Westminster's Harrison Butker (82) practices kicking a field goal before a 2010 game against Buford.
Photo: Josh D. Weiss/For the AJC
Photo: Josh D. Weiss/For the AJC

‘My first sport was soccer’

Each week, five high school coaches will discuss one issue that affects Georgia high school sports.Last week: Home-schooled athletes 

It really comes down to how good you are.

Jeff Francoeur didn’t need to concentrate on one high school sport because he was arguably one the top of multi-sports athletes the state has produced. Football scholarship from Clemson, then selected No. 23 by the Braves in the 2002 baseball draft. 

Georgia Tech football’s all-time leading scorer Harrison Butker, who just won a Super Bowl ring with the Kansas City Chiefs, played soccer, basketball and kicked for the football team at Westminster. He said he didn’t need to specialize — one sport helped the other.

But other athletes across the state who need to concentrate on one sport in an effort to obtain major-college scholarships, are specializing. In many cases, the sport is picked in junior high, and the high school years are devoted to mastering that sport. As a result, the multi-sport athlete isn’t dying in Georgia, but the numbers are declining.

Are there benefits for both? Yes. The multi-sport athlete faces less of a chance of burnout from focusing on one sport all year. The specialized athlete learns discipline. 

So there’s your issue. What’s the best route — specialization in one sport or being the best you can be in two sports? Or three?

The skinny: Harrison Butker spent his time at Westminster as an all-around athlete. He played soccer for the Wildcats and won three state championships. He broke the school record at the time with a 53-yard field goal and was a captain of the basketball team.

Butker enrolled at Georgia Tech in 2013 and went on to become the school’s all-time leading scorer and team captain his senior season. During his career at Tech, he converted 208-of-210 extra-point attempts and 43-of-60 field-goal attempts. He was selected in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers before signing with the Kansas City Chiefs in September.

Butker made all four extra points and his only field-goal attempt as the Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers 31-20 last season in Super Bowl LIV. 

So what’s a Super Bowl-winning kicker think about the issue?

Westminster's Harrison Butker (17) scores over a Lovett defender to tie the game 1-1 in their state playoff game May 15, 2013, in Atlanta.
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Butker: “Yeah, well, I understand where the (specialization) thinking comes from. I want to specialize only in one sport because I want to get a college scholarship or because I want to become a professional at that sport. Like it makes sense. You find a trainer or a personal coach, and that's what you do year-round. But from my experience with Division 1 college football, I would say the majority of guys were multi-sport athletes, and then you get to the NFL, and it's near 100 percent of guys were all-state multi-sport athletes. So if the thinking is that I want to specialize to become a professional, I mean, at least in football, I do not see that happening. Maybe in other sports, but not football. 

“For me as a kicker, one initial thing in soccer, during the flow of the game, you’re having to kick the ball to your target at a weird angle. It’s not like in football during a field goal when you take your steps and have everything lined up. In soccer you have to be very athletic to be able to contort your body and hit the ball just like you want it. So back to football ... sometimes you might get a bad hold; you might trip or mess up your steps, and you must be an athlete and make the kick. You're completely off your rhythm; you're not doing something that you've practiced over and over — this is kind of an anomaly and doesn’t happen too often — but having the soccer background as an athlete (you have to) be confident that you’re still going to get good contact and hit a good ball.

“... What I would say is that sports are a great way to learn life lessons. And if you only focus on one sport, you are losing out on the beauty that all other sports can teach you. And a lot of people are not going to be playing professional sports and a lot of people aren't even going to be playing on scholarship in college with that sport. So I would say take advantage of your time in high school, enjoy the sport, learn as much as you can, all the life lessons that they teach you. And I think when you look at the people who are playing in college and professional sports, at least for football from my experience, nobody was specializing just in football.

“My first sport was soccer. I loved playing soccer. I wanted to be a professional soccer player in England, playing the Premier League. And then around ninth grade or so I started falling out of love with the sport. I was doing it year-round. I was specializing in it. I was still doing school basketball on the side, but my main focus was on soccer. And then I tried out for the football team and I absolutely loved it. That’s when I made the decision of not (playing) club soccer anymore, which was basically me saying, ‘I’m not going to be in the group of guys who are going to get selected for scholarships.’ So I was just doing high school soccer and basketball, and then said, ‘I’m pretty good at football; let me really work on this and try to get a scholarship in football.’ And so when I figured out that I was pretty good at football and that I loved it, I focused my energy on getting recruited in football and then just played basketball and soccer more for fun. And I still learned a lot of great lessons from it, but I wasn’t pursuing the soccer or basketball to play professionally or to play in college.”

AT ISSUE: Multi-sport athletes vs. specialization

• Jeff Francoeur, former Parkview multi-sport star
• Harrison Butker, former Westminster multi-sport star
• Tim McFarlin, Blesses Trinity coach
• Rush Propst, Valdosta coach
• Tim Hardy, Greater Atlanta Christian coach
» MORE: Previous topics

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