Yellow Jackets kicker and ISyE senior Harrison Butker will forever be a hero to Yellow Jacket fans. On November 29, 2014, a picture-perfect sunny afternoon in Athens, Butker kicked the game-tying field goal against the No.9 Georgia Bulldogs – sending the game into the first-ever overtime at Sanford Stadium.
That edition of Clean Old-fashioned Hate culminated with a thrilling Georgia Tech win, thanks to Butker’s kick, followed by defensive back D.J. White’s interception that ended the game at 30-24. The pair of plays have gone down in Tech football history as “the Kick and the Pick.”
While that kick – and 2015’s “Miracle on Techwood Drive” against Florida State, during which Butker kicked another game-tying FG – have endeared him eternally to the Tech faithful, Butker didn’t actually start playing football until his sophomore year at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta. He grew up playing soccer and basketball and tried out for the football team at the encouragement of his girlfriend and some of the older guys on the team.
“I wasn’t a football fan. I didn’t even understand the football positions until I got to college,” Butker recalls in a recent interview. “But I started kicking and was pretty decent, so then I started getting some scholarship offers. What stood out for me about Georgia Tech was the coaching staff and the team itself.”
“Coach [Paul] Johnson picks guys with good character,” he adds. “Just because you are a good athlete doesn’t mean you are going to get offered a scholarship. He makes sure you have good principles, and I felt that he cared about that more than just the football side.”
Butker will graduate in spring 2017. When asked what he’ll miss most about Georgia Tech, a lot of his memories are tied up in football: bonding with the team during morning workouts, Yellow Jacket Alley, playing on historic Grant Field at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “All the traditions are amazing,” Butker says.
But there are plenty of non-football memories he’s made as well: He has thoroughly enjoyed his ISyE classes and is currently active with Senior Design. And when not studying and not on the football field, he can be found at Tech’s Catholic Center.
“It’s a gem I didn’t know about,” he says, “and it’s another big reason I’m glad I chose Tech. My faith gives me the perspective that there’s a lot more out there besides football. When I first got here, it was everything football, and success, and getting accolades. My outlook on life has changed a lot. I don’t take comfort in those things like I used to.”
“If I look back on my life when I’m old,” Butker continues, “I think I’ll have had a successful life if I have a good family. If I raise my kids right, and in a good loving home, I’d be very proud, because that’s how my parents raised me, and that means a lot to me. So, to be a great father to my kids and a great husband, and have an impact on people’s lives.”
Butker, who is from Decatur, GA, has stayed close to home throughout his time at Tech. His parents have attended every football game that Butker has played in – including this year’s opening match-up against Boston College in Dublin, Ireland – except for one. Like many freshman, he would take home his laundry and get a hot meal from his mom on weekends. And although he doesn’t bring his laundry anymore, Butker still goes home on Sundays after game-day Saturdays and visits with his parents and both sets of grandparents, who live nearby.
His dad, also named Harrison, has played an integral role in Butker’s kicking career. He records Tech’s football games, and then together, the father/son duo watch Butker’s FGs and kickoffs. Butker holds a stopwatch to record his kicking times, and his dad tracks them in an Excel spreadsheet.
“I thought that’s all it was,” Butker laughs. But then he recently asked his dad send him the spreadsheet, and discovered that “it was incredibly elaborate. He’s taking into account wind and gravity with ball pressure and the trajectory of my kicks and the angle I want to kick them at. I’ve never seen a spreadsheet like that before. It was crazy."
Looking to the future – beyond this weekend’s annual renewal of the Yellow Jacket rivalry with the Bulldogs, and his obvious desire to go out with a win – Butker is hoping to keep his focus on sports.
“I’d love to give the NFL a shot,” he muses. “This spring I’ll be training for the NFL; maybe I can go to the NFL Scouting Combine. Not many kickers go, but it would be awesome to be in front of all those NFL coaches there. Pro Day is in March, and the draft is in late April. Regardless of what happens I’m looking forward to the opportunity and putting my best foot forward.”
He has also been thinking about how he can use his ISyE skills in coaching high school sports: “ISyE is great because you’re problem solving – not just with strategies you’re going to use to win – but also with the kids you’re around and how you can impact their lives.”
On preparing for “the Kick” at UGA: “If you look at the TV broadcast of it, [before the FG] I ran over and did my practice steps and swing-through. I got disoriented as to where I thought the ‘ball’ was, because you just kind of have to pick a spot in the grass to swing through. I almost tripped and fell, and I thought, ‘Great – probably the biggest kick of my career, and I just almost fell over doing a practice swing.’”
On his mental approach as a kicker: “To this day, when I watch kickers on TV, I get nervous for them. During a game, you don’t think about the situation as much – you just kick the ball. As a kicker, you don’t want to be too invested in what’s happening. You want to be even-keeled. You have to stay somewhat removed from it.”
On being elected team captain this year: “I was surprised, and I think Coach Johnson was a little surprised. I didn’t think there was any way the team would vote me in as captain, but they did. I was very humbled. It meant a lot to me. I love talking with the guys on the team, being there for them, and helping them with whatever they’ve got going on. I always want to lead by example.”