So what now Mississippi fans?
How will we deal with our maligned favorite son, 27-year-old Malcolm Butler?
What does he really mean to us? Perhaps it's more than we realize.
Right now he’s likely as low as we all were high three years ago when he sealed a Super Bowl XLIX win for the New England Patriots. Sunday, the Patriots’ defensive back and Mississippi native shockingly was benched just before Super Bowl LII’s kickoff. He didn’t play a defensive snap—only taking the field on special teams.
Bam. Thwack! Out of nowhere. Done.
We all were munching on this and sipping on that. Some of us cared more about the game than others. But even uninitiated Mississippi viewers felt stung for one of our own. Many felt a familiar sense of injustice. We felt … well … we felt like Mississippians often feel.
Heck, NBC commentators, Butler’s teammates, and Eagle wide receivers who fear Butler’s ability didn’t see it coming. Couldn’t believe it. NBC even profiled Butler and his hometown of Vicksburg during the network’s pregame buildup. Now all kinds of rumors are swirling around Butler about him breaking team rules and potentially state laws regarding smoking weed. They are rumors as of now, but whatever the case, they sting and Butler is facing heavy heavy consequences.
Here is Butler, who played 97 percent of the Patriots’s defensive snaps during the season—more than any other defensive player—suddenly hiding tears during the National Anthem, his hand over his heart.
Here is Butler, a Magnolia State native, seemingly kicked like a dog. Unfairly treated, it seems. Cast aside, some might say.
If you think about it, Butler was bashed in the face. Mississippians have known the feeling.
Last night Malcolm Butler became a full-blown Mississippi metaphor. That's what he means to us. At least I think so.
Disclaimer: Sports isn’t close to the most important thing in life. However, it’s one of the best life metaphors I’ve ever found. We learn from it, even if we didn’t play; or if—like me—we played but weren’t too good.
Butler is the prototype Mississippi underdog kicked by others, only to get back up. Said Butler after the game, “They gave up on me.” If Mississippians share a single collective feeling, it might be what Butler felt. It's not a whining emotion; it’s more like a dumbfounded wondering. When we fail, our foibles are often publicly exaggerated. When we succeed, our victories are often downplayed or dismissed.
Like Mississippi, Butler sometimes seems to get little margin for error. I don't know much about his personal life. If he's like me, he's far from perfect. Some reports say he was benched because he partied too much the night before the Patriots boarded their plane for Minnesota two weeks ago. It’s a fact that he missed that plane. And if he partied like that, there was no excuse.
Fresh reports--unsubstantiated as of yet--indicate that possibly Butler was caught with weed while returning late to the team’s hotel in Minneapolis. People are saying a locker-run split was occurring over Butler. Former Patriot Brandon Browner tweeted that he believed Belichick thought he could win without Butler and may have decided to make an example out of him, as other players have done similar things to what Butler did. Let's be honest--Tom Brady could have thrown a pre-Super Bowl bash the night before the big game and he would have been on the field the next day. "There’s always favorites,” Browner noted.
But Butler's own head coach insisted after Sunday's Super Bowl loss that benching Butler had only to do with trying to put his “best players” on the field, not any effort at discipline. And why did Belichick play Butler on special teams if he wanted to make his bigger point? Butler’s teammates and Eagle opposition couldn’t fathom benching someone with Butler's skills. The Eagles feel that Bill Belichick did them a big favor.
Ironically, Belichick had confidence in Butler three years ago and it paid of as his interception sealed the Patriots Super Bowl win over the Seattle Seahawks. If the Patriots and New England fans hugged Butler then, we Mississippians smothered him.
Back then, Malcolm Butler showed all of those outsiders what Mississippi is made of, and we adored him for it. With us, it usually doesn’t matter what “our own people" excel at, as long as they do. We make posters listing all of our famous people and their accomplishments. We live vicariously through our state heroes. Think about it: we’re a state of nonreaders who worship our authors; our non-athletes worship our sports stars; our classical music snobs tout Elvis. Heck, even our racists love a black Mississippian like Morgan Freeman when he makes us look good.
They become us and we they.
In Butler’s case, here’s “our” Mississippian’s backdrop.
A poor kid with four siblings, Butler fried Popeyes chicken versus seeking a handout.
A kid seeking purpose, he quit football after 9th grade at Vicksburg H. S., then returned for his senior year. Mistake made, pride swallowed, and he bounced back.
A kid who suddenly found his passion, Butler ignored naysayers and chased his dream of playing college and pro football.
What were the odds? Even those who saw raw talent in Butler knew that he couldn’t afford to attend summer skills camps where a player shops himself. He had no private trainer. He had no money or “inside stroke” to get powerful people looking his way.
The kid’s only college option was Hinds Community College. Then Butler was booted from the team in his first season, but allowed to return for his second year. Again, he made big mistakes and made amends. (Think about how Mississippi regularly shoots itself in the same foot but keeps walking. Just keeps at it.) He also starred in track. The football gods didn’t notice, and he ended up at measly West Alabama.
I mean, how much did he have to do to convince skeptics? (Sound like a state you know?) Yet he never quit. (Ditto.)
At West Alabama his play and stats went atomic. No NFL team drafted him. Again, he was overlooked.
Malcom kept dreaming and working. He didn’t let “expert” draft geeks, coaches, or journalists dictate his future.
Like the great Walter Payton and Jerry Rice, he became a full-blown picture of the best kind of Mississippian. Like a scrappy Manning kid from Drew who was largely unnoticed in high school, and a tough kid named Favre from Kiln, Butler rose up time after time.
So Malcolm scratched his way onto the best team in pro football, the New England Patriots, where Bill Belichick commendably (and smartly) gives unknowns a chance to make it. And on that night three Super Bowls ago, Butler helped make the Patriots champions.
Afterwards, Vicksburg threw Butler a parade. Butler returned the love in numerous ways.
This leads us to "right now." What are we in our state to do with Malcolm now? Now that he’s hit rock bottom. Now that his coach shamed him in front 111.3 million people? Now that he’s been left wondering what team he’ll play for next year? Now that he may have made bad mistakes that he's paying for big-time?
Open our state’s doors—that’s what. It’s what we’re good at. Show him more love. Look after our own. Put ourselves in Malcolm’s shoes. Give him the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully we'll embrace him with the same verve we did three years ago.
Because Malcolm "means" a lot to Mississippi. Because Malcolm’s story in many ways is our story.