Super Bowl 49 showcased not the stars picked first but to guys given second chances.
Seattle receiver Chris Matthews, a household unknown entering Sunday’s game, hawked shoes at Foot Locker, and left the sneaker retail enterprise early one night for his audition with Seattle, probably with the classic mall shop excuse: Do you mind if I dip out a few minutes early so I can go try out for the Seattle Seahawks?
Although his recovery of an onside kick in the NFC Championship Game portended big-play gamesmanship, Matthews, until Sunday, had not caught a single pass in the NFL.
Matthews’s mastery of using his 6-5 frame to shield the outside shoulder from elfin cornerbacks enabled him to grab his first four NFL passes.
The undrafted CFL retread snagged four balls for 104 yards and a touchdown. He would have been “the story” if the Seahawks ran the ball on second, third, or fourth and goal in the game’s final 30 seconds. Ironically, Matthews’s success directly led to Malcolm Butler’s enhanced role in the game, which directly led to Seattle’s demise.
When Bill Belichick substituted Butler, once a junior college (JUCO) transfer from Hinds Community College in rural Mississippi, in place of Kyle Arrington, who endured a rough day because of Matthews, the Patriots coach helped author a second second-chance story, one that would mute talk about the first.
Up until Seattle’s second and goal with under a minute, the single-most remarkable play of the game went to two guys on the same passing route bedecked in opposing jerseys. When Russell Wilson found Jermaine Kearse deep along the sideline, Malcolm Butler’s seemingly saved the game on a tremendous deflection. But a supine wide receiver’s ability to will a falling football into his chest kept it in play for one brief moment. When Kearse outdid Butler with the acrobatic snag, one simply couldn’t ask for more–but more soon arrived.
Players make plays throughout great games. But in Super Bowl 49, two coaches ultimately changed the trajectory of the game that positioned a Nobody from Nowhere to jump a pass when America knew he should have been the 11th man plugging an inevitable run. On second and goal, Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell decided to pass when the situation called for a run. But, if not for that Patriots coaching staff’s instinct to trust a junior college transfer’s meticulous attention to detail and go on a hunch, Americans would still be tweeting Chris Matthews’ heroics. A second-chance story gave the New England Patriots a second chance–and quite a story.
Anyone who understands the trajectory of JUCO alums knows that those who make it out of the witness protection program of athletics are survivors. At Butler’s Hinds, castoffs put on for their city or take their talents back to the playground at the first sign of adversity. Nothing is ever handed to a JUCO kid–the bus trips, McDonald’s postgame meals, and van rides to-and-from games are all reflective of an enduring juke’s tale. Unlike Butler’s teammates, who presumably spent their collegiate football years eating catered hotel meals or from the training table, a JUCO guy like Butler knows what being hungry really is. And on second and goal, Malcolm Butler went to eat.
An old CBA pal, coaching a team full of JUCO retreads, once told his star point guard, a former JUCO transfer, on a bus trip from one B-level gym to the next: “You drink too much, you smoke too much, and nobody who’s ever coached you likes you. You have the talent, and if you fix those things, you’ll have a chance.” While it’s unclear why Hinds Community College dismissed Butler in 2009, only to readmit him two seasons later, it’s clear when given similar advice, The Butler listened.