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Malcolm Butler went from Super Bowl hero to cornerstone of the Patriots defense

The Patriots corner bounced out of obscurity to become the hero of Super Bowl 49. Now, he’s back in the big game a changed person and a better player.

AFC Championship - Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

HOUSTON — He bounced around at three tiny colleges and a job at Popeyes before being ignored in the 2014 NFL draft. He became a New England Patriots free agent and initially fifth-string on the depth chart. Total obscurity for Malcolm Butler was the backdrop for his stunning interception in Super Bowl 49 that crushed the Seattle Seahawks.

He is 26 now and just finished his third NFL season. He is back in the Super Bowl. Now, everybody knows his name.

There is nowhere Malcolm Butler can hide in Super Bowl 51. It is clear that he still loves football, still loves to scrap -– his peers call him a "savage’’ cornerback. But he never settled into the instant glare, the traipse to the Today Show and the Tonight Show and the Grammy Awards and the parade in his hometown of Vicksburg, Miss., and all of the hoopla that followed his last Super Bowl. The focus that he is now getting is hot in expectation that he will travel all Sunday night with the Atlanta Falcons mighty receiver Julio Jones in this Super Bowl.

Malcolm Butler has tried to find ways to manage it all, to navigate it.

He said it has come at a price.

"Things changed and I changed with them,’’ Butler told me in a quiet moment in a loud space here on Monday at Super Bowl media night. "I had to change some things. I couldn’t be as wide open as before. I had to learn to say no. I had to learn how to pull back. I had to learn how to be more cautious ...’’

This conversation was getting intensely real for Malcolm Butler.

His eyes were gripping.

He walked away.

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels understands.

"How can it not change him?’’ McDaniels asked. "When it comes that fast and that hard? You have to trust the people around you. I know, for sure, it hasn’t affected how hard he works. No one works harder.’’

His teammate, safety Devin McCourty, agreed.

"Malcolm has had to navigate a lot,’’ McCourty said. "He’s had to deal with a lot. You make a play like that in the biggest game with the world watching and it’s never the same for you. And you always have this challenge with it: Are you just going to be known for that one play? Is that all? It makes you aspire to more, want to prove even more.’’

Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said the play has been examined and exalted enough, so he focuses on other aspects of Butler’s game. He does that for Butler’s psyche. He does it for Butler’s growth.

Patricia explained: "We’ve challenged him to develop not only at his position but to learn more about the game, about other positions, and how it all works together. That’s the type of growth we are looking for. He’s showing that. He is very aggressive. Very physical. He tackles. He will stick his face in there. Those are the things we want him thinking about. Those are the things about him I can understand.’’

Several Falcons, though, said they see plenty more.

Falcons safety Keanu Neal described Butler as "a great player, very dedicated, full of grit.’’ Receiver Aldrick Robinson called Butler "confident, a cornerstone for their defense.’’ Cornerback Desmond Trufant said Butler was "a complete corner, a guy who shines in bright lights.’’

Butler has an intense quickness and special short quickness that pushed him into the NFL and keeps him top tier, Falcons assistant head coach/receivers coach Raheem Morris said. Morris admires Butler’s "in-and-out breaks.’’ He said on a competitive scale of 1 to 10, Butler is "a 10 corner.’’

Across the league, Butler’s peers regard him as a "players’ player.’’

Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan added: "Malcolm has a lot going for him. He’s just a guy of great desire. He came here for a tryout and never looked back. He has that tryout mentality at all times. He competes every day. Just being on the field with him and around his energy is a humbling thing.’’

Super Bowl XLIX Stars Julian Edelman and Malcolm Butler Visit Disneyland Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland via Getty Images

Butler said he still has the Super Bowl 49 MVP truck that Tom Brady gave him. Butler said he keeps it maintained. That he will always own it — "It was a gift, but to me, it’s more like a trophy,’’ Butler said.

He is succinct about Julio Jones: "A great player. You gotta be ready to go.’’

He was asked could he imagine in this Super Bowl encore greatness? One more late, dramatic, game-deciding play?

"Well, I do think it would be very improbable to do something like that again,” he began. “But if I could, I would. I’m just looking for our defense to take the ball away and for our team to score more points than they do. That’s how I see the game. Simple. I’m not going to allow myself to be gassed up too much. The Patriots don’t allow that.

"I don’t just look at film now. I actually look at it and know what I’m looking at. I don’t overlook any of their receivers. We have to be ready for all of them. What can happen to you in this game is real. It can happen to anybody.’’

His last Super Bowl gave him a lot. But it took something from him, too.

It is a dance Malcolm Butler knows this time.