Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ rookie kicker went from club soccer and high school band to the NFL

Former Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker, lining up a kick for the Yellow Jackets last season, will skip graduation exercises this weekend to attend rookie camp with the Carolina Panthers.
Former Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker, lining up a kick for the Yellow Jackets last season, will skip graduation exercises this weekend to attend rookie camp with the Carolina Panthers.

Instead of listening to the president of Panama address Georgia Tech graduates Saturday morning, new Panthers kicker Harrison Butker will be getting tips from special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey to help his post-college transition.

Butker, a seventh-round pick and the first drafted kicker in franchise history, is skipping Georgia Tech’s commencement exercises to attend the Panthers’ rookie minicamp this week.

The two-day minicamp is scheduled to wrap up early Saturday afternoon not long after Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela imparts a few pearls of wisdom to the Tech grads.

Butker insists there’s nowhere he’d rather be.

“I’d love to be there and be able to walk and get that picture taken where I get the fake diploma and shaking the (university) president’s hand. But I guess I’ll just have to take those pictures some other time,” Butker said this week in a phone interview.

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At Georgia Tech last season, Carolina Panthers rookie kicker Harrison Butker made all 46 extra points and 15 of 17 field goals for an .882 percentage that led the ACC and ranked 13th nationally Danny Karnik

“My focus is on football now,” he added. “So whatever’s asked of me, I’m going to be there for it. I’m not going to miss it for anything.”

Butker didn’t miss much of anything during his final season with the Yellow Jackets, connecting on all 46 extra points and 15 of 17 field goals for an .882 percentage that led the ACC and ranked 13th nationally.

That accuracy – combined with Butker’s booming kickoffs – were enough to convince the Panthers to use a draft pick on a kicker for the first time in 23 years.

Butker, the last of three kickers drafted last weekend, was brought in to compete with veteran Graham Gano, who’s coming off his worst season as a Panther.

McGaughey went to Atlanta before the draft to work out Butker, a former soccer/basketball/tuba player (more on that in a second) who felt a connection to the Panthers’ special teams coach.

“I love that he’s a young guy. He was great to get along with. He just told me, ‘Hey, we’re looking for some competition,’” Butker recalled. “That’s all any special teams coach can really ask for is competition. That makes whoever’s there better. ...

“I’m just going in there knowing there’s going to be competition. Graham Gano’s a great kicker and I’m looking forward to going out there and doing my best and hopefully learning some things from him.”

An athletic ‘nerd’

Butker grew up in the Atlanta area excelling in basketball and soccer, the sport his father played at Berry College, a Division III school in Georgia. Butker says he gets his athletic ability from his dad – “My mom’s going to kill me if she reads that” – while his mother wanted to make sure her two children were well-rounded.

Elizabeth Butker played clarinet at Westminster, a small private school in Atlanta, and encouraged her kids to do the same. Charlotte, Butker’s older sister, played three sports and the French horn at Westminster, while Harrison picked up the tuba in sixth grade.

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Former Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker was drafted in the seventh round last week by the Carolina Panthers. Danny Karnik

Butker was the second tuba in the school band, while the first tuba chair was held by Jeff Oser, who happened to be the soon-to-be graduating kicker for the football team.

The football coaches asked Oser to help find a replacement, and he told them he knew of another tuba player who had a strong leg.

“I knew Harrison was athletic. He played basketball and made the varsity soccer team,” said Oser, in his first year at Tulane med school. “It came up one day during tuba practice. We both were kind of nerds, we cared about playing the tuba well.”

It turned out Butker also did kicking well. He was a part of three state championship soccer teams at Westminster, while setting school records with a 53-yard field goal and most field goals in a season (16-of-17 as a junior, with his only miss from 59 yards).

Butker, 6-foot-4 and 199 pounds, heard from a few Division III schools that wanted him to play basketball, and he believes he could’ve played college soccer had he stayed on his club team.

“But I loved the football atmosphere. I loved the football environment,” he said. “And when I knew I had an opportunity to get a scholarship to go play at a big, Division I program, that’s when I dropped the club soccer.”

Ready to work, compete

Butker stayed close to home by signing with Tech, where he started all four years while maintaining a 3.2 grade-point average in industrial engineering.

After making only 65.1 percent of his field goals over his first three seasons, Butker was nearly perfect as a senior. He closed his college career with a bang, going 4-for-4 on field goals (including a 52-yarder) in something called the TaxSlayer Bowl to make the AP all-bowl team and finish as Tech’s career scoring leader.

While other students in his major were lining up internships and interviews with Accenture and other consulting firms, Butker was preparing for different types of interviews at the combine. (One team asked Butker if he viewed himself more like a cat or a dog, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

Butker ranks third in Yellow Jackets’ history with a career field goal percentage of .717. But the Panthers were equally impressed with his kickoffs: His .740 touchback percentage was sixth-best among FBS kickers.

“He’s got a big leg, very good kickoff guy,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. “He’s kicked game-tying and game-winning field goals. ... He’s only missed two extra points in his career. Georgia Tech scores a ton of touchdowns down there. We’re real pleased to get him.”

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Former Georgia Tech kicker Harrison Butker attempts a field goal last season at Pittsburgh. Butker was drafted last week by the Carolina Panthers. The NFL team used a draft pick on a kicker for the first time in 23 years. Jeffrey Gamza Jeffrey Gamza/Pitt Athletics

Butker is pleased to be in Charlotte, even if it means missing graduation. The former tuba player will try to hit a couple of high notes this weekend before the competition with Gano begins in earnest this summer in Spartanburg.

“I’m ready to work. I’ve never been this motivated for probably anything in my life,” he said. “The idea that football can be my profession now and I can focus on that and give everything I have to football, I’m really excited.”

So is Oser, the med student who took a break from finals prep Thursday to marvel at how Butker went from second tuba in a high school band to the seventh-round pick of an NFL team.

“I figured he would go places. I knew he was going to be good. I didn’t know he was going to be NFL good,” Oser said.

“I know it’s the first time the Panthers have ever drafted a kicker,” Oser added. “I hope he’s worth it. I hope he has a great, long career in the NFL.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson