If a football team attempts a two-point conversion after a touchdown, the kicker is usually involved only for the purpose of deceiving the defense. However, the kicker’s involvement in this conversion story is thoroughly associated with finding and living the truth.
Harrison Butker started his collegiate kicking career at Georgia Tech as a highly touted newcomer. He finished it as the school’s all-time leading scorer — with 337 points — but more importantly, his overall mindset is now pointed in the right direction. First, he sees God more clearly, and, second, he sees the purpose of human life more clearly.
Butker had always been a talented athlete, but once he went away to college, his spiritual life died. He had no interest in Mass or prayer and thought of the Catholic Church as an oppressive, misery-producing organization.
However, an initially aggravating encounter with Tech punter Grant Aasen would become a life-changing friendship that enabled Butker to see the true purpose of the Church. As a result of Aasen’s influence, Butker returned to the Church he had not really known prior to leaving, and three of his teammates and his fiancée joined him.
After graduating with a degree in industrial engineering last May, Butker was chosen by the Carolina Panthers in the seventh round of this year’s NFL Draft. He is now hoping to make the team’s final roster by the end of preseason, which starts for the Panthers Aug. 9 against the Houston Texans.
Butker, who turned 22 July 14, spoke with the Register in advance of the game about his conversion, contentment and NFL ambitions.
You finished your collegiate career as Georgia Tech’s all-time leading scorer. Was that something you aimed at going into college?
When I first started kicking at Tech, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of records or my entire career there. I was just taking it one season at a time. In my senior season, though, the record was on my mind. Reporters would ask me about it, and I was thinking of how neat it would be to break the record. I’m very thankful I did get to break it, which is pretty cool for someone who followed Tech’s football team closely even before playing on it.
It was kind of funny, though, because in my first three years, I didn’t get a lot of chances to kick field goals. Most kickers get 20 to 30 shots per season, but I was getting 10 to 15. We ran a triple-option offense, so we were scoring a ton of points through touchdowns. My contribution was usually limited to PATs [point(s)-after-touchdown], so it was a slow climb to the record.
What has been your experience with the Panthers so far?
So far I’ve done well, and I hope to finalize that by making it onto the final roster by the end of preseason. I’m a competitor with a lot of potential that I want to put to good use. I want to become the best player I can be, and the other kicker on the team, Graham Gano, has been very helpful with that. He has taught me a lot, not only about things on the field, but things off the field, too. It shows you his character, when he can be so instructive to someone who is battling for the same position.
That reminds me of Grant Aasen. You two were going for the same spot on Georgia Tech’s roster but you weren’t too friendly in the beginning.
Well, he was a punter who didn’t make the team his freshman year, and I was kicker with a scholarship, so we weren’t really going for the same spot; but the first time I ever saw Grant was before my freshman season at Tech. I went out onto the stadium field, just wanting to kick some balls alone. Well, someone else was already there. I saw a guy punting balls horribly. Everyone has a different skill level, but he was super talkative, like we were already best friends or something. Then he wanted me to film him punting so he could analyze his technique.
So here I was, one of the top kickers in the country, just wanting to practice on my own; and, suddenly, there’s a random guy that’s not even on the team using the field and disrupting my training so I can help film him. I was thinking, “Who is this guy?” Well, that guy was Grant. We did not get off to a good start, and we did not get along very well until a year and a half later.
How did things change?
I knew Grant was a practicing Catholic, and I also saw that he was joyful. Those two things didn’t make any sense to me, since I thought of the Catholic Church as being all about oppressive rules and regulations. I didn’t understand how someone could live the way the Church wants us to and still be joyful.
On top of that, I was not living the way the Church wants us to, which, in my mind, was supposed to make me happy. I hadn’t gone to Mass at all in college and had no prayer life to speak of, yet, far from making me happy, I was discontent and alone. So here I was miserable, but thinking I should be happy, and Grant was happy and I thought he should be miserable.
In order to make sense of the situation, I started asking Grant questions about the Church. “Why this?” and “Why that?” about so many things. He answered a lot of my questions and referred me to Catholic Answers and Father Joshua Allen at the school’s Catholic Center for responses to others. The explanations I got about salvation, marriage, family life, science and so many other things made so much sense. I started to see how someone could actually be happy as a practicing Catholic, because I was getting a clearer perspective on the nature of God and man revealed through the Church.
I started going to Mass with Grant and then went to confession for the first time since second grade. The world will tell you that you are your own god who answers to no one but yourself, that you can do everything your heart desires and don’t need any help along the way. Yet the reality is: We must have the humility to admit when we’re wrong or to ask for help in our struggles. This is clearest in confession, when Jesus forgives us of our sins through the priest and strengthens us to live a truly fulfilled life with him.
