HOUSTON -- Three years ago, things were so much different for Malcolm Butler.
He was an undrafted rookie playing for the New England Patriots. He was fifth on the depth chart at cornerback, seeing no action on defense in a divisional-round playoff victory against the Baltimore Ravens and getting only 15 snaps in the 2014 AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts.
And when Butler wasn't on the field through the first half of Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks, the stage was perfectly set for him to emerge from nowhere to become a hero on a worldwide stage.
"That year, I did not know what was going on," Butler said. "Everything was going fast. I was just a rookie, and I did not know what to expect."
No one could have ever expected what would happen to Butler in the closing seconds of the Super Bowl. With the Seahawks ready to score what surely would be the winning touchdown, Russell Wilson threw a pass at the goal line. Suddenly, Butler, whom New England was forced to play because of injuries in its secondary, swooped in to make an interception to secure the Patriots' 28-24 victory.
Three years later, Butler no longer is an anonymous figure as the Patriots prepare to face the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. He's a full-fledged starting cornerback. He made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and was second-team All-Pro in 2016.
Butler won't be catching anyone off-guard when he takes the field Sunday in NRG Stadium, least of all the Falcons. Members of their high-flying, pass-oriented offense respect him as, in the words of receiver Aldrick Robinson, "a cornerstone of their defense."
"This year, it is the complete opposite," Butler said. "I have a role in the game. I am expected to play. People kind of have an idea of who I am, and I will be able to prepare better because I know what is coming.”
What is coming is Matt Ryan, arguably the best quarterback in the NFL, and Julio Jones, arguably the league's best receiver. Butler is expected to see a lot of Jones, and anticipates a physical battle with a receiver that's "like a running back with the football in his hands."
Still, it's impossible for Butler not to look back on his previous Super Bowl experience because it defines him. Tom Brady was named MVP of Super Bowl XLIX, but he knew who the game's real MVP was. That's why Brady gave Butler the truck the quarterback received for the honor.
"He earned it, and he deserved it," Brady said. "Without Malcolm, we don't win that game. I love Malcolm. I joke with him all the time, but I just say, 'Thank God for Malcolm Butler.' He saved the game for us.
"It was just an incredible play, I think one of the greatest plays in the history of the NFL, for him to be able to recognize that. No one really knew who Malcolm Butler really was at that time. I had, because I had gone against him in practice so much. For him to recognize that and pull the trigger at the biggest moment of his career and make the play, in the Super Bowl against one of the best teams that has ever played in the Super Bowl in the Seahawks, that was incredible. So he deserved it, and I was happy to do it."
Who wouldn't have been happy for Butler? This was a guy who began his football journey at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss. Then he transferred to another Mississippi school, Alcorn State. Then he returned to Hinds before finishing out his collegiate career at the University of West Alabama.
Butler might have soared to the top of the Pats' depth chart, but he will always be recognized as an unlikely hero.
“That play is going to be there forever," he said. "I will expect to be asked about it. I will expect to be known for it. It is going to be there for the rest of my life, so it is what it is.”
That doesn't mean he's satisfied with his legacy. His goal is to continue to build on it.
“I always want more," Butler said. "I always work hard. I always want to be the best, and the hard work will pay off. I have seen numerous players known for one play; they make a big play and fall off the map. I just put in my mind that I refuse to be one of those guys, which I did not have doubt of anyway. I just kept building, kept working and just ignored the noise.”
If things go the way he hopes they will Sunday, there will be even more noise to ignore.