Long after last field goal, Bulldogs’ Butler makes good on academic goal

It's graduation day at UGA, Butler style. Kevin Butler, with cap and gown, is joined, from left, by father Joe, son Drew, daughter Savannah, wife Cathy, daughter Scarlett Sugar and mother Sharon. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Butler)
It's graduation day at UGA, Butler style. Kevin Butler, with cap and gown, is joined, from left, by father Joe, son Drew, daughter Savannah, wife Cathy, daughter Scarlett Sugar and mother Sharon. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Butler)

Let’s see, where will the college degree fit? The walls and shelves and crannies of Kevin Butler’s home office in Duluth are already heavily weighed down by the treasures of a full and sporting life.

It should go somewhere special, that much is obvious. For how many people live a life like this in reverse – where they go off and have a career, make a name for themselves, establish a family and only after all that, then graduate from college?

Commencement at Georgia was May 4. As Butler was accepting his degree in business economics from the highly regarded Terry College, one had to wonder: How many others there were being applauded by both their parents and their fully grown children?

“About the same amount of people who could say they had both hips done while they were going to school,” laughed Butler. The second artificial hip was installed into the old placekicker just two months ago.

And had they pushed back the ceremony only a little bit, another generation could have been there. Just four days later, Butler’s granddaughter was born, perhaps ushering in the future first female kicker ever at UGA.

“Could be,” Butler said, before recognizing the skills of the newborn’s father, Bulldogs and NFL punter Drew Butler. “Or punter. I don’t know what she’ll be influenced by. She’s got some awful long feet, so we’ve already been laughing about that. It certainly runs in the family.”

Kevin Butler is 55 years old. That his new degree – when the real one arrives in the mail – will have to compete for space with so many other personal highlights speaks to the fact that there was absolutely no practical need for him to go back to school.

Six classes short of his degree, Butler left Georgia in 1985 and got about as famous as a kicker can get. He immediately fell into the Super Bowl champion ’85 Bears and became one of the large personalities on a team full of them. The spinoff business and earning opportunities that came with that were plentiful. Thirteen years in the league, a two-time All American at Georgia, Butler had a wide network of valuable contacts.

He has made a lot of big kicks – see the game balls that practically spill out of the cabinet when he dares open the door. He was the first kicker selected to the College Football Hall of Fame. He has been to the White House as a champion. And been back to Georgia as an adviser to this generation of kickers.

Business school? He had attended the toughest one out there, the one that cuts you off at the knees if you fail. Yes, he’s experienced a few of those low blows out there in the marketplace. His current interests range from high-end Tennessee spirits - Uncle Nearest Whiskey - to an Athens RV complex that keeps growing with the success of Bulldogs football.

Butler has done all that plus help bring a family to full term.

And yet, said Butler’s wife, Cathy, “Graduation day is actually one of the top (experiences) because I know he feels accomplished. He had a God-given talent to kick and his passion is football, so he pursued that and was very successful. But he had a lot of regrets and really felt that something was missing without his degree.”

When he reached a point in his life when the kids were gone and the days slowed down a tick, Butler decided he was tired of going to meetings and envying the diplomas hanging behind someone else’s desk. Being the only one in his own household without a degree didn’t sit well, either.

So, back to academia he went, back to the world of theory, more than 30 years after leaving it behind.

Over two fall terms as an undergrad student, Butler got to volunteer with the football team. In 1982, he was part of the Bulldogs’ loss of a potential national championship to Dan Marino and Pitt in the Sugar Bowl. In 2018, he was on the sidelines at Mercedes-Benz Stadium when the Bulldogs lost the championship in overtime to Alabama. Well, there’s still time, one reckons.

By his calculations, all his professors were about his age or younger. His counselor was a one-time classmate back in the ’80s.

The kid who once repeated second grade, who struggled with dyslexia, found now that he was adept at writing coherent papers for any class. All those years polishing the language as a public speaker and a Bulldogs football radio host had given Butler a linguistic leg up.

Statistics was his hardest class. “A hard damn class,” Butler said. “I got a C by the skin of my teeth. I had to have a D, and I would have taken that in a heartbeat. The teacher said the first day, the people who took calculus the last quarter, it’s really going to help you. And I remember thinking, ‘OK, what if it was 34 years ago?’”

It was that same statistics class that he initially monitored online from Italy, while on a trip for his 32nd wedding anniversary. Just an upscale version of going to Starbucks to study, that’s all.

One class was a required lab course that he didn’t fulfill the first time through Georgia. Ecology. One day as he collected samples from a creek, one of his lab partners asked why, exactly, a fellow such as himself was mucking around in a little creek.

Well, he explained, he had been at UGA a long time ago. He had played a little football. Then, in his senior year, he got drafted.

“The girl looked at me funny and goes, you mean, like, the army?” Butler recalled.

“The next time we got together it was: ‘Oh, my parents know who you are.’”

You’re a certain age and experience, the student can also be the teacher. At the end of his business-law class, Butler was asked by the prof to stand up and say a few words to the kids.

“Basically,” he said, “I told them I appreciate being here with you guys, it has been a great experience for me. I’ve been in your seat. Sometimes you sit here and say what I’m learning here today I’ll never use. I just want you to know in this class, you’re going to use everything that we had been taught. Pay attention.

“And I let them know to enjoy college. They got a lot of time for other things. Don’t be too fast in their pursuit to get old. Enjoy it while you’re young.”

By the way, he aced the last test he took – a B-plus in the ecology final. Split the uprights. Now back to the real world.

His wife graduated with a Georgia business degree on the usual schedule and is the owner of a Lilburn bridal salon, Formally Yours. Butler, the football star, said he’ll never meddle in that business. Too brutal, he claims.

But, now, must at least his wife acknowledge that her guy is smart, with the degree to prove it? “I’ve heard smart-ass, maybe,” Butler said.

At commencement, Butler marched with a message atop his mortarboard: “The Butler Did It.” That was one daughter’s doing. None of the other graduate’s children came up with anything like that.

When the Georgia degree arrives, and the framing is done, it will go up next to his wife’s, that much they know now. Exactly where in his office is still under consideration. There is going to have to be a little shuffling of awards and trophies, a reordering of memories.

But it must land somewhere prominent.

“It’s a personal victory,” Butler said. “It makes me stronger. It makes me more confident. I don’t have that hole out there. And I think my family’s awfully proud of me.”

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