VICKSBURG, Miss. -- Malcolm Butler tried to turn the world off. Dozens of calls and texts went unanswered. These were the most difficult 24 hours of his NFL career and the then-New England Patriots cornerback wanted room to breathe.
Images of tears flowing down his face during the Super Bowl LII national anthem filled sports talk shows. These tears, much different than the ones he shed after Super Bowl XLIX three years before, carried more pain than anyone will know. Rumors drug Butler's name through the dirt. He felt a range of emotions, from anger to frustration to bewilderment.
Then a Mississippi number he couldn't ignore popped up on his cell phone. His former Vicksburg High football coach, Alonzo Stevens, was calling to deliver some succinct advice.
"Sometimes we gotta sit back when we really feel like lashing out," Stevens told Butler. "If it weren't for [Patriots] coach [Bill] Belichick, it wouldn't have been a Malcolm."
"Oh, you right, Coach. You know, Coach, you always got that right word," Butler responded.
Butler went from a last-ditch tryout for the 90th spot on the Patriots' roster to becoming New England's improbable and beloved Super Bowl XLIX hero, but his last memory in New England will be of the game he didn't have an impact on.
"I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me," Butler repeats several times. "I don't want a feel-sorry-for-me story." It's unclear whether Butler realizes, after the big contract he signed with the Tennessee Titans in March, that the world has 61 million reasons not to feel sorry for him.
"No bad blood between me and Bill Belichick. One of the greatest coaches ever and I care about him ..." Malcolm Butler
Many sports fans are still seeking an answer for why Belichick didn't play Butler for a single defensive snap against the now champion Philadelphia Eagles. Even on Wednesday, nearly six months after the game, Belichick wouldn't talk about Butler's benching. Butler isn't interested in those questions, either. He doesn't want to be defined by Super Bowl LII or even Super Bowl XLIX. He believes he has more to offer the world, and the NFL, than those two moments.
He brushes off his white T-shirt, takes a sip of a 32-ounce orange Gatorade, that he jokes is "neckbone juice" after sitting for an hour in the sun, and says: "I want people to know Malcolm Butler."
A trip to the Mississippi Delta, where Butler was shaped by Popeyes chicken and walking a mile through backwoods shortcuts every morning to school, tells you exactly what he means.
Butler looks up and down for several seconds sizing up a large pear tree in the front yard of his low-income childhood home. The tree is one of the few things that has changed in Vicksburg. It was much smaller when he used to live here.
"I used to love to eat the pears," Butler said. "Wash them off real good and just chow down."
Butler's four years in Foxborough, Massachusetts, made him a star. His latest stop in Nashville made him rich. But Vicksburg is still where he feels most comfortable.
Vicksburg is a primarily African-American blue-collar town of 23,000, built on people who've made a routine of survival. There's more poverty than wealth and more failure than success. The median household income is $28,000. The stories here are of perseverance, loyalty and pride. And Butler, now a millionaire with a household name, is still the epitome of a Vicksburg man.
"Someone who ain't never been to Vicksburg, you would probably have to adjust -- your mindset gotta be ready to adjust for something much slower," Butler said. "You work for everything you want here."
Butler's mom, Deborah, taught him how to grind early. Pops wasn't around. As a single mother, Deborah worked two jobs at nursing homes with little pay to support Malcolm and his four siblings.
Sports kept Butler out of trouble. He was always a good cornerback, but he lit up Vicksburg High as its secret offensive weapon. About once a game, he'd get the rock and make a splash play. He had 13 carries for 344 yards and six touchdowns as a senior.
"How can this young man, as skinny as he is, be as fast as he is? Malcolm was running 4.3s and 4.4s back then, you know? Always a very confident kid," said Stevens, who was the head coach at Vicksburg High from 2001 to 2011. "I told him, 'Man, you too little to play football. Hey, I got some manager spots.' He said, 'I'm a football player.'"
Butler played during only his freshman and senior seasons because of grades, and it was poor academics that prevented him from getting college offers. Butler was content with becoming a barber, cutting hair at the local shop for a living.
It was one of many forks in the road that paved the way for NFL star Malcolm Butler.
Stevens, then-Vicksburg High assistant coach Tim Hughes and community alumni pulled strings to get Butler a full scholarship at Hinds Community College 40 miles up the road.
Now Butler returns to his old stomping grounds as a legend.
Kids run up to him in waves asking what kind of car he drives, what it's like with the Titans and why he played just one snap in his latest Super Bowl. Grown men stop him in the street asking for pictures as Butler heads into the barbershop. A middle-age woman jogs over to the car trying to shake his hand and asks him if he remembers her. (He doesn't.)
A reminiscent walk into the old Vicksburg locker room brings out the feels. He stops at a locker with "M. Butler" penned in black on the top shelf. He retraces his name with his finger, sits down in his old locker and shakes his head. For a while, it looked like he would be another statistic. Sometimes, Butler still doesn't believe the outcome is real.
A fork in the road
"Let me get a two-piece with a biscuit and extra honey."
A weekend trip to Vicksburg requires a mandatory stop at Popeyes. It's still one of Butler's favorite spots to eat.
Damn, they're out of honey.
"I had to eat it dry," Butler said. "I hate it eating it dry, but you gotta do what you gotta do."
Butler can eat these meals just as fast as he made them back in the day. Now, he takes pride in the fact he worked at Popeyes for four years. He did it all, running the fryer, manning the cash register, doing the dishes, changing the signs outside and sometimes all in the same day.
Returning to Popeyes is like a family reunion. It's rush hour, so he skips going into the back. He asks for Shennelle Parker, his former manager, but she's off on this Friday. Patrons take pictures of Butler.
Back in December 2009 when Butler started working at Popeyes, there wasn't much pride in it. He did it because it was his only legal choice to make it.
A common theme in Butler's life has been how he responds to different, often self-inflicted trials. The plan was to ball out at Hinds for two years, get his grades right and land a Division I scholarship. He lasted five games.
A Hinds campus police officer wrote Butler a $25 ticket for not having a visible student ID. Emotions and egos got involved, resulting in an explosive altercation that "got way out of hand," according to then-Hinds assistant coach Dwike Wilson. Butler was kicked off the football team, out of school and ultimately banned from the Hinds campus for three years.
Butler's football dream reached another fork in the road.
He enrolled at nearby Alcorn State taking classes during the week, then driving back to Vicksburg to work at Popeyes open-to-close on the weekends. Then he started working fulltime at Popeyes and taking night classes at Alcorn State. His minimum-wage salary had to cover tuition and help his mom with bills. He trained at Vicksburg High, running the same hills he did during his two-year high school playing hiatus.
Stevens and Wilson often visited Butler at the Popeyes window, each ordering a two-piece and a biscuit while checking on Butler and motivating him to stay on the right track as he waited for another chance. Butler was always upbeat.
"Coach, I'd do anything to come back," Butler pleaded to Wilson. The Hinds assistant got Parker to write a report on Butler's performance at work. Butler's grades were good and he matured quite a bit.
"I got a man in 18 months," Wilson said. "The world had toughened him up a little bit and he understood that life ain't fair. They ain't gotta do right by you; they just gotta respect you."
There were many kids like Butler who turned to crime or drugs when faced with this sort of situation. One day after returning from visiting Butler at Popeyes, Wilson broke down crying to then-Hinds head coach Gene Murphy. He was worried that Butler's circumstances could lead him down a similar path.
"He grew up right by my mom's house. He's going to only work at Popeyes so long," Wilson recalls telling Murphy through tears. "Six dollars an hour is only going to go so far. My mom has the biggest house on the road. He's going to break in her house one day."
"I tell him all the time, it's two sides of a mountain. There's a smooth side and a rough side. God just took him around the rough side." Alonzo Stevens, Malcolm Butler's high school coach
"We are about getting people out of the ditch," Murphy responded. "His family works their butt off. I'm gonna give him the opportunity."
Murphy went to the president and campus police to make a lengthy pitch to get him back on campus and the team. Butler apologized. They succeeded in bringing him back on a short leash.
Eighteen months later, Butler was back at Hinds and on the team. He got a hard time from the campus police, but he avoided trouble for a year and got enough credits to transfer to Division II West Alabama, where he played for two seasons.
"I tell him all the time, it's two sides of a mountain. There's a smooth side and a rough side. God just took him around the rough side," Stevens said. "But see, that makes him still humble.
"He never quit on himself, and that's what I'm so proud about."
It was man coverage and he knew the ball was coming his way. Butler still doesn't know why the Seahawks called a pass play on the goal line when they could have used Marshawn Lynch to carry the ball, but he's glad they did.
Butler recognized the bunch receiver formation, guessed slant and jumped the route. He beat Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette to the ball and secured the interception.
"I just said, 'Bleep it man.' I just cut loose," Butler said. "It was a great play, man. It changed my whole life overnight."
That Super Bowl XLIX-clinching interception was just as improbable as the guy who made it. Butler started the season as the Patriots' sixth cornerback on a stacked depth chart that included Darrelle Revis, Logan Ryan, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard.
Patriots cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer decided he wanted Butler in for that goal-line play instead of Arrington, the team's starting slot corner. That decision changed everything.
"There was every reason for the moment to be too big for an undrafted tryout rookie, but the moment wasn't too big for him," said Ryan, Butler's teammate with the Patriots from 2014 to 2016 and now with the Titans. "He had to earn that trust. He kept his head down and worked. When he looked up, he made the biggest play in Super Bowl history."
Butler became an instant star. He got Tom Brady his fourth ring, and Brady gave him the Chevy Colorado truck he won for being Super Bowl MVP. Butler presented an award at the Grammys. He met Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z. He appeared on several talk shows and national TV hits.
Vicksburg threw him the largest parade in city history, and about 10,000 people -- nearly half the town's population -- attended.
"What's funny about it, we was in hard recruiting at Hinds at that time, you know, we was in houses. Super Bowl Sunday, I'm talking to recruits and all that. And I was like, 'Yeah, my boy, 21. You need to check him out,'" Wilson said. "When he picked that ball, I got six commitments. I was close on about six of 'em. I got 'em -- all six of 'em. I say, boy, he made our year that year."
On the back wall of Butler's old high school weight room resides a framed Vicksburg Post newspaper with the headline: "Super hero."
Butler put a lot of people on the map with that play -- from Vicksburg to Hinds to Derek Simpson, a small-time agent out of Alabama. Butler was Simpson's only client who had signed an NFL contract.
Earning his spot the hard way
Titans general manager Jon Robinson, then with the Patriots, remembers Butler caught his attention at the 2014 Medal of Honor Bowl, a lower-level college all-star game for draft-eligible prospects. Butler, one of the few from a Division II school, kept flashing talent and breaking up passes.
Simpson and trainer Johnny Jackson got Butler prepped for the draft and a spot at Alabama's pro day. They figured a good workout could put him on the late-round draft radar or at least secure a contract as a priority undrafted free agent.
Butler ran a 4.62 40-yard dash and measured as a 5-foot-10, 187-pound cornerback. That screamed not-NFL material.
"I told him I could run 4.6 in my church shoes," Simpson said.
Two days later, Butler hoped for redemption at North Alabama's pro day. When he got in line to run, scouts told him they didn't want to see him work out.
"That was kind of crushing. He had to regroup," Jackson said. "He didn't know if he wanted to do this anymore."
No one called before or after the 2014 draft. Butler prepared to look into CFL options. Former Patriots scout Frantzy Jourdain and Boyer kept an eye on Butler even after the poor performances. Boyer called Simpson saying Belichick would let him sign one guy to be the 90th man on the roster, but there will be a tryout with two to three dozen other players and Butler has to run faster than a 4.6.
