Old rivals Gabriel, Butler will renew acquaintances in Super Bowl

Old rivals Gabriel, Butler will renew acquaintances in Super Bowl

HOUSTON - Who knew that Nov. 3, 2012 in Abilene, Texas, would form the foundation for a friendship and a rivalry that will be reborn on Super Bowl Sunday here in Houston? 


But that’s exactly what happened when Abilene Christian upset 13th-ranked West Alabama 22-16 in front of a whopping 3,517 fans at Shotwell Stadium.

Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler donned West Alabama’s red, white and black uniform that day, while Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel was wearing Abilene’s purple and white. The ACU Wildcats jumped out to a surprising 13-0 lead before West Alabama forced overtime with just 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter. But Abilene scored on its first possession of overtime, and when Kyle Caldwell’s pass feel incomplete at the host’s 9-yard line, the celebration was on.

“It was a big win for us,” recalled Gabriel at the Falcons media availability yesterday. 

Butler was a little hazier on the details.

“I think it was 2013. Or 2012. One of ‘em.”

I asked both men who won the individual battle. Again, it depends on what side you’re coming from.

“I mean I think I had five catches for 80 something yards [five for 71 according to the box score], recalled Gabriel, then he smiled, “So you would say I won that.”

“I don’t think we was doing any matching back then so ah...just stats,” said Butler, who had two pass breakups and four tackles that day. 

Little did the two know, but they would meet again as teammates on the National roster in the 2014 Medal of Honor Bowl game in Charleston, South Carolina. That’s where the friendship blossomed.

“Most definitely,” said Butler. “We had good conversations, just enjoying mingling around, talking about football, talking about where we wanted to go in life.”

“He’s good friend of mine. I have so much respect for him,” Gabriel said. “In fact, his path is the same as mine but he made that big splash interception in the Super Bowl.”

Gabriel claimed he knew back at that Bowl game that Butler was destined for the NFL and that plays like that Super Bowl-saving interception of Russell Wilson was in Butler’s future. Gabriel, however, thought his own path might be a bit tougher. 

“Malcolm is a very, very, very charismatic guy and he worked hard ,” said Gabriel. “I knew he was going to make it to the league. It was just the fact if I was going to do my thing to get there. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in this league. I think he’s earned that.”

Gabriel had support at Abilene. Grant Boone, the voice of the Wildcats, recalls watching Gabriel and thinking “he’s next” in the school’s recent run of turning out pro players.

“Gabriel was a human highlight reel from his first year,” Boone told me. “And we were in a stretch that had seen Danieal Manning drafted in round two and make the Super Bowl for the Bears in 2007. Then Johnny Knox and Bernard Scott were taken in 2009, Clyde Gates in 2011 and Daryl Richardson in 2012. So, we'd begun to think Gabriel's being at ACU wouldn't hold him back.”

It did, although not for too long.

“Came down to his size,” added Boone. “But his work ethic and speed - both his acceleration and as weird as it sounds - his ability to stop quickly is what made us think he had a shot.”

A shot Gabriel fully realized this season, catching 35 passes for 579 yards and six touchdowns after being cast off by the Cleveland Browns.

Butler reflected on that, and his own journey, saying simply, “It’s about taking advantage of your opportunities. That, and working hard and just trying to stay consistent.”

Both players have done just that to solidify their places in the NFL. Now, it’s on to the bragging rights on a much bigger stage, NRG Stadium, which seats nearly 70,000 more fans who stood in Shotwell Stadium for that 22-16 upset back in November of 2012.

What’s next for Patriots’ banged-up receiver corps?

What’s next for Patriots’ banged-up receiver corps?

Every Friday, Tom E. Curran, Mike Giardi and Phil Perry answer your Patriots questions in a joint mailbag, or Friday Bag as they call it.


Got a question for the trio? Hit them up on Twitter using the hashtag #FridayBag. Here’s this week’s installment:

PP: Don't hit the panic button just yet on this receiver group, DD. Dorsett's knee has been a bit of an issue since Week 3. He had it iced up on Thursday in the Patriots locker room, and he's been wearing a compression sleeve on the knee consistently for a few weeks now. He played 20 snaps against Tampa and he saw 11 against the Jets last weekend. Unless he had a significant setback, which I don't believe he has, he should still be available as the team's No. 4 this weekend. As far as Hogan goes, that was a brutal shot he took to the ribs, but he remained in the game, and he's been practicing this week on a limited basis. Brandin Cooks is healthy, as is Danny Amendola. A few bumps and bruises for this group, but I don't think it's anything that is going to precipitate a roster move. They have two receivers on the practice squad in Cody Hollister and Riley McCarron, but there's no indication that any call-up is imminent. 

PP: Malcom Brown is relatively quiet when media members are in the locker room, but he's a clown-around-the-outside-of-the-scrum-when-a-teammate-is-being-interviewed guy. Surprised but not floored that Long would've given him that crown last year. I'd say when Long and Rob Ninkovich were together hamming it up in 2016, their corner of the locker room was probably the funniest. As far as this year goes, guys like Eric Rowe and Adam Butler are sneaky funny. Rob Gronkowski has been good for a laugh or two every week at his press conferences. He and our buddy Mike Reiss at ESPN need to go on tour at some point. They're the Gillette Stadium version of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. 

