USA and Sun Belt schools as well as Southland Conference and D-II programs, but because the kid had struggled academically early on while at Hinds, it was going to be a very uphill climb for the FBS programs to get him.
"The bigger schools didn’t have a plan to get him on track to get a college degree," said Lindsey. He explained that Butler would’ve needed to cram in so many credit hours for D-I only to graduate JC by the summer, so it seemed more "doable" for him to go to West Alabama, especially since the DB was still working nights and practically a full-time job at Popeye’s.
By then, Lindsey and the West Alabama staff had already developed a bond with Butler. Some nights the player would call Lindsey at 1 a.m. after getting home from a late-night shift at Popeye just to touch base. "As a coach, you get a call that late from a kid and you think, ‘Is there something wrong, but it was always ‘Hey, coach, I just wanted to see how you were doing,’" Lindsey said.
Butler shined at the Gulf South Conference school once he got to West Alabama, earning first-team all-conference. Butler maintained a job, via a work study program in the school’s fitness and wellness program. He also proved to be a mentor to a lot of his younger teammates, Lindsey said.
"He’s a kid that learned from mistakes. He knew that ‘because I didn’t take care of things academically early on, I had to go the D-II route.’ And it was always in his mind, ‘How am I gonna take care of my mother?’ said Lindsey. "So he just worked his behind off so much. The philosophy that Coach Hall preaches is ‘Attitude is Everything,’ and he really bought in."
NFL scouts, though, were skeptical — especially due to his measurables. "During the (pro scouting) process we had 25 NFL teams come through and we heard a lot about how he’s an in-between guy," said Lindsey. "Some guys would say he can’t play at our level. But the Patriots with the great organization they have, they saw some things other people couldn’t see. They realized with his heart and with his ball skills, he has the kinds of things that you can’t coach."
Butler and Lindsey still talk about once a week, the coach said.
About 48 hours before Butler’s huge play in the Super Bowl, he called Lindsey. The tone wasn’t really about the craziness of Super Bowl week, but more along the lines of those late-night calls after the Popeye’s shifts. "He was pretty relaxed. He just really was saying how much he appreciated what we had done for him, for believing in him," said Lindsey. "And I told him how much we appreciated him for all he’s meant to us."
Lindsey said Butler still has some work left to finish up his degree (his major is physical education). "I definitely think he’ll go back to finish up because he always said, ‘I can’t go back to Vicksburg without getting my degree."
The coach, like a lot of folks, knows better than to doubt Malcolm Butler.