Kickin' it old school

Kevin Butler (AB ’18) left Georgia to follow a successful kicking career in the NFL, but 34 years later he returned to make the one goal he missed - finishing his degree in economics.

Charles McNair | Jun. 05, 2018

He left Georgia to follow a successful kicking career in the NFL, but 34 years later Kevin Butler returned to make the one goal he missed – finishing his degree in economics.
Kevin Butler (AB '18)

Legendary Georgia Bulldog kicker Kevin Butler made nearly all the goals that mattered.

In 1979, he won a state football championship for Redan High School with a 44-yard field goal against Marist as time ran out.  

In 1984, his senior year at Georgia, Butler’s game-winning kick in the final seconds against No. 2 Clemson gave the Bulldogs an unforgettable upset. Revered UGA play-by-play announcer Larry Munson called it this way: 

So we’ll try to kick one 100,000 miles. We’re holding it on our own 49 and a half, gonna try to kick it 60 yards plus a foot and a half … Butler kicked a long one! A long one! Oh, my God! OH, MY GOD! The stadium is worse than bonkers. . . . I can’t believe what he did!

In 1985, as a rookie in the National Football League, Butler kicked three field goals in the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl XX win over the New England Patriots. 

Butler kicked in wind, rain, and snow, in temperatures from 100 degrees to 20 below. He drove through three of every four field goal kicks in his college and professional careers … and all but a foot-full of extra points. He set records, won accolades, put his photograph in halls of fame.

Still, he remembers a few that got away. 

In the pros, Butler missed three field goals in a crucial playoff game. The day was so windy that a kicker for the Bears’ opponent, the New York Giants, whiffed … as he tried to punt. 

On the last kick of his Georgia Bulldog career, Butler attempted the impossible – a 71-yard field goal as time expired that would have won the 1984 Citrus Bowl against Florida State … and set a new record for field goal distance, pro or college. The kick sailed straight and true … but only for 70 and one-half yards. 

Barely short.

Butler came up barely short, too, attempting a different kind of goal. 

After a consensus college All-American year in 1984, he left UGA early to pursue his professional football career. Butler lacked just six classes to earn his undergrad degree from the Terry College of Business. 

Now, 34 years later, Butler has his eyes on the goal he missed. 

In fall 2017, as a 55-year-old undergrad, he re-enrolled at Terry and returned to classes to finish a business economics degree. 

“At this stage in my life, this degree will be a huge win for me personally,” he says. “I am not sure how it will affect my businesses, but the joy and equality it will give me when dealing with others in the working world will be invaluable. To finally have finished my degree … and to do it at this stage in my life … is personally awesome. 

“I’m having a granddaughter the same year I’m graduating from college,” Butler adds with a smile. “That would be a nightmare for just about anybody else.” 

Terry now, Terry then

Butler’s Terry experience feels much different now than 1981-1984, when he attended UGA on athletic scholarship. 

“It’s a whole different vibe,” Butler says. “I keep bumping into people, because everybody’s looking at a smart phone. I see a lot more people standing still and talking to themselves.”

Butler’s family gave him good coaching for the challenging re-entry. His wife, Cathy, hipped him up a bit with an AC/DC lunchbox. Daughter Scarlett warned him off textbooks.

“She told me if I took my books to class, I’d be the only one,” Butler says. 

Technology amazes him most.

“It makes the whole experience different,” Butler says. “Learning is so much easier now. There’s no more going to the library and searching through library cards to find information.”

On the other hand, a man who once earned the wild cheers of 90,000 people in a stadium sat mostly anonymous through his final class in back of a lecture hall holding 280 freshmen. 

“I’m a fish in the stream,” Butler laughs. “The kids see me and ask why I’m taking classes. I tell them I got drafted, like in the Army. They give me this little smile … and leave me alone.”

Butler stepped away from Terry to focus on another, more immediate, draft — the NFL. He left classrooms to concentrate, day after day for months, on place-kicking right off the ground … without a tee … the biggest difference then between the pro and college games. 

The preparation paid off. Butler’s mini-education led to 13 years in the NFL, a Super Bowl ring, and a Chicago Bear career record for points scored (1,116), surpassed two years ago by a successor place-kicker, Robbie Gould. 

Butler asked Cathy to come along to Chicago … as his wife. He met the UGA cheerleader after the Clemson game his freshman year, and the couple dated for the next three. (“She was a real student, I was a football player,” Butler says.) 

They started a family in the Windy City: Katie Scarlett, who goes by Scarlett; son Andrew Joseph, called Drew; and daughter Kylie Savannah, AKA Savannah. Scarlett and Drew attended UGA. (Drew punted for the Bulldogs, leading the nation in average his senior year, then going on to his own professional football career.) Savannah attended Marymount Manhattan College and is a ballet dancer. 

Businessman with Bears

Even without a Terry degree, Butler launched business ventures. 

With Bears legend Walter Payton, he launched Gridiron Group. Officially licensed by the NFL, the firm sold golf equipment, from tees to clubs. Butler also worked with golf legends Fred Couples, Tom Weiskopf, and Payne Stewart to develop Woodland Hills Golf Course in Fort Scott, Kan. (Butler touts an 8 handicap.)

In the heart of Chicago, he and Bear teammate Dan Hampton became limited partners in Traffic Jam, a dance club/bar complex. Butler also partnered in OverTime Sports Bar and Grill, a franchise that eventually boasted 21,000 employees and investors like Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and Chicago Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe.  

After football ended in 1998, the family sampled life in Orange County, Calif., for a year. “Everybody liked it but me,” Butler says. 

The call of home won out, and the Butlers moved back to Duluth. Cathy joined her mom at Formally Yours, a bridal store in Lilburn where daughter Scarlett works as a fashion consultant and where Kevin’s mom and dad help out.

Butler, meanwhile, has been a serial businessman. 

He sold soil moisture sensor systems for years, but moved on to The UGA Vault, a venture with the National Collegiate Sports Archives creating apps that download archival sports videos, colorized and customized for special moments. Munson’s greatest calls, for example, can be downloaded with companion video. An app for Memorial Day includes players who served in the military, with highlights of their careers.

“We created the platform, and we sell the content,” Butler says. “We had a senior class at the Terry College of Business develop marketing ideas as a class project. They were awesome!”

Butler, with fellow UGA football alums David Greene and David Pollack, also created Bulldog Park. “It’s the nicest recreational vehicle facility in America,” Butler says. 

The concept? Imagine a game day experience at The Grove at Ole Miss … only portable, all on wheels, and with 223 slips on 16 acres for RVs, complete with running water and electricity. 

“It’s a luxury RV park for the most loyal travelers to UGA football games,” Butler says. On game day, he adds, close to $200 million of RVs, along with an army camp of pavilions and grills and generators, bring Bulldog Park to raucous, red-and-black life. 

“UGA knows that RV travelers are great fans and should always be remembered,” says Butler. “You get the right piece of land, then set up the relationship with the university. It’s not rocket science.”

Disability and capability

Going back to Terry and getting a degree wasn’t rocket science either. Still, in Butler’s case, it took courage. 

School was never easy for Butler, at any level. He has dyslexia, a disability that makes normal reading impossible.

“I came home from school with a report card in the second grade,” Butler says. “I had passed to the third grade. But my mom sat me down and made me open a book. Read that, she told me, pointing at a page.

“I couldn’t. So my mom held me back that year — my mom basically failed me in school for second grade.”

Mrs. Butler enrolled her son in special programs for the next four summers at Emory University in Atlanta (the family lived near Stone Mountain then). Kevin learned to “read a new way,” he says. 

He also learned what it’s like to miss a goal.

“Heck, nobody likes to fail,” he says, “and I failed the second grade. When school started back, I would hide behind the water cooler so the third-graders wouldn’t see me.”

Butler looks back philosophically on that event, considering it a twist of fate. 

“You know, if my mom hadn’t held me back that year, I might never have kicked for Redan in a championship game, gotten the winning field goal, all that. Who knows?”

We know one thing — after that clutch kick, precocious even for a college kicker of that day, never mind a high schooler — a man named Vince Dooley, coach of the soon-to-be 1980 national champion college football team, the Georgia Bulldogs, approached. He shook Butler’s hand and offered him a scholarship.

“At the end of the day,” Butler says, “my reading disability and my failing second grade led to my opportunity to play at Georgia. 

“Sometimes you fail. Failing is not dying. You learn to carry on.” 

And, contrary to logic, Butler now sees his reading disability turned him into a better kicker.

“It taught me that you have to stay focused,” Butler says, “and you have to always believe you can get better.” 

A back story (with hips)

Much has been made in recent years about the dangers of head injuries to football players — concussions, in particular. Not so much is said about the occupational hazards of kicking a football.

“Most kickers I know have had back or hip surgery,” Butler explains. “It’s not at all a natural motion for the body, especially with the torque on the planted leg.”

Coached early by his dad, Butler played a lot of little league soccer and football before focusing solely on the gridiron.

“I’m guessing I’ve made … how many kicks in my lifetime?” he asks. “A half million?”

Those caught up with him in 2004. Making a bed in his home, Butler fell into the sheets in agony when spinal discs 3, 4, and 5 collapsed atop one another. 

He only left bed twice the next eight weeks, for two trips to the hospital. Butler lost 35 pounds, and finally underwent surgery to successfully fuse the vertebrae.

Then, a year and a half ago, Butler had his left hip replaced. “It reached the point where I couldn’t tie my shoes,” Butler says. His right hip followed, in March 2018. 

“They literally cut off my legs,” says the kicker who depended so much on those limbs. “They separated the leg from the hip and cleaned out the labrum and put a stake into the femurs to hold them to my hips again.

“I go through the airport now, and I light up from my hips to my neck.”

A dream job after Terry?

Butler’s return to Terry means more than just a trip down memory lane. 

“Getting my degree from Terry gives me a chance to fulfill my dream of working for the University of Georgia and the University of Georgia athletic program, continuing to support athletes in reaching their dreams,” Butler says. 

“I’d really love to work for the school. That’s what I’d really like to do now.”

He needed that piece of paper — a college degree — to make it happen.

Butler’s already making a case for himself. He’s been a familiar figure on the UGA practice field since the arrival of head coach Kirby Smart for the 2016 season, working as a student assistant coach to special teams. 

Is it valuable to have an instructor who happens to be the first kicker inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame (2001)? 

“KB’s been awesome,” Smart told Dawgnation. “Shoot, he’s been great, just the confidence he provides. To have him involved has been really good.”

At practices, Butler ambles among scattered footballs and stretching punters and flexing place-kickers. He dresses all in black — jersey, shorts, a slouch hat. He moves slightly favoring one hip, like a gunfighter. He freely shares expertise and encouragement.

If you can kick into the wind in practice, game day is easy. 

Kicking is like golf — your variable is the club, but the swing has to always be the same.

As long as you learn from the one you miss … you didn’t miss.

Snapping for kicks takes the art of a jeweler. You have to do it right 1,000 times out of 1,000. It gets very expensive when you miss. 

Butler walked out of Terry this spring with that Terry degree — a dream deferred. He hopes it helps him reach that ultimate goal.

“I have coached for the last two years and feel I have brought tremendous value to the program and the positions. I constantly represent the university through radio and speaking to alumni,” he says. 

“It would be a dream come true to do that work in an official position.”