PP: Hey, Rich. Thanks for checking in. I'd say the chances of trading for Gilmore are extremely low. Like, zero. The trade deadline is Halloween. Would they cut bait before then after giving him an $18 million signing bonus and guaranteeing him $40 million overall? Given his contract and his play this season, there figure to be very few if any buyers. It would be the ultimate sell-low. And unless Butler ends up receiving much less on the open market than we think he will, my opinion is that he's likely headed elsewhere following the season. Never say never, but that's seemed like the outlook for Butler since Gilmore put pen to paper on his contract. On Martellus Bennett, the Packers aren't giving up on him. He hasn't been overwhelmingly productive in the passing game, but he's their top tight end. And with Aaron Rodgers out, Green Bay is probably going to want as many experienced short-to-intermediate options as possible. Patriots haven't gotten much from either Dwayne Allen or Jacob Hollister this season, but Bennett is not walking through that door. If the production at that position behind Gronkowski continues to be lacking, keep an eye on Will Tye, who recently signed to the Patriots practice squad. He's a more experienced player than the Patriots typically keep on that 10-man unit. 

PP: It's hard to argue that they do when they have other players on the roster who either don't chip in on special teams at all (David Harris) or play a minimal role (Jacob Hollister) in the kicking game holding roster spots. At least guys like Brandon King, Nate Ebner, Matthew Slater, Marquis Flowers, Geneo Grissom and Brandon Bolden give the team productive special-teams snaps on a consistent basis. And they all have to be ready to contribute in the other phases of the game. As we've seen with players like Jonathan Jones and Johnson Bademosi, there's a chance you're called upon to play a legitimate role either offensive or defensively in any given week. To this point, at least, both of those players have performed when asked.

TC: Very simple Wally, it’s Dr. Robert Leonard. Call 1-800-GET-HAIR if your salad is wilting. And that hair you can witness yourselves on Pregame Live and Postgame Live at 6:30 before Falcons-Patriots and immediately after.

TC: The Falcons defense struggled with tripping over their tongues more than anything else. That game – on rewatch – is fascinating because the Patriots didn’t struggle offensively, they just pooped themselves. They had six first-half drives. Four of them went into Atlanta territory. They had drives ended at the Atlanta 33 and 23 in the first half because of a fumble and a pick. Anyway, that doesn’t answer your question. The speed of the Falcons defense was a problem and that was at all three levels – defensive line on Pats OL, linebackers quick to swarm and help on Julian Edelman and closing speed of the safeties. To me, it’s part of the reason the team went away from a productive player they really liked in LeGarrette Blount. He just didn’t afford any two-way threat when he was on the field and a fast defense would swarm him before he could plant his foot and get upfield the way a smaller back would. So yes, the dual-threat capability of Lewis and White will be a factor. And I’m fascinated to see how the Falcons play with Edelman out and Gronk in.

TC: My Fine Man! Mentioned it to him in our NBCSports Boston studio recently and he shrugged a bit and didn’t really offer an answer other than that he’s still getting up before dawn and working out. He indicated that post-football life – for a player who emptied the bucket for so long every week – is interesting. He’s never actually had a “fall” to himself and his family and he enjoys it. He also misses all the things that a guy who plays into his 30s and has the success he did misses – the camaraderie, the thrill of game day and all that.

MG: Jacob, this goes all the way back to the offseason, if you ask me. No new deal, the big deal for Gilmore, the inability to work out a trade with the Saints brought Butler back to a situation he was desperate to get out of this spring. He did all the right things after that - in terms of coming to voluntary workouts and whatnot - but at some point during training camp, his play went sideways. Once it did, I think Butler struggled with his confidence, ended up losing snaps in week two at New Orleans and even now - despite the two big plays at MetLife - his play continues to be spotty. I think if Eric Rowe was healthy, Butler would be on the block. 

MG: TJ from back in the day! Give me a pass rusher, and give me one ASAP. Cassius Marsh has loads of athleticism but is struggling on the discipline front, and Hightower is not a 30 pass rush a game guy. At least I think he isn’t. Someone who can get home quick would cover up some of the sins from that back end, and we know there have been far too many to this point.

How did you celebrate Jimmy G being named as a practice player of the week?

MG: Jimmy and I sat outside the TB12 facility at Patriot Place and drank beer while eating Doritos. It was glorious.

MG: See above answer. 

Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe miss Friday's practice


Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe miss Friday's practice

FOXBORO -- It appears the Patriots will be without Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe again Sunday. 


Neither player was seen on the field for the media portion of Friday’s practice, capping a week in which neither Gilmore (concussion) nor Rowe (groin) practiced. Harvey Langi also remained off the field a week after his car accident. 

Assuming the Patriots are without Gilmore and Rowe, a secondary that has struggled this season will face an even bigger challenge against Atlanta’s passing attack Sunday night.