This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Dec. 4 Thanksgiving issue. Subscribe today!
It’s Nov. 22, 2012, a crisp, still Thanksgiving night inside MetLife Stadium. Surrounded by 79,088 fans, Mark Sanchez crouches confidently under center at the 31-yard line, his team down 14-0 with 9:10 to play in the second quarter. For a split second, while staring across at the Patriots’ defense and waiting for the snap on first down, everything is still possible for Sanchez and the Jets. The game is still up for grabs. A captive national audience is still tuned in. Sanchez still has franchise-quarterback potential. Rex Ryan is still the mastermind who will guide New York’s other football team out of a four-decade malaise.
And then everything changes. Sanchez opens to his left, and fullback Lex Hilliard, who is supposed to get the handoff, flashes by on his right. Sanchez’s momentum carries him 5 yards into the backfield, where he pivots in his black throwback high-top cleats and begins blindly sprinting toward the chaos at the line of scrimmage. With each step, a perfect storm begins to form — of characters, setting, audience, nomenclature and the burgeoning power of social media — that will produce a blunder of such magnitude that it would survive the ultimate benchmark for the greatest bloopers in sports: the test of time.
“It all went wrong when Sanchez turned the wrong way,” Ryan says. “That was the first indication that it was going to be a bad play. But we had no idea it was going to be a disaster.”
In mere seconds, the history of the Jets cleaves into two distinct eras: everything Before the Butt Fumble (BBF) and everything after (ABF). So to commemorate its fifth anniversary, ESPN presents the definitive oral history of the best worst play in football.
Greg McElroy, Jets third-string QB, 2012: We had a simple fullback dive called 30 Dive. Our halfback dive was called 20 Dive. All Mark’s steps and footwork were great … for 20 Dive. The actual play was to the right, though. Mark got under center, had a little snafu and was thinking 20 Dive — just open to the left and hand it to the halfback. That’s when he realized the halfback had already flared out, the fullback had gone through the hole and it was actually 30 Dive.
Hilliard, Jets fullback, 2012: It was botched from the beginning. I was supposed to get the ball on that play. Thirty Dive happens so quick — when you open up and the ball’s not there, you know something went bad.
Ryan, Jets head coach, 2009-14: You always teach a quarterback, “Don’t make a bad play worse.” Well, we made it worse. I don’t know what [Sanchez] was doing, man. It was just a disaster. When everybody’s blocking it a certain way and you go the other way, that’s a bad combination.
Joe Namath, Hall of Fame Jets QB, after the game: It’s mind-boggling. Are your eyes closed? You don’t see where you’re going? I don’t know. I really can’t relate to that. I just can’t tell you what’s going on in Mark’s mind when he admits to having thought of another play when he turned out the wrong way. I don’t know where his head is, man.
Mike Carey, NFL referee, 1990-2013, officiated the game: They were zone-blocking, so there was just no hole anywhere. My primary job is to watch the quarterback. Sanchez’s mind was racing with the thought of “How can I get out of this?” and he had tunnel vision looking for a tiny rabbit hole to escape through. He was going to cut it back or slide, and he got caught in indecision and — bang — he runs into the biggest, most obvious thing right in front of him.
Steve Gregory, Patriots safety, 2012-13: We were in a three-deep zone coverage. And based off the formation, we’re going to drop one of the safeties into run support. It happened to be me. You can read the quarterback. Mark turned around with this look of panic, like, “What do I do now?” I’m coming down for run support, keeping the ball on my inside shoulder. He probably sees me and he tries to cut it back up inside.
McElroy: Mark follows the fullback, and our fullback kind of sold down on the play, and [then-Patriots defensive tackle] Vince Wilfork literally throws our guard Brandon Moore right at Mark, and I mean hard. Mark was kind of jogging, and it was Moore getting thrown back into Mark, which caused him to go backward and the ball to become dislodged. It was like getting punched in the face by a 300-pound glove. People who know the game saluted Wilfork for what he did as much as they condemned Mark. Wilfork was unbelievable, such a beast.
Ryan: I get pissed about this play because Brandon Moore’s in it. For a lot of years, he was probably the best guard in football and nobody had heard of him. He was legit. That year, that offseason, he had literally had both hips replaced. Probably never should have played, but he did. He gutted it out. On that play, Brandon does a great job, gets his block, knocks the guy off, and then Sanchez turns the wrong way. I don’t think people realize what a good guard he was. They just remember he’s the guy that had the Butt Fumble.
