Before Malcolm Butler's heroics, he looked to be victim of another great Super Bowl catch against the Patriots

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·NFL columnist
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GLENDALE, Ariz. – In the final minutes before stepping into the game of his life, Malcolm Butler's eyes were fixed on New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Every word mattered, every syllable.

Super Bowl XLIX was ready to begin, and Butler heard Belichick speaking to him. Granted, the words were reaching out to an entire room, but the message felt singular, like a collective lesson meant for private ears.

"When you're out there today and you find yourself thinking about the future, go back to the present," Belichick said. "Play the next play." 

It's fortune cookie coaching, a vague reminder to keep your wits. But sometimes this is the stuff that ping-pongs inside the head of a player and changes a game. And sometimes it changes the biggest game.

This is how Butler went from devastation to elation in three Super Bowl plays. A 40-second, career-making span that will be relived forever – or at least as long as the Patriots' 28-24 victory against the Seattle Seahawks is considered a standard for great championships. This is how emotions swung deep and hard.

It begins with the caroming, cruel 33-yard reception during Seattle's final drive. A ball that Butler deflected, but watched in disbelief as it pinballed into the lap of Seattle wideout Jermaine Kearse. It felt David Tyree-ish. Or if you prefer more recent wounds, Mario Manningham-esque.

In that moment, the world at large became aware of Butler. He was the guy who almost made the epic play. The new Rodney Harrison, the next tortured soul to wander the Earth listening to a soundtrack of question marks: "How could it? Why did it? Who was it?"

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In that moment, with 1:06 left to play and the Seahawks basking in a gift at the Patriots' 5-yard line, an emotional roundhouse met the jaw of an entire franchise. Judging by the deathly howls of the New England crowd, it might have rocked an entire region of America.

"Surreal," tight end Rob Gronkowski said.

"The football gods just threw it straight up," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said.

"Oh no," cornerback Darrelle Revis thought. "Not now. Not in this moment."


And Butler?

"Devastating," he said.

Then he went to the sideline, thinking "This is going to be my fault. I don't want this to be my fault."

This is where that little Belichick fortune cookie came back into play. Butler came off the field after Kearse's catch, and he felt sick. His teammates moved in with an onslaught of reassurance. It wasn't his fault, they said. He made a good play, they said. It was just a terrible bounce, they continued.

Then there was that Belichick voice.

"When you find yourself thinking about the future …"

A few seconds passed, and Butler was back on the field. The Seahawks had moved to the 1-yard line with 26 seconds left, and Revis was screaming to the secondary, "Watch the pick routes!"

Butler remembered being coached for this scenario. He remembered the tattle-tale film sessions, which showed that Seattle liked to stack two wide receivers in the red zone, and run a play where the inside receiver blocks his man hard, pushing him back. Meanwhile, the Seahawks would loop the outside receiver back inside, forcing the cornerback covering him to flow into the path of where the first wideout had engaged his defender.

In film parlance, it can be known as a cross, pick or a rub, where one wide receiver is basically pushing his man into the path of another cornerback, allowing his fellow wideout enough separation to make a play. Butler saw this coming. And when quarterback Russell Wilson cocked his arm back, aiming at Ricardo Lockette, Butler had already broken hard on the route.

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Teammates would say later that this kind of thing makes a player great. And it really excites you when it's a rookie. When a guy can go from the most crushing play of his life, then have the guts to attack a route with total abandon only a play or two later … this is special.

As safety Devin McCourty said of Butler, this kind of ability shows "the guy doesn't know moments."

What that means is, Butler can function at a high level without feeling the weight of what is happening. It means he just does his job. As Belichick would say, he lives in the present.

That's how Butler broke hard on Lockette, arriving at the same instant as the football, snatching history in his arms and sending the New England sideline into fits of euphoria. His teammates knew instantly that the Super Bowl was over, and Butler had gone from the pits of despair to mythic heights.

In the mob after the interception, Butler dropped the football, and teammate Patrick Chung went about making sure it didn't get lost in the shuffle. This was history, after all.

"He better keep that," Chung would later say. "Frame it. … He's the reason why this happened. [I told him] 'I love you Malcolm.'"

Right now, that's a universally embraced emotion. And it will raise Butler out of relative obscurity.

We'll hear how the Patriots immediately knew they had something special in spring workouts, when Butler arrived after signing as an undrafted rookie free agent from Division II West Alabama. We'll hear about his rocky road before West Alabama, when his grades allowed him to play only two seasons of high school football (as a freshman and senior). We'll hear how he went to Hinds Community College (Miss.) and got kicked out after only five games, leading him to work at a Popeye's Chicken to get by. Then we'll hear how he got discovered by West Alabama and then even more improbably, the New England Patriots.

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And that will all be OK. Because the Super Bowl is over and the time to stay in the moment is about to grow larger. There will be space to look forward and back. And of course, to relive Sunday night over and over, including one small moment just before the Super Bowl began, when Ninkovich looked at Butler and asked a question.

"Malcolm," Ninkovich said, "where were you one year ago today?"

Butler didn't answer. He only smiled. Maybe he couldn't remember. Or maybe he knew it was someplace much smaller and much quieter. Whatever the reason, he won't have to worry about that question one year from now.

Everyone will know where Butler was. He was in the moment. And it was the biggest of his life.