You then wanted to share that discovery with others on the team.
Grant and I both had been an encouraging voice to a core group of Catholic teammates who, like myself, did not understand the Church. As they continued to struggle and go back and forth with the teachings, we, oddly enough, had some non-Catholic teammates we hadn’t addressed ask us about becoming Catholic. That was not what we were expecting, but it demonstrated how our own efforts to evangelize are not the main reason people become Catholic or return to the Church. The Holy Spirit working with man’s free will is the most important thing.
That was underscored with the story of my fiancée, Isabelle, too. Once I became a fully integrated Catholic, I wanted to share that with other people around me. It was a good desire, but the way I went about doing it was too authoritarian. Instead of simply doing my part and leaving things up to the Holy Spirit and the individual, I assumed Isabelle’s complete conversion would quickly result from my explanations.
When the complete conversion didn’t occur, there was tension, and Isabelle slowly drifted away from the relationship. I prayed for her every day during that time, and, meanwhile, she was slowly having a conversion of her own. She probably saw a lot of the same things I had told her about, but the way they were presented was much more appealing. She could go at her own pace without expectation of an on-the-spot conversion.
Then she and your teammates became Catholic?
This past Easter vigil, Isabelle and three teammates — Nick Williams, Zach Matthews and Davis Beard — came into full communion with the Church at the Catholic Center at Georgia Tech. It was an awesome experience that we shared with Grant, of course. It was an extraordinary thing to have happen at an already special place.
Father Josh has made the center’s chapel a beautiful place for offering Mass. It’s very important to depict the Catholic faith in paintings, statues, stained glass and things like that. When you walk into a church, it should uplift you almost as if you’re at the heavenly banquet with all the angels and saints. Some people learn best by hearing, but others by seeing, so visual presentations of the teachings of Christ should not be underestimated.
Do you have a favorite devotion outside of Mass?
I like to pray the Rosary, which helps to make me aware of the people closest to me and how I can be present in their lives. Being a college athlete can easily make you think life is all about you, but through the Rosary, the Blessed Mother shows me ways I can help other people. I would pray the Rosary in the center’s chapel, and then opportunities I had missed to impact others were pointed out to me.
Our natural mothers point out things that we miss, and they have a deep concern for us. Mary takes this to a new level and, as our spiritual mother, always wants us to be united with the work of her Son. I find this particularly special in regard to men. Men are supposed to protect women, so when a woman (Mary) is protecting a man (like me), it’s like a mother protecting her little son. When a man prays the Rosary, he’s humbling himself and becoming like a little child, just as Christ said we all have to be in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Little children are always around their mothers, and the same is true spiritually.
And Mary helps you to solve problems in a productive way?
A lot of things around the world are getting worse, and it can even seem like the Second Coming isn’t too far off. However, no one is expected to solve all of the world’s problems; we’re just supposed to make sure we’re doing what God is asking of us in every facet of our life. It’s the difference between a macro and a micro focus. A macro focus is fine for prayer, but we shouldn’t get caught up in it at the expense of opportunities right in front of our faces.
That’s one of the reasons Mary has been so helpful to me. She shows me things that I can do, and it’s very fulfilling to be a force for good. It certainly beats sinning and covering that up with excuses. It’s easier to search for excuses to rationalize our behavior rather than to search for the truth and then order our lives accordingly, but the second option brings us what we truly desire.
One of the places I looked for truth was in the tracts from the Catholic Answers website. That’s a popular resource for a lot of people, and the football world is no different. Earlier this year I met an Atlanta Falcons coach who has learned a lot from Catholic Answers. Eric Sutulovich visited us on our pro day, and we talked a little about football and faith.
Now you’ll want to beat him, since the Panthers play the Falcons twice.
Well, if I make the final roster, then I’ll want to beat the Falcons twice this season. But I respect Eric and the other people with the Falcons. Maybe we’ll be able to talk a little before each game or even attend Mass together.
Another thing to look forward to is that Isabelle and I are engaged to be married in February 2018 — after winning the Super Bowl, of course. That would be a lot of celebration in such a short time, but the eventual celebration in heaven never ends. We have a foretaste of that in the Mass today, like I’m reading in Scott Hahn’s book The Lamb’s Supper.
I would not be reading books like that or be a practicing Catholic if it weren’t for Grant — he completely changed my life. That aggravating guy from freshman year became one of my best friends. I can honestly say that if it weren’t for him, I would still be miserable right now. There are so many blessings for me to count, but even if you just look at football alone, I’m a better player than I would have been, had I not re-entered the Church and realigned my life towards God — and that happened through Grant’s influence.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.