Butler ran a 4.4, Simpson said. The Patriots signed him. He forced the Patriots to make a roster spot for him.
"I just remember this guy Malcolm making plays every day. He didn't talk. He wore the same cleats every day," Ryan said. "He made the most interceptions and plays against Brady and all the quarterbacks that year."
The rest is history.
"When you want an American story, this is an American story. This is rags to riches. This is self-preservation," Stevens said. "This is not a silver spoon in your mouth. This is hard work. This is determination. This is all the things that the fiber of America is about. It can be achieved."
It's the end of a four-hour workout session on a humid 90-degree day, but the kids want to end with one-on-ones. Butler, drenched in sweat, obliges.
He lines up at receiver across from a kid the group calls, "New Vicksburg." Butler runs a curl and gets separation. The ball hits him in stride right in the hands, but the kid recovers to get a hand in there and Butler drops it.
The kids go wild, mobbing New Vicksburg. Butler flashes a wide smile. He was tired, but he admits he wasn't taking it easy on him.
That's what makes returning home to host a free football camp for the fourth consecutive year so special. Butler sees himself in these kids running hills, chasing a dream the world assures them they won't realize.
"If you work real hard at whatever you want, it will come to you. I promise you. I promise you," Butler proclaims to a group of attentive kids. "I used to work at Popeyes. Now I can buy one."
Butler's flaws make him real for many of these Vicksburg kids. Everyone's life is filled with ups and downs, good and bad, even a Super Bowl champion.
"I've coached Steve McNair, Donald Driver and Malcolm Butler. They got the same demeanor, drive, humility and personality," said Stevens, who coached McNair and Driver during his time as an assistant coach at Alcorn State from 1990 to 1998. "Give them a pair of shorts, flip flops, and a fishing rod and they'll be good. They never got too good for anyone. Always 'Yes sir, yes ma'am.' He reminds me so much of Mac."
Ryan added: "I gained so much respect for him because he didn't change as a person. He's still the same guy as he was when he was a nobody trying to make the roster."
Right after his youth camp, Butler went to see one of his former coworkers at Popeyes who was paralyzed after a stroke. The reunion was raw and emotional. Butler never mentioned it. He didn't want cameras there. He didn't want any credit. He just felt it was right to be there for the young man. That's also who Malcolm Butler is.
A 'football decision'
The Titans did their homework, but never directly asked Butler about Super Bowl LII before signing him.
An ascending organization headed by Robinson, a former Patriots scout, and coach Mike Vrabel didn't hesitate to make the big five-year, $61.25 million investment in Butler.
"You have to make enough contacts to figure out what makes a guy tick. We did our work there," Robinson said. "You get a comfort level with a decision that you're going to make and either back up or move forward. We moved forward."
"Tennessee trying to win. We're trying to win," said Butler, who chose the Titans over the Chicago Bears. After what happened in Super Bowl LII, Butler said there was no chance he would re-sign with the Patriots.
The stated facts of the curious Butler benching are this: Butler was sick with flu-like symptoms. Team doctors thought Butler could put other players at risk, so they cautiously had him stay behind one day when the team left for Minneapolis on Monday. Butler missed Super Bowl media night but arrived in time to attend the week's practices. Butler, who played 98 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps during the 2017 season, admittedly fell behind a bit on the game plan and had a rough week in practice. He was rotating in practice with Eric Rowe, who started in place of him.
"This the biggest game of the year, so you gotta shoot your best gun or your best shot," Butler said. "Preparation is the best way to win. And maybe they didn't see 100 percent, mentally or physically, Malcolm Butler that they usually see."
"You have to make enough contacts to figure out what makes a guy tick. We did our work there." Titans GM Jon Robinson on signing Malcolm Butler
Butler denies all speculation that off-the-field issues such as missing curfew or attending a Rick Ross concert occurred during Super Bowl week. Butler planned to stay quiet, but the rumors started to get to him.
