Harrison Butker: ‘I’m optimistic going into draft weekend’

Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker (87) and other players celebrate their 28-27 win over Georgia with a piece of the Sanford Stadium hedges at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, November 26, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker (87) and other players celebrate their 28-27 win over Georgia with a piece of the Sanford Stadium hedges at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, November 26, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

I’ll never forget Jan. 30 of this year. It was a Monday. I had just finished an evening kicking workout. I checked my email and was stunned. It was an official invitation to the NFL Draft Combine.

It was a pretty surreal moment, as I realized I’d have the opportunity to show all 32 NFL teams what I’m capable of doing. I knew it was going to be the biggest opportunity of my life.

Now, I’m one week away from the draft, and it’s unbelievable to think that in less than seven days, I’ll hopefully be one step closer to something I never could have dreamed of, a chance to play in the NFL.

I didn’t always plan to be in this position. Growing up in Decatur, my earliest memories of playing football were in elementary school during recess. I was one of the biggest kids in my grade, so I loved playing wide receiver. I’d tell the quarterback to just chuck it up as high and far as he could and I’d go get it, which little did I know would be a sign of things to come.

In sixth grade, I tried playing wide receiver for my school team that mostly ran the ball. I was barely involved and shifted my interest to soccer. I had always been around the game. My parents both played in college, my dad at Berry College and my mom at Smith College. Kicking the ball with my dad at my sister’s soccer games, my dad always told me I had a naturally big leg. Playing in the Premier League in England became my dream.

Sometimes, I’d see the football team practicing, and I’d think I could be pretty good at kicking and punting, but I was focused on soccer and basketball.

From my freshman year, I started for the soccer team and was a part of the basketball team. But the football coach at the time heard I had a decent leg and asked me to kick for him. I guess he was impressed, and asked me to join the team.

So, as a sophomore, I re-started my football career, this time at kicker. I took the kickoffs. That summer, I went to a local kicking camp and finished as the top performer in my class.

Performing well at the kicking camp lit a fire inside of me to focus heavily on kicking. I continued to push myself to get better by watching film and improving my technique. The feedback made me realize I had a future in kicking, and I shifted all of my energy to football.

As a junior, I made 16 of 17 field goals, with my only miss coming from 59 yards. In the summer before my senior year, I went to a Kohl’s Kicking Camp and got ranked second in the country. Following that camp, Georgia Tech started to heavily recruit me. I was just excited to have an opportunity to continue my kicking career at the collegiate level and play in my hometown for the team and school I supported.

To backtrack a little, when I was a kid, my dad was a big Georgia Bulldogs fan. My mom was a fan of Georgia Tech, where she earned her master’s degree. To fuel that friendly in-home rivalry, my mom gave me a black-and-gold Tech sweatshirt that I wore every day. My mom’s influence, and the excitement of watching Georgia Tech’s basketball team make the national championship game in 2004, made me a Tech fan.

So, I ultimately accepted Georgia Tech’s scholarship offer. It worked out perfectly to play for the team I loved growing up. Coach Paul Johnson and the Tech family welcomed me with open arms and gave me an opportunity to show what I could do on the field.

In my four years, we had some great memories. I still remember my freshman year playing Duke and lining up for a 49-yarder for my first career field goal. I often think about the two wins against our rival Georgia. Those are two of my most memorable games in my college career. In fact, my mom is currently growing the hedge from this past season to plant in the yard soon. Another one of my favorite traditions at Tech was seeing the fans on fan day. I remember a guy telling me that besides the day his son was born, my kick against Georgia was the best moment of his life.

I was also fortunate to become the all-time leading scorer for Georgia Tech, something I never would have imagined. It was such a great honor to share with my teammates, coaches and fans and something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

It’s been an interesting ride since then. At the end of the regular season, I wasn’t even nominated as a top-20 kicker in college and wasn’t invited to any all-star games. I was surprised, but unfazed as I knew I had to keep working hard. However, after the Tax Slayer Bowl, where I went 4-for-4, I was named to the All-Bowl team and selected as one of just four kickers invited to the NFL combine. After reading that email, I was speechless. I didn’t think it was real.

At the combine, I was excited and prepared to show what I could do, and I think I did, showing my accuracy on field goals and my leg strength on kickoffs. I connected with scouts and coaches and got feedback on how I could keep improving going into my pro day and private workouts.

Through my private workouts and building relationships with scouts and coaches, I’ve learned so much about the intricacies of the NFL and tried to be a student of the game. I appreciate this opportunity to pursue football as a career, where my job will be to wake up and improve my game to help my team win games.

I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of what I can do, and there’s no limit where kicking can take me. Not many kickers get selected, but I’m optimistic going into draft weekend. I plan to spend the weekend at home with my family and friends. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my parents’ support, expecting the best out of me and pushing me towards excellence.

There’s a level of excitement leading up to the draft, but after this weekend, I’m just ready to get to work for the team that brings me in. And just like that ball thrown to me when I was a receiver as a kid, high and far up, the opportunity is right in front of me, I just have to go get it.