On Sunday in Las Vegas, Harrison Butker will join Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Co. in Super Bowl LVIII as they attempt to claim a third championship in five years for the Kansas City Chiefs.
And if the 28-year-old kicker is as accurate in this Super Bowl as he was in his previous three – in which he made a total of five of six field goals, including the game-winner of last year’s edition – his success will be his part of this will be due to his past as a standout in high school football.
“My first sport was football,” Butker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2020. “I loved playing football. I wanted to become a professional footballer in England and play the Premier League.
“For me as a kicker, one of the first things in football, during the course of the game you have to kick the ball at an odd angle towards your goal. It’s not like football on a field goal, where you take your steps and have everything lined up.
“So back to football…sometimes you can get a bad grip; you might trip or mess up your steps, and you have to be an athlete and make the kick…with a football background as an athlete [you have to] have confidence that you will still get good contact and hit a good ball.”
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And Butker is far from alone as an outstanding NFL kicker whose athletic experience began with football. The Dallas Cowboys’ season ended in infamy, with a shocking 48-32 home loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round of the playoffs, but if any Cowboy can be satisfied with his work this past year, it’s Kicker Brandon. Aubrey.
The 28-year-old rookie finished the regular season with a 94.7% field goal success rate. He also set an NFL record for most consecutive field goals made to start a career, with 36. Aubrey even boasted a perfect record until the very last week of the regular season, when, in a win over the Washington Commanders, one attempt was blocked and another bounced back off the upright.
What’s most remarkable about Aubrey’s rise is that he hadn’t seriously kicked an American football until 2019, at the age of 24. Before signing with the Cowboys last year, Aubrey spent two seasons with the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL. Before that, he was a professional soccer player, drafted by MLS’s Toronto FC. So how much did his football background help?
“It’s a huge advantage to have a football background,” says John Carney, who played 23 seasons in the NFL, won Super Bowl XLIV with the New Orleans Saints and now runs a coaching program for aspiring kickers. “I would say 99% of the kickers who kick at a high level — whether it’s in college or the NFL — grew up playing football… It’s almost a requirement.”
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl-winning kicker Martin Gramatica grew up playing football in Argentina and says it helped him in his career. “I always kicked with a natural football style,” he says. “Of course I was positioned sideways. I didn’t take three steps back and two back. It just felt too robotic. I adjusted my technique to feel free and non-robotic.”
However, it’s not as easy as walking from a football field to the NFL. A deep-rooted football upbringing can bring its own challenges, something England captain Harry Kane would discover if he ever realizes his dream of playing in the NFL.
“First of all, they’ll find it boring,” Carney says. “There are hundreds of ways to kick a football in one match: you pass, you chip, you bend it left, bend it right, you control it. In football you don’t have that many kicks. But then it becomes a challenge to do it every time. You have to do it with the click and hold. You have 1.3 seconds or less to get the ball up before it is blocked. The margin for error in the NFL is very small. If your graduation rate is not in the mid-80s, you are in danger of being fired.”
And while footballers’ long-honed ability to hit the ball means they are familiar with the technical requirements of switching to place kicking, there is a degree to which they need to unlearn old habits.
“When you play soccer, you usually cut for the ball – ball in the foot, long pass,” says former Miami Dolphins kicker Olindo Mare, who once tried out for now-defunct MLS club Miami Fusion in the early 2000s. “And you head is always up. You always look around you. When pedaling, your head should stay down all the way through impact, which is completely the opposite. That was the hardest part. When I played in the NFL, I always had to stop playing football during the offseason around June because I had to work on keeping my head down.
Stephen Hauschka, who played college football before embarking on a kicking career that saw him win Super Bowl XLVIII with the Seattle Seahawks, says the height of kicks can also make a transition difficult. “It’s like kicking a football, but it’s about 20 to 30% different,” he says. “You have to get the ball well. In football you rarely try to kick the ball super high. [In American football] you have to clamp the ball very hard and then swing the ball up to give it lift, whereas in football you usually try to get your knee over the ball and keep it down.
There is also a difference in the sensation of hitting the ball. The feeling of catching a football shot just right is not the same as what it feels like to score a field goal. That takes some getting used to.
“The football is really forgiving,” says Hauschka. “You can kick it with any part of your foot. A football is very stiff. The leather is very unforgiving. There is a very small spot on a football that you have to kick, about the size of a quarter, an inch below the center. You have to hit that with your bone. If you hit it with your toe, it really doesn’t go anywhere.”
Gameday offers perhaps the most demanding adjustment of all for former football players. Used to playing for 90 minutes straight, with all 22 players on the pitch involved in defending, attacking and switching between the two phases, they now find themselves on the sidelines for most of the match. They must wait for the special teams unit to be called upon and be prepared for the unique pressures that call brings: like a football player coming just to take a kick during a penalty shootout.
“There are a lot of footballers who can probably reach 30, 40, 50 meters,” Mare says. “It comes down to: Can you do it when the pressure is on? Can you handle it on Monday morning when the whole country is criticizing you and can you come and do it again the following week?”
Hauschka agrees that the pressure on a single punt in the NFL is often enormous. “That’s the biggest transition from football player to kicker,” says Hauschka. “Every action feels like a penalty. That’s one of the most important skills you need to learn: how to fully concentrate on your kick and do what it takes to deliver a nice, confident kick, instead of being shaky. I think many kickers will admit that they do feel nerves, but they still find a way to make a confident swing.”
Nowhere will that pressure be greater than during Sunday’s Super Bowl. So, given how quickly and successfully players like Aubrey and Butker have taken their football skills to the NFL, is it likely that others will follow their path?
“Absolutely,” says Carney. “We’ve had a few phone calls already.”