"It was real tough," Butler said. "Most the time I'm not gonna say anything, I'm just gonna chill, play football. I usually just swallow my L or take whatever the treatment dealt, whatever the situation. But it was getting out of hand. I had to say something."
Butler released an emotional statement on social media addressing the situation two days after Super Bowl LII. Belichick called it strictly a "football decision."
Much of the sports world is convinced there's more to the story. The assumption is there's a smoking gun being kept secret. Butler has stopped trying to figure it all out and concludes it was another example of Belichick making a strong decision. This one just didn't pay off.
"Everybody was surprised that happened in the Super Bowl. But I'm not surprised that happened over there. Sometimes it's like that over there for whatever reason it may be," said Ryan, who considers Butler one of his closest friends. "What they do works in their own way. It didn't work that day. Stuff has been done like that in the past and it's worked. Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time. But I'm not surprised with that. Everybody is replaceable in the NFL. That's one thing you'll definitely learn over there. It's a lesson for everybody.
"He didn't need to defend himself. He didn't get the chance to defend himself or say his side, which is fine. I know it was a tough year for him. We talked on the phone and via text. I was very aware of the situation. I felt terrible for him. I know he's hungry. I know last year it wore on him with the contract and added pressure, but I think he's back to his free self and excited to prove people wrong."
The Patriots play the Titans on Nov. 11 in Nashville. They don't want to look too far ahead, but Butler, Ryan and another former Patriot now with the Titans -- running back Dion Lewis -- have already circled that date on the schedule.
Belichick called Butler to say congratulations and thank Butler for his contributions after he signed with Tennessee. Butler appreciated it. Belichick also praised the organization he picked.
"No bad blood between me and Bill Belichick," Butler said. "One of the greatest coaches ever and I care about him, I know he care about me. And this a hurtful game sometimes and it can look different than what it is. But that's my guy. … I got a lot of respect for him."
'New team, new city, same hungry guy'
Vicksburg's Headquarters Barber and Beauty Shop has to change its color scheme again.
This has been Butler's barbershop since he was a kid. "It feels like home," Butler says. The floors are checkered with Patriots blue. The window linings and barber capes are all Patriots blue, too.
"You a Steelers fan, ain't you," Butler asks Geno Williams, the shop owner.
"Man, I'm your fan," Williams responds. "Titan Up. I was a New England fan, now I'm a Tennessee fan. I'm going to change the colors to Titan blue soon."
Butler already likes Nashville. It's a slower pace, more like Vicksburg than Boston. Contract pressure, which negatively affected his play last season, is gone. He plans to play free again.
Vrabel's brutal honesty and hands-on approach intrigues Butler. He's having more fun with the Titans' secondary than he has in a long time. Many of his teammates have similar underdog stories.
"If I had first pick from anybody to ever play with, it would be Malcolm," Ryan said. "He fears nobody. We pick each other up. He competes. He finishes everything. He's a smaller guy, but he's got a huge heart and plays with a chip on his shoulder. I got a lot of respect for him."
That jibes with what sold Robinson on Butler. Robinson loves his film, story and workmanlike approach to the game. Everyone he talked to kept mentioning two things about Butler: he's highly competitive and he cares about his teammates.
One day after signing his big Titans contract, Butler was at the facility weight room working out at 7 a.m. and on the field running at 8 a.m.
"I feel secure with my contract. And I can put everything behind me. I can go out there and just focus on football," said Butler, who has eight interceptions and 44 passes defensed over the past three seasons. "Not only clean plate, new team, new city, same hungry guy. So it's time to run it up again."
Butler's story is more than just his two Super Bowl moments, and he's eager to write the next chapter in Tennessee. He plans to play like the Malcolm Butler who worked the fryer at Popeyes waiting for just one small chance to make an NFL team.
"Oh, yes, yes. I got a lot to prove and actions speak louder than words. But you'll see me this year," Butler said. "I got some pressure built up, so I'll be ready."