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.