Harrison Butker has attained ‘top echelon,’ but aims even higher

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Football greatness has not always attended Harrison Butker. The Georgia Tech grad has attained it as a kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs, who play Tampa Bay on Sunday for their second consecutive Super Bowl championship. But, the climb had humbler origins. Just ask his dad.

“Coming out of college, he didn’t have great numbers,” said Butker’s father, also Harrison. “He was pretty average.”

He is not wrong. As a senior in 2016, he was indeed special, making 88.2% of his field-goal attempts (first in the ACC) and finishing sixth in FBS in touchback percentage (74%). And he had an undeniable knack for delivering in big moments. But he made 65.1% of his field-goal tries in his first three seasons, not the type of performance to draw much NFL attention.

Yet, as Butker awaits the opportunity to play for his second Super Bowl ring in his fourth season, he is pushing the boundaries of kicking excellence in the NFL. Butker could play for another decade or more, but he’s on a most promising trajectory, and not only that of the kicks that rocket off his right foot.

“Overall, he’s – in my mind – in the top echelon of kickers in the NFL,” said Morten Andersen, the Falcons great and one of only two pure kickers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Butker’s excellence is represented most clearly in his career field-goal percentage, 90.3%. He is a hair behind the NFL’s all-time leader, Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, at 90.7%. They are at the forefront, with company behind them. Of the 10 most accurate kickers in league history (with a minimum of 100 field-goal attempts), nine are active.

The Tucker/Butker race is tight. Butker, who has made 121 of 134 attempts, would be the all-time leader if he had made 122. Likewise, Tucker – 291 for 321 in nine seasons – would be trailing Butker had he missed two more kicks along the way.

“The only record I think about is career field-goal percentage,” Butker said on a videoconference with Super Bowl media this week. “I think that’s a good indication of what (type) of kicker you are.”

Four years into his career, it isn’t far-fetched to contemplate that this product of Tech and the Westminster Schools, a former player of soccer, basketball and the tuba, a married father of two, could one day be considered among the game’s all-time best.

“He’s kind of shocked us at every level,” the elder Harrison said. He recalled that when his son tried out for the Westminster soccer team as a freshman, he just wanted to make the team. He ended up making the starting lineup that season.

It’s the marriage of a supremely talented individual who also is pushing himself with an obsession to be the best. Former Tech coach Paul Johnson, who oversaw his Yellow Jackets career, said that Butker’s athletic ability was such that he could have played wide receiver if he had chosen to. Johnson recalled a kicking camp at Tech for prospects that Butker attended.

“You could tell not only was he talented, but he was competitive,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of why we recruited him and, boy, were we right.”

Even beyond devotion to strength training, conditioning and practice, Butker has relentlessly pursued any advantage. He keeps a gluten-free diet and is disciplined in his sleep schedule. His recovery process includes weekly massages. When he and his wife, Isabelle, renovated their Kansas City, Mo., home, they added a near-infrared sauna, which has been claimed to aid the body in removing toxins.

The two Harrisons still continue to review game video, a practice started at Westminster, poring over the frames to catch any deviations in technique.

“It’s unbelievable, all of the variables and nuances,” Butker’s father said. “We can have an hour discussion on one aspect of kicking, trying to figure out what the best way to do it is.”

After helping the Chiefs to the Super Bowl championship last season, Butker was a guest on the “4th Down Experience” podcast and engaged in a deep discussion of kicking. He shared how he watched XFL and college kickers and envied their form to illustrate how narrow the margins are.

“The difference between a great kicker having a great career and a great kicker not having a good career is just so small,” he said. “And that’s kind of what I feel like I’ve done a good job of focusing on and figuring out: How can I make that one, two, three extra balls go in that, for other kickers that maybe have better talent, better technique than me, they’re not going in for them.”

On the same podcast, the show hosts asked Butker to look at a photo of himself on his Instagram account taking a kick in last year’s Super Bowl. It is a high-angle perspective from the end zone, an unusual shot, and Butker is kicking on the Super Bowl logo painted on the field, the ball clearing the outstretched arms of San Francisco 49ers defenders.

It’s a captivating action shot. When asked for his thoughts, Butker’s first comment was that one thing he hated about the photo was that the laces of the ball were to the side – at 9 o’clock, if he were 6 o’clock – meaning he hadn’t connected squarely.

“I think that’s just because my toe is in front of my heel, so when I make contact, the ball is spinning counterclockwise a little bit,” he said.

On the videoconference Tuesday, he sounded every bit the industrial-engineering major he was at Tech, speaking of reverse engineering and reducing the probability of repeating mistakes.

“I think he became much more detail-oriented at Tech,” said his mother, Elizabeth Butker.

That inner drive produced one of the more remarkable sequences of this Chiefs season. With two minutes left in overtime against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sept. 20, Butker hit from 53 yards, but the play was wiped out by a false start, pushing the kick back to 58. Then the Chargers called timeout just before the snap to ice Butker, who went ahead and made the kick after the whistles blew the play dead. And finally, Butker made the kick a third time, ending the game. It was his second 58-yarder of the day, making him only the second kicker in NFL history to make two kicks from that distance in the same game.

He finished the regular season 25-for-27 on field-goal attempts (92.6%, a career best) and 48-for-54 on extra-point tries.

“I think the biggest issue was just mentally treating an extra point like any other kick and just dialing in for those extra points,” Butker said.

Butker has a fan in Andersen, who raved about Butker’s ability to get initial lift on his kick. Beyond that, he likes his approach.

“I’m proud of the way he conducts himself,” said Andersen, who lives in Buford and hosts the “Great Dane Nation” podcast. “I think he’s a humble guy, and he exudes confidence when he’s out there. He’s clearly a great athlete, he takes care of his body, so he’s doing all the right things. But, this is a marathon. They don’t hand out the prizes just yet.”

Spoken like a man who holds the NFL record for games played (382) and retired with the records (since broken) for career field goals made (565) and points (2,544). Eventually, Andersen said, Butker will have to measure his desire to continue with his relentless approach. Speaking on the podcast, it sounds as if he has no plans to slow down.

“My No. 1 goal is to be the most accurate field-goal kicker in the history of the NFL,” Butker said. “Now it’s just trying to figure out what do I need to change, what do I need to work on to get to that point of near perfection.”