Published 8:00 am Saturday, July 23, 2022
By Ernest Bowker
Eight months ago, Malcolm Butler wasn’t sure if he’d ever play football again. If he did, the idea that he would return to the New England Patriots — the team he had a controversial split from five years ago — seemed laughable.
Fast forward to July, and Malcolm Butler is days away from heading to training camp with the New England Patriots.
The NFL is a weird and strange place and, as Butler has proved time and again during his eight-year career, anything is possible.
“Yes it has,” the Vicksburg native said with a smile, when asked if it’s been a crazy year.
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The latest twist in Butler’s wild NFL life story began in late August 2021, when he announced his retirement a week before he was set to begin the season with the Arizona Cardinals.
Reports at the time called it a personal situation. Last week, after his annual youth football camp in Vicksburg, Butler did not go into great detail but said it was a case of mental burnout.
“I just had to get it right mentally and physically, and take a break,” Butler said. “I really call it self-awareness, which I needed, because I feel rejuvenated. I feel fresh. I feel more hungry. I feel like the 2014 Malcolm Butler. Self-awareness is the best awareness.”
The Cardinals placed Butler on the reserve/retired list while he sat out the entire 2021 season. They released him in February, and not long afterward several national media outlets reported that he was working out in preparation for a comeback.
His agent Derek Simpson lined up some offers, and Butler was home in Vicksburg when he got a phone call that seemed unfathomable until it happened.
“It was crazy. I was sitting in Vicksburg and my agent called and told me that Bill Belichick wanted to talk to me, so I knew what it was about,” Butler said, referring to the Patriots’ longtime head coach. “I had the urge to come back and play ball anyway. I didn’t know where I was going to go. There’s no place like home and I ended up back there.”
Butler began his NFL career as an undrafted free agent cornerback with the Patriots in 2014. He finished his rookie season as an NFL legend, when his goal line interception in the final minute of Super Bowl XLIX clinched New England’s 28-24 victory against Seattle and the franchise’s fourth championship.
Butler spent three more seasons with the Patriots, becoming a starter and Pro Bowler in 2015 and winning another Super Bowl with the team in 2016. He helped them reach a third Super Bowl in the 2017 season, and then things fell apart literally overnight.
After playing nearly every defensive snap all season long, he was benched for Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles. New England’s defense was torched for 373 passing yards in a 41-33 loss while Butler played only one special teams snap.
Belichick made the infamous decision just before kickoff and has never fully explained it. Butler has said in multiple interviews since then that he had no idea of the reasons behind it. Butler left the Patriots to sign a lucrative free agent contract with the Tennessee Titans a month later, and his Super Bowl benching became one of the NFL’s great unsolved mysteries.
It was an awkward and emotional break up, but five years later Butler said both he and Belichick have put it behind them and it has not come up in their recent conversations.
“I never said anything, he never said anything. Just move on,” Butler said.
Rather than dwelling on the past, Butler added, he’s focusing on a fresh start in the place where his career began. He said the year off recharged his batteries and was a needed mental break, even at an age — he turned 32 in March — where many NFL players are entering the later years of their career.
Butler signed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Patriots.
“Really resetting and getting things in order. Once I did that, I had the urge to come back. But I had to be in mental shape,” he said. “Rejuvenated, fresh, took a break from it so I’m a little bit fresher. Everybody needs a break from things sometimes — husband, wife, sister, brother, your truck, your car, your job.”
Now that he’s back in New England, Butler is starting over in more ways than one. The Patriots have changed a bit since he left. Belichick is still there, but quarterback and NFL icon Tom Brady left two years ago. A number of other veterans have departed as well.
After switching teams twice in the past five years, Butler said it’s not so much adjusting to the new faces as it is the younger ones that’s jarring.
“It’s still the same. You’re going to come to work and work hard. It’s business,” Butler said. “A lot of different faces. A lot of younger cats. My lockermate just turned 20. It’s a little bit different, but it’s the same.”
He’s also got a new jersey number, having traded in the No. 21 he wore his entire career for No. 4. It was a decision that was both symbolic and practical. He chose No. 4 as a reminder of all the people he’s “doing it for,” he said.
He also picked it to save some money. Veteran safety Adrian Phillips took the No. 21 jersey when he signed with the Patriots in 2020. Players often buy jersey numbers from other players when they come to a new team, but Butler joked that Phillips’ price was too high.
“Somebody else has it and he’s a good player. I want to start fresh with a new beginning. And that number costs. I didn’t feel like paying that kind of money. I couldn’t do it,” Butler laughed.
The symbolism of returning to New England, where he rose from obscurity the first time, also was not lost on Butler. Eight years ago, when he was an undrafted free agent out of Division II West Alabama, he broke into the NFL with a remarkable performance throughout training camp.
Since then, Butler has seen how fickle and fleeting NFL opportunities can be. In addition to his earlier departure from the Patriots and last year’s retirement, he was cut by the Titans for salary cap reasons in 2020 following one of his best seasons as a pro.
When the Patriots’ training camp begins Tuesday in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Butler isn’t taking anything for granted. He plans to approach the preseason like he did when he was an unknown rookie in 2014, not a hardened and respected veteran whose roster spot is probably secure.
“I feel like it’s starting over,” he said. “New rep, new number, got to prove myself again. Sometimes when guys retire they don’t come back the same. I’ve been working hard, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best — and working for the best.”
Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post’s sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post’s sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper’s 139-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.
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Published 8:00 am Saturday, July 23, 2022