The pick-six, it seemed, served as both a punctuation and precursor.
An electrifying, 91-yard interception return for a touchdown that put an exclamation point on his rookie season, and — the Patriots hope — foreshadowed what is to come for Darius Butler'scareer in New England.
The highlight-reel play took place in the third quarter of New England's eventual 34-27 loss in the 2009 regular-season finale at Houston in early January. At that point in the game, the Texans, knotted in a 13-13 tie with the Patriots, were on the verge of taking the lead. But Butler's interception of Matt Schaub's pass gave New England a momentary momentum swing.
]()During the runback, Butler displayed the burst of speed and athleticism for which he was touted in the run-up to last year's draft, when the Patriots selected him with one of their four second-round picks. Butler easily separated from the futile Texans trailing him, and for a moment, in his rookie exuberance, he considered celebrating his big play before he crossed the goal line.
"I thought about doing something, but I just had to make sure I got in the end zone. That was my first one, so, I couldn't [mess] it up," he recalled with a laugh.
Those kind of veteran-like instincts could be another reason why Butler's future appears so bright.
In his rookie campaign, the 5-10, 185-pound cornerback made significant contributions, both on defense and special teams. He appeared in 14 regular-season games, five of which he started (three at left corner, the other two as a nickel back), and finished the year with 28 solo tackles, three interceptions and eight passes defensed.
"It's a dream come true to be in the NFL," he remarked. "I'm learning something new every day, every week, every game, going against a lot of the players that I kind of looked up to and watched growing up. That's been exciting. It's had its ups and downs, long season, started some games, sat some games. It's just been an experience."
One experience he never saw coming taught him one of his most important lessons. In October, following a melee outside an on-campus dance, Butler's former University of Connecticut teammate, cornerback Jasper Howard, was stabbed to death. Just hours after learning of the tragedy, a heavy-hearted, yet inspired Butler started the first game of his NFL career and recorded his first pick, both in the blowout win over Tennessee.
"You just have to stay even keel. Don't let the highs get you too high or the lows get you low. You just kind of have to be ready for anything," Butler mused.
That's particularly true — being ready for anything — in Butler's case. Because another aspect of his game that could make him successful is his versatility, a common trait among Belichick's best players over the years. Butler started the '09 season as a blocker on the punt coverage units, but as the season progressed, he also got his shot at returning kicks. In two games, including the finale at Houston, Butler returned five kickoffs for an average of nearly 21 yards.
At UConn, Butler also saw action on offense from time to time. It's unclear, though, if there's any chance we'll see him do so here in New England. At one point last season, head coach Bill Belichickreferenced in one of his daily press conferences Butler's history as a two-way player, but by season's end, he virtually scoffed at the notion when it came up again.
He was more willing to praise Butler for the progress he'd made in the other two phases of the game.
"I think Darius has learned a lot," Belichick said. "He's been healthy. He's gotten a lot of reps, a lot of practice time. I think he's learned a lot about the game, as a returner, as a defender — both in the passing game and in the running game. He's got a real good future. I'm glad we have him. I think he's learned a lot. I think he's got a lot to learn, but he works hard at it and he's a smart kid."
Butler was quick to echo Belichick's sentiments about having a lot to learn.
"Anytime you go up a level, you obviously have to humble yourself coming into the locker room, especially at a franchise like this, where guys have won in this league for a long time. You just want to feed off it and learn what you can learn and just make the best of your opportunities."
Perhaps the most humbling of experiences of last season — not just for Butler, but also for his Patriots teammates — was New England's wild card loss at Gillette Stadium at the hands of Butler's cousin, Willis McGahee, and the Baltimore Ravens. The early exit from the playoffs gave Butler a head-start on assessing his first year as a pro, the necessary first step as he looks to make a marked improvement in Year 2.
]()"As a rookie, you come in and you're coming straight from the college season, then you got the all-star game, the Combine, the draft, and you kind of get thrown right into it," he explained.
"Now I've got a professional season to reflect on and be a pro and learn how to study the game and apply it to what I'm doing on the field. I definitely want to build on it. This is my first offseason and I have to work hard and prepare well and build on it."
The Ft. Lauderdale native, who still makes his permanent home in south Florida, admitted that he's spent much of his offseason in the Sunshine State, working with a trainer at a professional facility. But now that the Patriots offseason strength and conditioning program is underway again, with mini-camps and OTAs just around the corner, Butler is back in town and, he insists, ready for whatever the team asks him to do.
Even, perhaps, as a Wildcat option on offense?
"I don't know about that," he sheepishly laughed. "I mean, wherever they put me or call on me to do, I'm ready for it. But right now, I'm playing cornerback and kick returner and that's what I'm preparing to do."