After he stood crying during the Super Bowl national anthem, after the game was lost, Malcolm Butler was in the New England Patriots’ locker room, in line with peers for a final team checkout.
Bill Belichick approached him.
“You’re a fighter and good luck in the future,” Belichick said, according to Butler.
“Thank you,” Butler said he replied.
They have not spoken since.
What’s left to say?
Each year, during free agency, one team’s trash becomes another’s treasure. Butler’s mint $61 million Tennessee Titans contract qualifies him as Titans’ treasure.
The guy who won Super Bowl 49 in 2015 for the Patriots with one of the most instinctive, heroic, historical NFL interceptions and miracle plays could not get a sniff, not a single defensive snap in Super Bowl 52 six weeks ago. Not one snap during the champion Philadelphia Eagles’ 41-point, 538-yard offensive barrage.
Butler remains cloudy about it all.
“I spent four years in New England, a great run, two Super Bowl championships for the team,” he said last night via telephone from Houston. “I became a Pro Bowl player. The last year was the toughest to deal with. A lot of things were going on. A lot of stuff going on. I was almost traded. Having to prove myself when I felt like I had already proved myself. I just rode the wave as long as I could. I was just going to see what was next.
“I dealt with it. It was tough. I always say to myself if you can … It’s like a broken leg or a scab on your knee. There is pain and sometimes it doesn’t last long. It can heal. But it’s still there. Maybe it always will be. I was never one to miss practice. But on the Sunday before we left for the Super Bowl, I got up yelling after making a good play in practice. Just celebrating. And later I felt real nauseous. Stomach ache. Nose running. Throwing up. Just not feeling well. I went to the hospital to get checked out. The doctors said I had flu-like symptoms and to wait an extra day to travel to the Super Bowl. I think the coaches felt like I got behind on the game plan. You never know what they are thinking. So, I didn’t play. A coach’s decision.”
A stupid decision.
One where Belichick completely forgot Butler’s history, his humble roots, his fire, his ability to make a difference. His knack for winning games. The Patriots were never able to lock up Butler on a long term-deal, gave one to newcomer cornerback Stephon Gilmore (in 2017) and, in the end, just let Butler dangle, wilt on the sideline in the Super Bowl.
Even as Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles torched the Patriots’ pass defense for 28 completions, 373 yards, and three touchdowns.
Not to mention another 164 rushing yards by the Eagles when Butler, a sure, physical tackler, might have helped negate some of that.
A coach’s decision.
It sure looks personal and petty now. And even if it wasn’t that, it was a total misread and poor decision by Belichick to not play Butler at all. It sure hurt the Patriots’ chances for another championship.
“The fans in New England loved me,” Butler said. “They loved me even when they weren’t supposed to. When I had a bad game, they would tell me they would love me forever. We did great things together. I have nothing bad to say about Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.”
Butler grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi working at Popeyes to help support his family. He searched for the right college before finally landing at tiny West Alabama and was not drafted in 2014. He has as modest, as persevering roots as can be found in the NFL.
He has never been to Nashville.
He arrives there Friday morning expecting an embrace. And ready to give one.
“Most definitely,” Butler, 28, said. “I’m from Mississippi, right below it. I love the South. I am a country guy.”
He said Titans general manager Jon Robinson and new head coach Mike Vrabel made it clear they valued him, not just in the contract and not just as a player, but for more.
Given where Butler has been, that resonated.
“They really pursued me like they wanted me,” Butler said. “(Former Patriots cornerback) Logan Ryan is there and he told me some good things about it. I felt they really wanted me there. It’s a business, but that matters.”
A fresh start.
It’s not the first one for Butler. But this one is right on time.
“They just got to the playoffs for the first time in a long time,” Butler said. “It’s a young team. It feels like a good fit for me. First of all, I just want to be a good team player. Be happy there. Win championships. Be productive.”
Malcolm Butler is feeling like a fighter once again.