Rich Cimini, ESPN’s Jets beat reporter: That’s going to be in [Moore’s] football bio, the Butt Fumble, and I know Brandon just hates it. It’s unfair that he’s linked to that. He’s a proud, stubborn, grouchy guy, and he was offended by it. He called it the weirdest play he had ever seen and complained about how the littlest things turn into internet sensations. But he has not come around the Jets at all since he retired. It’s weird.
Gregory: It’s “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” Moore’s getting driven back, Sanchez has his eyes closed running forward and there’s a collision. Wilfork was a man-child out there, especially in run support, and he just drove that lineman back, and Sanchez somehow found Brandon Moore’s butt as a landing spot. Mark face-planted into the back of Brandon Moore’s butt.
Cimini: It was a big target, though; Brandon had a pretty big butt.
Carey: [Sanchez] just went weightless. The collision was really hard. Think about running into a brick wall that’s almost 700 pounds of force. That will knock the sense out of anybody.
John Brenkus, ESPN’s Sport Science host: They collided with more than 1,300 pounds of force. That’s more than 10 times the force needed to cause a fumble.
Cimini: As soon as it happened, I turned to [ESPN writer] Ian O’Connor and said, “I can’t believe this, but I think he just ran into his ass!” So we all watched the replay and it was like, “Yep, he really did.” I’ve covered the Jets for 29 years, and this was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. People were just aghast in the press box, even the Patriots writers.
Sanchez (in 2012): It’s embarrassing. You screw up the play, and I’m trying to do the right thing. It’s not like I’m trying to force something. I start to slide, and I slide in the worst spot I possibly could — right into Brandon Moore. That sucked.
Brenkus: Moving at nearly 10 mph, Sanchez spots the safety covering the outside lane. As he changes his vector to an inside lane, he realizes a collision is imminent and instinctively raises his arm to brace for impact. This leaves the ball vulnerable.
Cimini: If that had happened today, he’d be in concussion protocol. There was some concern about his neck or whiplash or something, but he played the rest of the game and it was actually one of his better games of the year. He had a passer rating over 90 [94.8], although no one will remember that part.
Carey: Mark goes straight down, flops onto the ground. His body language was, “God I wish I could disappear” — just total despair. He felt completely helpless. Someone was pinned on his legs and his upper body was open, so I thought he’d reach for the ball, but then he just kind of flopped over, head straight down into the turf, arms straight out on the turf. It was total despair.
Gregory: I’m dropping down, and I couldn’t really tell where Sanchez was because you got these big guys in front of you and you’re trying to figure out where the ball is. I come around the left side, and all of a sudden I’m standing there and the ball is just bouncing in front of me. I scoop it up and start running. It’s almost like it happens in slow motion. You don’t hear the crowd. You’re just cruising into the end zone, going, “What the heck just happened? Did I really just score?” I’m a guy who grew up in New York City. All my friends and people I grew up with are mostly Jets fans. To have that type of play and that type of game in my backyard, I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.
Sanchez (in 2012): I guess I was more stunned than anything. It was just like a car accident. I was like, “Whoa, what just happened, the ball is gone?” It was weird, man.
Hilliard: None of us knew it was off the butt. We just thought it was a regular fumble. Experiencing these plays is a lot different on the field as a player. We don’t see it over and over like you do on TV. You know something bad happened by the sound of the crowd. The crowd just erupted, and I looked up at the JumboTron and the ball’s going the other way. He was gone. All our receivers and backs are downfield, and we all have our backs to the play. No one was catching him. He was already prancing in the end zone when I finally turned to see what had happened.
Stephen Gregory Sr.: We were in the stands screaming and jumping up and down, and before he even got to the end zone we were yelling, “He’s gonna get the Madden turkey leg!”
Hilliard: On the sideline after the play, I started thinking, “Was it my fault? Did I go the wrong way?” Everyone’s going over what the playcall was and eliminating whose fault it was. The last thing you want to do is have it be your fault, especially on a play like that. You’re embarrassed by it, and Mark, bless his heart, he took the brunt of the heat on the whole deal.
Ryan: I’ve had my butt kicked several times, but that was the worst. I coached for 30 years; that was the worst quarter in the history of my coaching career, and there’s been some bad ones. But not even close to that one. It was brutal.
