When the clock struck zero at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Sunday night, 24 year-old Malcolm Butler stood in disbelief at the center of the field, slowly shaking his head as he fielded questions from NBC’s Michele Tafoya.
The former standout at Division II West Alabama University had emerged as the unlikely hero of Super Bowl XLIX. An interception, the first of Butler’s NFL career no less, had flipped the script, prolonging the New England Patriots’ postseason dominance in the 21st century, while simultaneously stifling the Seattle Seahawks repeat bid for a championship.
“I’m just blessed,” Butler said. “I can’t explain it right now. It’s crazy.”
It is crazy. But isn’t it always crazy? In the biggest games, on the biggest stages, the unlikely hero always seems to crop up.
Just like this past Sunday, in the last three Super Bowls, viewers have watched a relative unknown steal the spotlight from the players discussed on media outlets ad nauseam in the weeks leading up to the big game. We glorify names like Brady, Manning, and Rodgers, but always end up talking about the undrafted free agent who was a busboy three months earlier, or the washed-up veteran who somehow managed to turn back the clock.
In Super Bowl XLVII it was Jacoby Jones, the Baltimore Ravens’ kick-returner extraordinaire who tied the Super Bowl record for most combined yards and broke the record for longest kickoff return for a touchdown. Despite finishing third on Dancing With the Stars a year later, these remain Jones’ biggest accomplishments to date.
In Super Bowl XLVIII, our unexpected hero was Malcolm Smith, the Seattle Seahawks linebacker who managed to recover a fumble, return an interception for a touchdown, and register nine tackles, despite entering the game known by most as, “Steve Smith’s brother.” He exited that game known by most as the Super Bowl MVP.
And in Super Bowl XLVI it was the New York Giants’ Mario Manningham, whose fourth-quarter reception along the sideline continues to defy gravity. Manningham had been overshadowed by star wideouts Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks all season, but on that day he was in the right place at the right time to make a catch teammate Antrel Rolle described as “the reason we have a ring.”
The list continues: David Tyree, Dexter Jackson, James Washington, etc. It is a wondrous thing about team sports that we tend to overlook: big-name players will put you in the position to succeed, but it’s the nobodies who will take you to the Promised Land.
The phenomenon is not limited to football. In 2012, LeBron James entered Game 5 of the NBA Finals with the chance to secure his first NBA title. The Miami Heat star had ripped through the regular season and the playoffs, winning the NBA MVP and averaging a gaudy 27.1 points per game.
But in Game 5 it was Mike Miller, the NBA journeyman from South Dakota, who won the day. Despite numerous injuries and ineffective play throughout the playoffs, Miami Heat Head Coach Eric Spoelstra went with the veteran in Game 5, a rotational decision that proved to be fruitful. Miller tallied 23 points, including seven three-pointers, an unexpected scoring outburst that broke the Oklahoma City Thunder’s resolve. LeBron James, along with the other members of the Miami Heat’s Big Three, will always be remembered as the team’s linchpins, but Mike Miller will be forever revered as the player who finished the job.
Pick a sport and the example is there waiting for you.
Hockey? How about the New York Rangers’ Stephane Matteau? Soccer? I don’t know about you, but I had no clue who John Brooks was when the 2014 World Cup started. Baseball? Aaron Boone!
The reality is that the unlikely heroes of sports can only be identified in hindsight. They are labeled as too old, too young, or simply too irrelevant to be worth mentioning. But behind the scenes they are working. Each and every day, outside of the public eye, they do what they can to help better their team’s chances to succeed. And when their opportunity comes, they’re always ready.
There’s a video on the New England Patriots website posted on Aug. 20, 2014, right at the beginning of Malcolm Butler’s stint with the team. It is buried in the archives, having garnered only 15 Facebook likes and a handful of comments at the time of its release. In the video, Butler is asked about his status so far with the team.
“I just come out and compete every day,” Butler said. “You have good days, you have bad days. … You just gotta keep going.”
I think Patriots fans are glad you kept going, Malcolm. Welcome to the Unlikely Heroes Club.