An underdog once more, Malcolm Butler looks to prove himself with the Patriots — again

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Malcolm Butler has been here before.

In 2009, after one year at Hinds Community College in his native state of Mississippi, he was kicked out of school. Butler spent the next year working a part-time job at a Popeyes restaurant while taking summer classes at Alcorn State University. He wasn’t on a path to the NFL. It would have been fair to doubt this young man from Vicksburg, Mississippi.

He returned to Hinds and earned a football scholarship to Division-II West Alabama. He played well, but a poor pro day with a 40-yard-dash time of 4.6 seconds kept NFL teams away from this defensive back. That changed thanks to a late tryout with the Patriots that showed he had 4.5 speed. Perseverance earned him a spot on the team’s 90-man roster. Hard work earned him a spot on the 53-man roster.

Still, it was fair to doubt Butler. He didn’t play much in 2014. As a rookie, he wasn’t even in the Madden NFL video game. As we all know, that changed in Super Bowl 49 when this undrafted free agent made one of the biggest plays in Super Bowl history with his game-securing interception of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

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Butler’s career could have ended that day and his story would still be one of the best in New England sports history. Maybe people doubted that he could live up to being a Super Bowl hero. Instead, the cornerback earned Pro Bowl honors the next year in 2015. He earned second-team All-Pro honors in 2016.

Butler has had an improbable journey in the NFL. He became used to being an underdog and used to being doubted.

That’s why he’s in a familiar spot with the Patriots in 2022. After taking a year off from football, Butler enters this offseason looking to do the improbable once again — get back to the NFL and make an impact in New England.

When he was asked on Tuesday how much he felt he had to prove, Butler initially answered with two words. “A lot,” he replied. “I feel like I have a lot to prove — especially to myself. If I do it myself, I prove it to my teammates at the same time. That’s why I’m working hard every day and trying to stay focused.”

Butler’s return to the Patriots was going to be a story regardless of what happened last year. The last time he donned this uniform, he was in tears on the sideline moments before his Super Bowl LII benching. He spent the next three seasons starting for the Tennessee Titans. In his last season playing for that team in 2020, he finished with 100 tackles and four interceptions.

That led Butler to the Arizona Cardinals, though he surprisingly announced his retirement in training camp because of personal reasons. He even said that he didn’t plan on returning, but another year away from football made him miss the game. It was similar back in 2010, when he was working at a Popeyes.

As a rookie in 2014, Butler told The Providence Journal: “That just made me realize how bad I wanted it and how bad I really needed it. You don’t know how good it is until it’s gone.” That had prompted his return to Hinds, where he got his football life back on track. This time around, Butler’s return to football earned him a two-year contract with the Patriots, who need someone to replace J.C. Jackson as their top cornerback.

“I didn’t plan that,” Butler said of his return to the game. “It just happened. I saw what a year taken off gives you. You’ve got to put a lot of hard work back in to get where you were.”

This new opportunity for Butler means a fresh start. That’s why he ditched his former jersey number 21 for the number 4. He said this new chapter is dedicated to the Patriots and his family.

“It’s just a different beginning,” Butler said. “I know I wore 21, but I just wanted something different. You know? Different beginning. New start. Fresh start. That’s why I say 4 is for everything — for family, for the Patriots, things like that.”

At 32 and a year out of football, Butler finds himself in a familiar spot. He’s an underdog. It’s never easy for an NFL player to return after a year off. Butler said he came to Foxborough for the offseason program “feeling fresh.” He’s in “football shape,” but once the conditioning runs and practices started, he acknowledged he still has more work to do to get his body back to where he needs it to be.

It’s still fair to doubt Butler. You might not expect an aging cornerback, a year away from the game, to make an impact. The only way for him to persevere is for him to work hard.

After he said that he felt that he had “a lot to prove,” Butler was asked if it was easy to feel like that since he’s been in this spot so many different times in his life, Butler said, “Yes, sir.”

Malcolm Butler has been here before.

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