Nobody was surprised to see Tom Brady or Marshawn Lynch make big plays during the Super Bowl Sunday night. They're stars and they've been stars for years and they played like stars.
But to pretty much everybody's surprise, two players nobody expected to contribute ended up making some of the most crucial plays of the night. Undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler made the interception that sealed the Patriots' victory, breaking perfectly on a Russell Wilson pass to stop a Seahawks' drive that had come within a yard of the end zone. And Chris Matthews, who had zero catches in his NFL career, led the Seahawks with four receptions for 109 yards, including a touchdown.
It isn't just surprising these two players made big plays last night: It's surprising they're in the NFL at all. Unlike players who were highly touted stars in college and were obvious NFL draft picks, Butler and Matthews took winding roads to the NFL that included stints as low-level employees in a chain store, incredible stories of perseverance.
Malcolm Butler worked at a Popeyes after getting kicked out of community college
After playing just two seasons of high school football, Butler started his college career at Hinds Community College in Jackson, Mississippi. During his freshman season, in 2009, he was kicked out of school and took a job as a part-time employee at Popeyes.
Butler worked his way back onto the team at Hinds, then went to Division II West Alabama. But it's hard to get to the NFL out of West Alabama. Butler only got one call from an NFL team out of college, from the Pats' cornerbacks coach, who was allowed to bring one player to a mini-camp to compete for spots on the team's 90-man preseason roster.
Butler, who coaches nicknamed "Scrap" during camp, made the preseason roster and survived cuts as the team trimmed its roster to 53 players. He got zero snaps against the Ravens and only 15 against the Colts in the AFC Championship game.
But he was on the field for the biggest play of the game, and he recognized a play he'd been beaten on repeatedly in practice.
"Preparation, I remembered the formation they was in," Butler said. "Two receivers stacked, and I just knew they was throwing a pick route."
SB Nation presents: Undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler picks off Russell Wilson
Chris Matthews almost turned down the Seahawks to finish a shift at Foot Locker
Matthews spent a year out of the game, latched on with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for two years, and spent his offseason working two jobs: one at Foot Locker, the other as a security guard. One day, around this time last year, his phone rings. It's a Seahawks official, and they want Matthews to come to a tryout. Tonight. Matthews looks at watch, pauses, and says, "I don't get off of work until 9 p.m. I don't know if I'll make it."
A few minutes later, Matthews' agent calls. "What are you thinking! Get yourself home, pack up and go. Are you out of your mind?!"
Matthews started his football career at Los Angeles Harbor College, a junior college, transferring to Kentucky his junior season. He wasn't the star -- he was second fiddle behind All-American Randall Cobb.
He was cut by the Browns out of training camp and couldn't get a job in the 2011 season, but caught on with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League in 2012 and played two seasons with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2012.
But he didn't make the Seahawks' roster out of training camp -- he was on the practice squad until December -- and he played primarily on special teams when he made it. He made the onside kick recovery that saved the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game, but still hadn't recorded a catch before the Super Bowl. There, he made, four, and all his past employers wanted to share in his glory.
Foot Locker would like to announce February's Employee of the Month: @TheRealCMaTT13— Foot Locker (@footlocker) February 2, 2015
Proud of former Barnstormers WR Chris Matthews! The second Iowa Barnstormer to play in the #SuperBowl and having a great game tonight!— Iowa Barnstormers (@iabarnstormers) February 2, 2015
Not everybody working in a Popeyes or Foot Locker can make the NFL. Butler and Matthews are clearly very talented players with incredible physical gifts.
But we can all learn from how they continued to believe in themselves even when they'd been passed over time after time. Both would've been justified in assuming their NFL dreams were over when they clocked in for shifts at non-football gigs. But both continued fighting and both continued trying, and both showed how much they have to offer on the biggest stage in sports.
SB Nation presents: Final thoughts on the unbelievable finish to Super Bowl XLIX