It had been six hours that Harrison Butker had been watching the NFL draft unfold Saturday afternoon. Midway through the seventh round, his name not yet having been called, he said he was a little discouraged, as it appeared that he was not going to get picked.
“I was focusing in on free agency,” he said. “I thought getting drafted was out of the question.”
Finally, the phone rang for the former Georgia Tech kicker. Carolina Panthers special-teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey was on the other end. The next thing he knew, McGaughey passed along the phone to a Panthers official who told him that the pick wouldn’t be broadcast on television for a few minutes, Butker said, but that he was going to be a Panther.
“That’s when the tears came down,” Butker said.
Butker, Tech’s all-time leading scorer and a graduate of the Westminster Schools, is now on an NFL roster after just seven seasons in the game. His selection early Saturday evening was the culmination of the pursuit of this opportunity over those seven years, diligent effort bearing fruit.
“Pretty big moment,” he said. “One of the biggest moments of my life.”
At least for those who didn’t see him play, he has made a remarkable jump. Butker was never named All-ACC in his four seasons at Tech. He wasn’t named to the 20-player semifinalist list for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s top kicker. Most likely, his limited number of field-goal tries in Tech’s touchdown-centric offense limited his recognition. He also wasn’t invited to any pre-draft all-star games.
But he was just one of four kickers invited to the NFL draft combine, where he put on a show, and then did the same at Tech’s pro day, drilling a 58-yarder towards the end of his workout. He was just one of three kickers taken in the draft, a far more significant marker of his ability than an all-conference award.
Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman put such a priority on Butker that he didn’t want to count on him going undrafted through the final 20 picks after the Panthers’ seventh-round selection and then trying to sign him as an undrafted free agent, fearing someone else would take him.
And even had that happened, there also would have been no shortage of talented kickers available as undrafted free agents. Butker was the one Gettleman wanted.
“We thought it was important that we get this guy,” he told reporters in Charlotte after the draft.
He’s also just the second kicker ever drafted in Tech history, following the great Scott Sisson, and the first in Panthers history. Butker described the day’s events as amazing, unbelievable and incredible, then kept at it.
“It was surreal,” he said. “Put that in there.”
It is also the beginning of his career as a professional kicker, a precarious trade but one that can be quite profitable for someone with Butker’s thirst for excellence and confidence. Butker completed his career with easily the best season of his four at Tech, making 15 of 17 field goals, including 8-for-8 from 40 yards or longer, and recorded 54 touchbacks on 73 kickoffs, many of which sailed through the back of the end zone.
Butker, who will graduate this coming Saturday with a degree in industrial engineering, was eager for the transition, and already aware of some of the implications of the shift.
“In college, you might be four years older or four years younger than somebody,” he said. “In the NFL, the range of ages is huge, and it’s a profession. These guys have kids. They have livelihoods. They’re not giving up their spot. There’s only 53 guys on the roster and only one kicker. It’s a different environment.
“But I’m pumped to be in that environment, where football is my focus, where I can just get better at kicking. I’m so glad I’m about to graduate as an industrial engineer from Georgia Tech. But I’m (now) able to focus all my time and energy on being a kicker. I’m going to (reap) even more dividends from all that work.”
Butker will jump right into a potentially tense competition. The Panthers have employed kicker Graham Gano for the past five seasons. Gano, a Lou Groza Award winner at Florida State, has been steady for the Panthers, making 83 percent of his field goals. However, he made 78.9 percent this past season, including 17-for-23 (73.9 percent) from 40 yards and out. Further, he had surgery to repair a broken bone in his left (plant) foot after the season.
And, perhaps even more germane, he is going into the last year of a four-year contract that will pay him $3.2 million in base salary if he makes the team. Butker, by contrast, would most likely receive a salary of $465,000.
“I’m about to be in the NFL,” Butker said. “Obviously, you’ve got to get over that idea of being a fan of the National Football League. You’re now a player in it and you’re a professional.”
Butker knew that Carolina might be a landing spot. The team sent McGaughey down to Atlanta to put him through a private workout, one of four teams to do so. To the best of his recollection, he was 13 for 14 on field goals, kicked the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs and also performed well on his directional kickoffs.
“I thought I had a good workout, and I felt very consistent,” he said. “I feel like the way I kicked for the Panthers is how I’m consistently kicking now, now that I’m settling down. I’m not just trying to destroy the ball. I’m just hitting it consistent.”
Getting selected by the Panthers, who play in Charlotte, N.C., is a nice perk.
“I just looked it up,” he said. “Three and a half hours to the stadium from my house.”
He’ll be there this weekend for the Panthers’ rookie minicamp, which may preclude him from attending Tech’s graduation next Saturday.
“I got drafted,” he said. “That’s incredible to say. For the rest of my life, I can say I got drafted. But my hard work doesn’t end there. It’s only the beginning. I’m ready to get to camp. I’m ready to start competing and do my best. That’s all I can do.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC