Remembering that Harrison Butker, on way to greatness, once was ‘pretty average’

Watching from afar, Paul Johnson doesn’t worry about his former kicker, even when Harrison Butker has been summoned to decide championships with his right foot.

“I don’t get nervous for him,” Georgia Tech’s coaching great told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think he’s proven himself over and over in clutch situations. I’m sure he’s pretty confident in his ability.”

What Yellow Jackets fans came to trust over Butker’s four-year career at Tech — and supporters of The Westminster Schools before that — the entirety of the football world has come to understand beyond virtually all doubt, demonstrated yet again with his exploits in the Chiefs’ overtime victory in Super Bowl 58 over the 49ers on Sunday. Butker is exceptionally trustworthy when it counts the most. He has made the most of the opportunity he had coming out of Tech.

“You don’t ever know how it’s going to go, but I knew he was very talented, and he had a good head on his shoulders,” Johnson said. “I’m not surprised at what he’s done, really.”

It’s one thing to be unsurprised that it’s happened. But the crazy part — or at least one of the crazy parts — is that it hardly was a certainty that he would even get the chance.

As his father (also Harrison) told the AJC in 2021, “Coming out of college, he didn’t have great numbers. He was pretty average.”

As apparently is the family trait, the elder Harrison is accurate. Butker did finish his career as Tech’s all-time leading scorer, thanks in no small part to providing the extra points for Johnson’s powerful offense. For his career, he made 43 of 60 field-goal tries (71.7%), good but not great. Even in his best season, as a senior in 2016, his field-goal accuracy rate (15-for-17, 88.2%) tied for 13th in FBS. As a pro prospect, not overwhelming.

He did have a powerful leg that he showed off on kickoffs, and he finished his career with a standout performance in Tech’s bowl game (4-for-4 on field goals and seven touchbacks), which may have helped him earn a spot in the NFL Scouting Combine. There, on top of wowing scouts, he was asked whether he was more like a cat or a dog as part of a psychological profile.

“Definitely a dog,” Butker said then. “I don’t know who would put that they’re more similar to a cat.”

But spots in the NFL are scarce for kickers, even for those who align themselves with dogs over cats and record touchbacks on 74% of their kickoffs. Trying to play every angle to help his client, Butker’s agent worked with the AJC before the draft to publish a first-person account from Butker telling his story and pitching himself to general managers.

“I feel like I’m just starting to scratch the surface, and there’s no limit to where kicking can take me,” Butker wrote with stunning prescience.

He did end up getting drafted, by Carolina in the seventh and final round, but ultimately was cut and placed on the practice squad. He languished there until the Chiefs signed him after the third game of the season. He missed his first kick in his first game with the team, but then was called on in the final seconds for a 43-yard try with the score tied at 20-20.

If he missed, it conceivably could have been the end of his time with the Chiefs. Who knows what might have become of his career? (Or, for that matter, what if he had won the Panthers job?) Presumably not three Super Bowl rings and a string of clutch playoff makes. But we’ll never know because, in that career-defining moment, Butker was who he has become.

“I didn’t think of the kick, like, ‘Oh, if I miss this kick, what’s going to happen?’” he told the AJC at the time. “I was like, I’m going to go out and make this kick, and the game’s going to be over.”

An epic ride had just begun.

“It’s still weird to me, the fact that I don’t have to worry about studying or doing homework or anything,” the newly graduated Butker (industrial engineering) said then. “I’m getting nine hours of sleep a night.”

With regular sleep and time to dedicate to his craft, Butker has few peers at his position.

With an 89.1% field-goal accuracy rate, Butker ranks second all-time, behind only Baltimore’s Justin Tucker. But beyond his consistent regular-season excellence, Butker can put up a postseason resume to rival the player most likely to become only the third placekicking specialist to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Patriots and Colts great Adam Vinatieri.

There probably never will be more memorable field goals than the four made by Vinatieri — game-tying and game-winning makes (from 45 and 23 yards) in a blizzard to beat the Raiders in an AFC divisional playoff in January 2002 along with Super Bowl-winning kicks that season (over the heavily favored Rams) and two years later. The fact that they helped launch the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick dynasty renders them even more historic.

Vinatieri also is the NFL’s all-time leader in points and field goals, ahead of Hall of Famer and Falcons great Morten Andersen. Eligible for induction next year for the first time, Vinatieri almost certainly will make it eventually, if not in his first year of eligibility. Assuming his career continues apace, the Ravens’ Tucker likely will, too.

And, assuming similarly of Butker, he will offer his own sparkling record before Hall of Fame voters when the time comes, one that will be even harder to deny if Vinatieri and Tucker earn induction ahead of him. Whether he wants to play as many seasons as Vinatieri (24) is uncertain, but to this point Butker shouldn’t take a backseat to Vinatieri in terms of his postseason play.

In the 2018 playoffs, he forced overtime in an eventual loss with a 39-yarder. In 2021, he forced overtime in two consecutive playoff games with last-second field goals of 49 and 44 yards, both in wintry conditions (the latter a loss). In the 2022 postseason, he kicked the game-winners in the AFC title game (45 yards) and the Super Bowl (27 yards). And, Sunday, he set a Super Bowl record for longest field goal (57 yards) and also forced overtime with a last-second 29-yarder, enabling the Chiefs to win in the extra session.

Interestingly, Butker’s career overlapping with Tucker’s has prevented him from claiming any Pro Bowl or first-team All-Pro honors, which is hardware that normally burnishes a Hall of Fame candidacy. But he certainly has everything else.

Vinatieri figures to make it on account of his career production and historic postseason performance. Butker may not last as long, but he has been more accurate — and just as accurate when it has counted most.

Time will tell if the Chiefs will remain atop the NFL and enable Butker the opportunity for more right-footed glory.

But Harrison Butker, product of Westminster and Georgia Tech, no longer is pretty average.