Manish Mehta, NFL columnist, New York Daily News: It was like an explosion. The Patriots scored 21 points on the Jets in 52 seconds. I don’t think you can score that much that fast in Madden, let alone in real life. The Patriots scored 35 points in the second quarter without having the ball for three minutes. And the Jets committed [three] turnovers in a quarter. How is that possible?
Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, radio personality: It makes the Jets look stupid. It makes the Jets look inept. It makes them look like Abbott and Costello. For a franchise that hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since 1969, it’s … it’s fitting is what it is.
Carey: You start to wonder at that point, “When is the stadium going to fall in on the Jets too?”
Cimini: After the three touchdowns in 52 seconds, which I’m pretty sure is still a record, the NBC cameras caught Rex saying “Un-f—ing-believable” on the sideline.
Ryan: Not one of my prouder moments.
Gregory: Bill Belichick doesn’t smile that often, but I think he smiled a little bit on that play. I bet he went home, saw the play on TV and chuckled a little bit about it.
Cimini: [Legendary Jets superfan] “Fireman Ed” used to wear a Sanchez jersey to games. That night he left the game at halftime. After the Butt Fumble, he said the ridicule was too much. He stopped. He said he just couldn’t do the Fireman Ed thing anymore.
Ed Anzalone (aka Fireman Ed): I have no interest in talking about the Butt Fumble. I don’t talk negative about the Jets to people other than real Jets fans.
McElroy: The Tim Tebow factor added something to it too. People wanted Mark to fail just because they were rooting for [then-backup QB] Tebow. People were chanting for Tebow by the end of that quarter, but really, that had been going on the whole season. Mark was such an easy target — the handsome, cool guy from Southern California, doing a spread for GQ. I think the world of Mark. Everyone loved Mark on that team, but I don’t know if Joe Fan loved Mark. I know lots of people loved to hate him. Of course, with Twitter and Vines and GIFs just getting started, it was the perfect amount of video time to share and a way for social media trolls to flex their muscle and put it in as many different forms as possible and spread it as far as humanly possible.
Ted Spiker, journalism professor, social media expert, University of Florida: At that point, Sanchez was a lightning rod for criticism and embarrassment. So he was ripe to be the main character in something like this. If Peyton Manning does it, he probably turns it into an endorsement deal for underwear.
Sanchez (in 2014): People always talk about it being such a rocky road in New York, but people seem to forget that the first couple of years, we had the world by the tail. We’re knocking on the door of the Super Bowl. We were so close. And then: boom.
Cimini: I referred to it in my copy the next day as the butt fumble with lowercase “b” and lowercase “f.” I don’t know when it became Butt Fumble with a capital “B” and capital “F,” but the next time I wrote about it, on Nov. 28, it was “Butt Fumble.”
Spiker: This was about the time when things on social media were really just peaking. It was the confluence of a bunch of factors that are really social media gold, and so many of those just made Butt Fumble explode. Social media really rewards the extreme and the unusual, and [sportscaster] Cris Collinsworth even said it during the broadcast, something like, “I’ve never seen something like this before.” Obviously, the body part is a huge piece of the puzzle too. It dealt with a body part that is a universal punchline.
Dave Blezow, associate sports editor, New York Post: We’re looking for the picture that will best tell the story on the back page. Of course, there was a picture of Mark Sanchez’s face smashing into Brandon Moore’s backside, with the ball coming out. And that goes on first. Sometimes, the picture determines what you can say in the headline.
Josh Egerman, night sports editor, New York Post: We’ll start sort of spitballing some headline ideas, and we knew that pretty much any headline we picked had to have the word “butt” in it. Rump Roast. Butt of the Joke. But ultimately we went with Butt Ugly.
Sanchez (in 2014): New York is sensationalized media. It’s best or worst. There’s no in-between. There’s no one who is just an average player. You’re either a bum or you’re Babe Ruth, Derek Jeter or Joe Namath — and that’s it. You can’t harbor it inside you either because that can be deadly too. You just have to let it go.
Ryan: You sit back, you probably have a drink or two and then you’re like, “Flush that one away and get on to the next game.” At the time, I never realized it was going down as the worst play in NFL history. As soon as they coined it Butt Fumble, that was when you knew the play was going to live on and on.
