One of the key matchups of Sunday’s Super Bowl involves one of the few Mississippians in the game. He would be Malcolm Butler, the New England Patriots cornerback from Vicksburg and Hinds Community College by way of the University of West Alabama.
Butler’s task Sunday will be to cover Atlanta Falcons Superman-ish wide receiver Julio Jones, often in straight man-to-man coverage. Any number of NFL experts would tell you that is virtually an impossible task.
Regardless, this is a classic matchup, in many ways David vs. Goliath, with no slingshot involved. Consider:
• Jones, at 6 feet, 3 inches and 220 pounds, is four inches and 25 pounds larger than Butler.
• Jones was a five-star recruit, who chose Alabama over everybody else, and I mean everybody else. Butler rated no stars and chose Hinds and then West Alabama in Livingston, over almost nobody else.
• Jones was the sixth pick of the first round of the NFL Draft. Butler was not drafted.
• Jones makes about $14 million a season. Butler is playing this year for about $600,000.
On paper, it looks a mismatch. But do not, for a millisecond, underestimate Malcolm Butler. People have done it his entire career. He keeps proving them wrong.
• • •
Let’s go back to the Super Bowl two years ago. Remember?
Twenty-six seconds remained. The Seattle Seahawks had second and goal at the New England one-yard-line trailing 28-24. Seattle needed three feet, 36 inches, for victory.
There were 22 players on the field, nearly all with big school pedigree. Would Russell Wilson, the great star from Wisconsin, give it to Marshawn Lynch, the irrepressible one from Cal, or throw to Doug Baldwin of Stanford? Would they run behind James Carpenter of Alabama or Justin Britt of Missouri? Who would make the big defensive play: Vince Woolfork, the monster out of Miami, or Dont’a Hightower of Bama?
So many questions, so many stars, just one answer.
Only heaven or Pete Carroll knows why the Seahawks didn’t give the ball to Lynch, but they did not.
No, they ran out of the shotgun. They didn’t even fake it to Lynch. The Seahawks ran a straight pass. Ricardo Lockette split out wide to the right behind Jermaine Kerse. The call was for Kerse to clear a path for Lockette to run a simple slant pattern. Butler, then a rookie, never let it happen. He broke in front of Lockette before Russell even released the ball. And then, somehow, he caught the ball during the resulting collision.
Malcolm Butler, from Hinds CC and West Alabama: Super Bowl hero.
You remember the rest of the story. Tom Brady won the MVP, but gave the loaded, pick-up truck that came with it to Butler, who still drives it. And Brady told everybody who would listen that Butler’s play wasn’t a fluke, that Butler was going to be an NFL star. And now he is.
• • •
But Butler’s story is even better than that. He was kicked out of Hinds at one point for a campus altercation. He returned home to Vicksburg, but he didn’t give up. He knew he would have to pay his way back to Hinds so we went to work at a Popeyes restaurant where he often worked the to-go window.
His was that voice that welcomes you to Popeyes and asks, “Will you have that spicy or mild?”
He made it back to Hinds, then played well enough at West Alabama to earn a tryout with the Patriots, who loved his instincts, his work ethic and his sheer grit – grit he will surely use to get physical with Jones and try to knock him off his stride. Don’t be surprised if he grabs Jones a few times, too. I am reminded of the great Marino Casem’s advice to Ike Holt in that famous Valley-Alcorn game of 1984. Casem gave Holt the task of covering Jerry Rice man-to-man and told him that if all else failed “just grab him. They can’t call holding on every play.”
Holt did. And the refs didn’t. Alcorn won.
Butler has made no secret of his desire to “check” Julio Jones one-on-one Sunday. He has the attitude all cornerbacks should have, that is: “Let me have him.”
Really, you won’t find a more classic, compelling match.
Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at email@example.com.
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