ATLANTA -- When New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was named MVP of Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks, he gifted the truck he received to cornerback Malcolm Butler.
“Without Malcolm, we don’t win that game,” Brady said at the time. “He saved the game for us.”
Butler will be forever revered in New England for his game-saving interception, and it will be hard to top his status as the greatest Super Bowl unsung hero in franchise (and NFL) history.
Butler was a rookie that season, having made the team as an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama, and he hadn’t played in the first half of the Super Bowl. But a halftime adjustment to put him in for Kyle Arrington proved to be one of the best in-game decisions of Bill Belichick’s coaching career.
While Butler is unquestionably the Patriots’ No. 1 unsung hero in Super Bowl history, there is no shortage of choices to fill out the rest of the list:
RB J.R. Redmond: He played only 33 games for the team from 2000 to 2002, with five starts, but his presence on the game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams was critical. With the game tied at 17 and the Patriots taking over at their own 17-yard line with 1:21 remaining, Redmond contributed catches of 5, 8 and 11 yards on three of the first four plays of the drive that set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning 48-yard field goal. How unsung was Redmond? He didn’t have a catch before that drive and had contributed one rush for minus-4 yards at that point in the game. He had finished the season with just 251 combined rushing and receiving yards. If he didn't help get the final drive started with those three catches, the final result might have been different.
CB Otis Smith: In his 12th NFL season at that point, Smith was viewed by many as overmatched entering Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams (aka "The Greatest Show on Turf"), but he delivered one of the plays of the game: a third-quarter interception of a Kurt Warner pass intended for Torry Holt that set up a field goal to put the Patriots ahead 17-3. Smith tied a team high with three passes defended in the game and added four tackles.
LG Russ Hochstein: One of Belichick’s biggest concerns entering Super Bowl XXXVIII was the Carolina Panthers’ stout defensive line of Julius Peppers, Brentson Buckner, Kris Jenkins and Michael Rucker, and compounding the concern was that starting center/guard Damien Woody had been lost a few weeks earlier with a torn MCL. But Hochstein, a super-sub with versatility to play any position on the line, stepped in seamlessly, as Brady threw for 354 yards and wasn’t sacked. This was a big storyline leading up to the game when Warren Sapp was questioning Hochstein’s ability to hang in against Jenkins. On ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, Sapp had said: "I think this defensive line of Carolina will dominate the front five of New England. I don't even think it's a fair matchup. I don't see how they're going to get it done, because I think Russ Hochstein started for them in the AFC Championship Game, and I've seen Russ Hochstein block, and he couldn't block either of you two fellas. Damien Woody was the best lineman they had, but Russ Hochstein, trust me, my friend, he couldn't block either of you two."
Hochstein, who has settled in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, with his wife and their three children, reflected on the memory.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Hochstein said Sunday. “I was sitting with a friend of mine, [former Patriots offensive tackle] Brandon Gorin –- we shared an apartment -- and I got a phone call from one of my friends back home. He was watching ESPN and said, ‘They’re talking about you.’ I was like, ‘What?’ And sure enough, they replayed it, and I heard what he said. I kind of giggled. Warren was obviously on the way to whatever fame he has now, obviously in the Hall of Fame. I had practiced against him quite a bit -- I was drafted in Tampa in 2001 under Tony [Dungy] -- and his opinion of me wasn’t very high.
“I definitely took it personal. It was personal. I had a 12-year career after that and can’t complain.”
LS Brian Kinchen: No one talks about the long-snapper unless he makes a mistake, and the Patriots nearly had a catastrophe in Super Bowl XXXVIII with Kinchen, an emergency option who was signed out of a two-plus-year retirement when Lonie Paxton sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 14. Kinchen sliced his finger on a knife the morning of the game, and his nerves were high, but when the Patriots needed a 41-yard field goal to win it with no time left, he delivered a strike.
RB Shane Vereen: In the same game in which Butler made his game-saving interception, Vereen, then in his fourth season, led the team with 11 catches. That set a Super Bowl record for a running back that would be broken three years later. Five of Vereen’s catches came on the final two drives, both of which produced touchdowns, as the Patriots overcame a 24-14 deficit.
RB James White: A 2014 fourth-round pick who played only 30 snaps as a rookie, White has since become a household name. His unsung, breakout performance in Super Bowl LI is a main reason why: 14 receptions set a record in a Super Bowl (for any position). His 1-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter and 2-yard scoring run in overtime were critical in helping the Patriots prevail. His 20 points scored in the game are the most ever by a player in a Super Bowl.
WR Danny Amendola: Before he officially became Danny “Playoff” Amendola, the receiver was viewed by many in New England as injury-prone and not worthy of the five-year, $31 million contract he received in 2013. But that officially changed in the 2014 playoffs, which he capped off in dramatic fashion in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks when he had a 4-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter; then he followed that up in Super Bowl LI two years later with a 6-yard touchdown grab and a two-point conversion to tie the score at 28 late in the fourth quarter.