Spiker Butt Fumble. Rhythmically and poetically, it works really nice.
McElroy: That next week, watching the film with our QB coach, Matt Cavanaugh, it was like, “It happens. Secure the football next time. Let’s move on.” But we had already started to realize what a big deal it was and the huge reaction to it. It was a turning point.
Hilliard: We couldn’t get away from it. That’s all we heard about: Butt Fumble this and Butt Fumble that. It was everywhere.
Sanchez (in 2014): The Butt Fumble? So what? People screw up. And that happened to be a huge screwup on a huge holiday when everyone is watching football. So it’s like, “OK, so what?” You still gotta play ball. You gotta be like that. It would be such a shame to let something like that ruin everything. Why? It became low-hanging fruit for people to grab at. People who didn’t know football or who just wanted to say something, it was like, “Yeah, yeah, good one, OK, you got me.”
Mehta: The play was a microcosm of Sanchez’s career. He ultimately never mastered the most important element of playing quarterback in the NFL: ball security.
Cimini: Mark handled it really well. He took full responsibility for it. He tried to laugh it off at first. But Butt Fumble signaled the end of the Mark Sanchez era with the Jets. It took on a life of its own. Mark comes from a great family, and one day his brother texted me and said, “When is enough enough? When are you guys gonna let it go?”
Gregory: It was shown on TV every day for that entire year. If you go anywhere, it could be a restaurant, a movie theater, you could be at a charity event on a golf course, it doesn’t matter where you are. It’s like a Jeopardy question. As soon as the trivia comes up, “Hey, remember the Butt Fumble?” But guess what, who was the guy that scored on that play? You’re looking at him right here.
Kevin Negandhi, SportsCenter anchor: That highlight just represented the worst of the worst, perfectly. It was No. 1 on our SportsCenter Not Top 10 for going on 20 weeks, and I remember thinking, “This thing is never going to lose.” After 40 weeks, the powers that be made the decision to retire it. They saw that Butt Fumble was an unstoppable force and we had to take matters into our own hands. Think about it: 40 weeks. We were coming back around to the next football season. You’re talking about awful baseball plays, the entire NBA season, bad college football plays, awful soccer plays, even own goals, and for 40 weeks of our Not Top 10, it outlasted more than 400 bad plays. If we hadn’t retired Butt Fumble, that play was going to last for a while, a long while. Put it this way, no other blooper has a name.
McElroy: It might have bothered him, but he never really made it known. If anything, all he said was, “I can’t believe I did that.” Mark’s very caring, very respectful and wants to please everybody. He was young too, 26, dealing with adversity for the first time in his career, and being in New York overwhelmed him. It broke all of our hearts for him.
Spiker: Social media has really capitalized on the idea of image as a metaphor for life. You can sum up your entire existence and your complicated feelings in, like, four seconds. So now the Butt Fumble can describe your Monday or getting rejected at work. Butt Fumble has lived on because of that power that we now put in Vines and GIFs to define our lives for us in four seconds.
Gregory: When Thanksgiving rolls around, here comes 50 or 60 text messages from all my buddies: “Remember the Butt Fumble?” Thanksgiving is Butt Fumble. Every Thanksgiving, we re-enact the Butt Fumble. Usually my wife plays Mark Sanchez. I play me. We line my father up as an offensive lineman, and we take my mother and put her on the defensive line. She knocks my dad back, my wife runs into him, she fumbles, I pick it up and score. Then we go eat turkey … Come on, I’m joking. We don’t do that.
Ryan: As soon as you say Mark Sanchez, people think Butt Fumble. But we did win a few games together. Sanchez was a good quarterback-he just had a horrible moment. Mark won more playoff games than any quarterback in Jets history — that includes Joe Namath. Everybody has a bad moment in their career that you’d like to forget. But this one, because of the way it was labeled and the disaster that the play turned out to be, unfortunately, this one lives on and probably always will.
Cimini: Jets fans kill me every time I make a Butt Fumble reference. “When are you going to let it go?” But you can’t let the Butt Fumble go. It’s part of the legend, it’s part of the Jets lore — forever.
Sanchez (in 2014): I ran into a guy’s butt, fumbled and the Patriots scored. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, so that wasn’t cool. It was a bummer.
Ryan: Is there anything else I’d like to add? Hell no.
Gregory: See you at the 50th anniversary.