Spotlight again on Harrison Butker at Bobby Dodd Stadium, this time at commencement

Kansas City Chiefs punter Tommy Townsend (5) and place kicker Harrison Butker (7) celebrate after making the winning field goal during Super Bowl LVII against the Philadelphia Eagles at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 12, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times).

Kansas City Chiefs punter Tommy Townsend (5) and place kicker Harrison Butker (7) celebrate after making the winning field goal during Super Bowl LVII against the Philadelphia Eagles at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 12, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times).

If he’s being honest, Harrison Butker isn’t keen on his appointment for Saturday morning – giving the keynote address for the first of Georgia Tech’s two undergraduate commencement ceremonies at Bobby Dodd Stadium. He doesn’t like public speaking, and as the former Tech star and two-time Super Bowl champion kicker put it, it’s an opportunity that he’d love to say no to.

However, Butker will be prepared with his remarks.

“I don’t feel like I should be there; I don’t feel like I have anything worthwhile to say,” Butker said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But I do have to remember that there’s a reason why these funny-shaped balls are going through these two yellow posts. I’m making these kicks, and because of that, people want to hear what I have to say. And I think it would be a waste of my talents, of what God’s given me, if I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’”

There is much to recommend Butker, who earned his Tech degree in industrial engineering in 2017 and since has risen to the very top of his highly visible profession with hard work and attention to detail – attributes that Tech alumni revere. But the honor of speaking at graduation almost always has gone to business and political leaders – past speakers include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former United Nations ambassador and mayor Andrew Young, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian and former Walmart CEO (and Tech grad) Michael Duke. Other commencement speakers this weekend include former governor Sonny Perdue (ironically, a former Georgia Bulldogs walk-on football player) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

But the subset of professional athletes (current or past) who have delivered a charge to a Tech graduating class is minute. The most recent was Yellow Jackets basketball legend John Salley, in 2004.

“I’m going out and I’m trusting that God wants me to be speaking, and hopefully it will be good,” Butker said. “And if it’s his will, it will be.”

Butker was asked to deliver the address by Tech president Ángel Cabrera early in the NFL’s offseason after Butker had secured the Super Bowl for the Kansas City Chiefs with a 27-yard field goal in the game’s final seconds. Butker stands as the fourth-most accurate kicker in NFL history, having made 88.2% of his kicks in his six NFL seasons. (For some Tech fans, Butker earned every privilege accorded an alumnus when he made his overtime-forcing 53-yard field goal against Georgia in 2014.)

Butker said that Cabrera left a voicemail for him, and when he read the transcription of the invitation, “I was like, ‘Surely, the robot that deciphers what the voicemail said said something wrong.’”

The robot, though, interpreted Cabrera correctly. Butker accepted and did have some ideas that he wanted to share. The value of risk taking is one point that he plans to address. In his own profession, “there are so many opportunities to fail, be ridiculed and be humiliated, embarrassed. But you can’t focus on those things,” he said. “You have to take full advantage of the opportunity and look at what you can gain from it, how it can push you and help you grow.”

He vetted his speech with his business partner, Austin Wright, and with Butker’s wife, Isabelle.

“I went through all the jokes with her to make sure there weren’t too many dad jokes in there,” Butker said. “But I think hopefully I’ll get some laughs.”

Graduation ceremonies typically draw several thousand attendees. (The 9 a.m. event is free and open to the public.) This will be the largest audience that Butker has spoken to, surpassing a talk he gave at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, to around 1,000 students.

“But when you get to a certain point, it’s a lot of people,” he said. “You can’t really count.”

For Butker, who has been public about his Catholic faith, Saturday’s engagement is nothing less than a divine appointment. He said that, after the Super Bowl-winning kick, it occurred to him that he had done many interviews regarding his faith, but that there had not been a significant public-speaking opportunity for an event unrelated to faith.

The day after he had spoken those thoughts aloud, he said, Cabrera called with his invitation.

“Even though I don’t like doing these things, it’s just put on a silver platter, basically, for me,” he said. “I need to take advantage of that.”

Back on the field where he once crushed kickoffs and hit pretty end-over-end field goals, Butker will be ready to deliver again.

“I’m sure it’ll feel like going out for a field goal,” he said. “You practice a lot, you prepare yourself, you know that you’re ready to go and then when you get there, it’s game time. The lights are on, you’re anxious, there’s some nerves, but that’s what makes it fun. You get that kind of thrill, and I’m looking forward to it.”