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Malcolm Butler’s journey from ‘good employee’ at Popeyes to Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX hero

Shennelle Parker, the manager of the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in Vicksburg, Miss., could always count on Malcolm Butler. Parker hired Butler as a cashier, and before long Butler began to “cross train,” which meant he could perform every task in the store. Butler showed up on time, washed dishes, took orders up front and graduated to the batter station, where he would drop chicken into sizzling oil.

“He was a good employee,” Parker said Monday morning in a phone conversation. “He kept the customers happy and pleased. I was always pleased. He was a hard worker. Everybody in here really liked working with him.”

Parker last saw Butler about one month ago, during the New England Patriots’ bye week. Butler had gone home to Vicksburg, and every time he traveled home he still stopped by Popeyes to see his old boss and talk. “He was excited about the playoffs,” Parker said. Monday morning, Parker watched Butler give an interview on ESPN. She beamed when Butler mentioned he used to work at Popeyes.

Butler, 24, had completed an inconceivable path from batter cook to Division II standout to undrafted rookie to Super Bowl hero. Sunday night, Butler sealed the Patriots’ 28-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks with an interception at the goal line with 20 seconds remaining, both the deciding play of a classic Super Bowl and the culmination of Butler’s self-made ascension.

[Read: Best of Super Bowl XLIX]

“The first thing I want to say is he’s a tremendous young man with a tremendous attitude,” said Will Hall, Butler’s coach at Division II West Alabama. “Every day he wakes up, every time he runs into somebody he makes their day better. He’s just one of those people.”

For the public, Butler’s interception turned him into an overnight sensation. Nothing about his story, though, is instant or easy. Butler earned his place in football history through years of perseverance, through overcoming challenges from childhood with honest, constant work.

Butler grew up in Vicksburg with no advantages. “Earlier in his life, he didn’t have the easiest childhood,” Hall said. “He didn’t have a whole lot of money, a whole lot of extra things.” Butler started working at Popeyes on the weekend in high school to help his mother make ends meet.

Butler struggled in school and did not make grades to qualify for Division I football. He attended Hinds Community College. He played five games before Hinds dismissed him. (According to the Providence Journal, he was arrested and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia.) Butler moved back to Vicksburg and worked at Popeyes, hoping for another chance.

Hinds took Butler back for his sophomore season, and he capitalized on his second chance. On weekends, he still returned home to work at Popeyes. Teams from Conference USA and the Sun Belt recruited Butler, but his grades still weren’t good enough to qualify for Division I. During his time at West Alabama, Hall coached seven players who played professionally, and all of them came to him for academic reasons.

“He’s never had anything given to him,” Hall said. “Anything he’s got in his life, he’s had to work for and get for himself. You see a lot of guys that are in that situation, and they go the other way. Malcolm realized early on no matter what hand you’re dealt, you’re responsible for your success and failures. Just like all of us, as he grew and got older, he realized what mattered.”

[Read: Belichick’s sneaky-smart decision]

Butler continued to work away from football, taking a work-study job at the school fitness center under Hall’s wife. Butler sopped sweat off spinning bikes. He washed towels. He mopped locker room floors. He never complained.

“Malcolm’s just a guy that brightens your day,” Hall said.

Immediately, Hall saw Butler possessed the potential to play in the NFL. He had decent size and decent speed, though he wasn’t the biggest or fastest defensive back on his team. But Butler stood out with his ability to break on passes, to play the ball in the air. He also had a penchant for making his best plays in the biggest moments.

West Alabama had never won an outright Gulf Coast Conference championship. Those usually went to North Alabama, a league power that historically dominated West Alabama. In Butler’s senior season, North Alabama returned an interception for a touchdown to tie the score, and in the stadium, Hall said, a sense of inevitability set in that North Alabama would beat West Alabama again. Then Butler returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. West Alabama beat North Alabama and won its first conference title.

“Obviously,” Hall said, “that’s not the biggest play that he’s made now.”

Early in his career at West Alabama, the Patriots showed interest in Butler. Joe Judge, the Patriots’ special teams coordinator, noticed Butler’s ability to return and cover kicks. The Patriots value versatility, and Butler showed promise as a special teams contributor. Hall knew New England wanted him, and after Butler went undrafted, the Patriots signed him as a free agent.

The Patriots do not affix numbers to players’ uniforms early in training camp, so it can be difficult even for veterans to identify new teammates. Quarterback Tom Brady kept seeing one defensive back on the scout team, a quick runner and a good leaper, make one play after another. “Who is that?” Brady asked himself. “Who’s that guy running down balls?” It was Butler.

During the season Butler played mostly on special teams, active for 11 of 16 games. He made an impression on his teammates with his tireless work and his improvement during the week, and his playing time grew late in the season.

“He’s been picking me off all season in practice,” Brady said at Monday morning’s post-Super Bowl news conference. “So it was nice to see him do it to someone else.”

All game long, Butler hounded Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse – he knocked away the pass that Kearse caught, miraculously, sitting on his back to set up the Seahawks with a first and goal at the 5-yard line in the final minute.

On second and goal from the 1, Butler set up on the right side of the Seahawks’ formation, the Patriots’ third cornerback. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia had told him to look for Ricardo Lockette, the outside receiver, to run a slant and try to run him into another crossing receiver.

“I knew they were going to throw it,” Butler said.

Lockette slanted across the middle. For a moment, he came wide open at the goal line, with Butler standing three yards deep in the end zone. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson fired the ball. Butler darted forward, doing what he did best during his time at West Alabama — making a play on the ball in the air. He knocked shoulders with Lockette as the ball arrived and snared the pass. Butler surged forward, dropped to his knees and rested his head on the turf.

“I was so emotional,” Butler said. “I had a feeling I was going to make a big play, but not this big.”

Back in Vicksburg, Shennelle Parker roared in celebration. Her former employee, her Facebook friend, had just won the Super Bowl, four years removed from frying chicken to make a living. Butler has not forgotten where he came from. “He always tells me he loved working at Popeyes,” Parker said.

Parker plans to buy a Patriots jersey with Butler’s name and number. She looks forward to seeing Butler again on his next trip home to Vicksburg. Parker knows he’ll stop by again. She plans to take a picture with Butler, the former batter cook turned Super Bowl hero. She will pin that picture on the wall, for every person who walks into the Vicksburg Popeyes to see.

More on Super Bowl XLIX

Maske: The ‘worst play-call in Super Bowl history’

A bad decision burned Seattle and will forever affect the legacies of both the Seahawks and Patriots.

Kilgore: Play-calling decision dashes Seattle’s dynastic dream

Seattle could have handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch, but instead handed the game to the Patriots.

Kilgore: Did Belichick’s sneaky-smart move impact Seahawks’ play-call?

With time winding down, it may have convinced them to throw the ball.

Fancy Stats: Decision to pass not as foolish as it seems

In goal-to-go situations during tight games, most NFL teams are 50-50 between running and passing plays.

Early Lead: Marshawn Lynch has little to say about Seahawks’ play-call

The Seattle running back didn’t alter his approach to the media after the Super Bowl loss.

Early Lead: The Internet hates Pete Carroll’s play-calling. A lot.

An array of NFL players are among those that sound off on the unsound logic of the Seahawks’ final play.

Early Lead: Pete Carroll takes blame for final play

Seahawks’ head coach tells his team it was “totally” his fault.