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The Jungle

To the Heights

On Harrison Butker's winning kick at the Super Bowl.


There were eight seconds left in Super Bowl LVII, and the sixty-eight thousand fans packed into Phoenix’s State Farm Stadium held their breath. The Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles were tied 35-35, and the game’s outcome would come down to whether or not Harrison Butker, the Chiefs’ kicker, could hit a twenty-seven-yard field goal. More than one hundred thirteen million television viewers watched as Butker got up from the sidelines and ran out to the field. The pressure was on. He prayed a quick Hail Mary.

When Butker reached his position on the field, he looked up and paused. Two weeks before at the A.F.C. Championship, he had found himself in a similar situation at the forty-five-yard line with three seconds left in the game. His kick was good then, and the Chiefs had squeaked past the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20. Until this moment, that was the biggest kick of his career. But now the stakes were infinitely higher. If he kicked the ball over the bar, the Kansas City Chiefs were Super Bowl champions. If he missed, he would go down in N.F.L. history as the kicker who cost them the big game. The pressure was immense, but Butker was at peace. “Yes, this is important,” he thought to himself. “But it’s not the most important thing. I need to calm down, and realize that I’m a child of God and He has given me this talent.” He took a deep breath and kicked the ball with all his might. It flew through the air and it soared over the bar. The crowd went wild.

The football season couldn’t have ended better for Butker. During the post-game television interview when the press asked to what he credited his success, many people were surprised when he said, “I wouldn’t have been able to get through this season if it wasn’t for my faith in God. I’m thankful that His plan was for that ball to go through and for us to win the game.” Not really what you’d expect to hear from an N.F.L. star just after winning one of the biggest sporting events in the world. And in the weeks after, while his teammates went off to party—some making the traditional post-game pilgrimage to Disneyland—where did Butker go? On a spiritual retreat to Saint Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, California. That’s where I sat down to interview him.

At six feet four inches, Harrison Butker is hard to miss when he walks into a room. Handsome, sharply dressed, and extremely well spoken, he is as much a star off the field as he is on. When we sat down to chat, I focused on that moment when the outcome of the game depended on his kick. Easy to praise God looking back, I thought, but what if he had missed? “Would you praise God then?” I asked. He replied that ultimately he just wants God’s will to be done. “Selfishly and pridefully, I do want to make all the kicks,” he said. “But if I went through my whole career and never failed, that could be really dangerous for me growing in virtue and getting to Heaven.”

We reflected on what had been a very turbulent season for him. Early in the season, an ankle injury knocked him out of four games. And even during that final game, he had missed a crucial kick in the middle of the game that put the Chiefs ten points behind at halftime. Butker understood the enormity of that miss and had time to think about it sitting on the sideline. For him, that was agonizing. “Suffering is a way for me to grow in virtue,” he said. “And when you miss a kick in the Super Bowl, you think, all right, maybe God’s plan is for us to lose. But even if I missed the game-winning kick, this season would still have been such a blessing because I needed to grow in humility.” Luckily for him, God was a Chiefs fan that day.

I originally met Butker in 2019 when I traveled to Kansas to film a profile on him for EWTN. I first laid eyes on him at a traditional Latin Mass. Not in the congregation, but up in the sanctuary serving. He was wearing a white cassock, kneeling at the foot of the altar, with his hands joined in front of him. (Introibo ad altare dei, “I will go up to the altar of God,” the priest says at the beginning of every Latin Mass. And the server responds: Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam, “To the God of my gladness and joy.”) Afterwards, when we were back at his house, I asked Butker what attracted him to the Latin Mass. “It’s so different from the world,” he said. “To think that Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and all these great saints have been saying this Mass for the past fifteen hundred years. It’s just very beautiful.”

Butker grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and, even though he was from a Catholic family, his faith was lukewarm and something he didn’t take that seriously. “I just started questioning what’s the difference between Catholicism and every other Christian denomination, and then even started questioning Christianity itself,” he said. “When I went to college I completely stopped going to Mass and stopped having much of a prayer life.” And, really, why would he have to worry about faith or God? In school, he was “the guy”: a football star on the college team, was popular with everyone, had a beautiful girlfriend, and so on. And yet, something seemed to be missing in his life. “I was just going through the motions,” he told me, and then paused. “There was this emptiness.” Like so many other guys his age, he was going along with the world and doing what was expected of him. World hard, play hard. “I don’t know,” he said, “You just play up a different person for different crowds. It’s like there was a certain Harrison for the football team, a certain Harrison for the cameras, a certain Harrison for my parents. It’s like you’re almost a fragmented person.” As if he was broken into different pieces, wanting to be whole.

It was after a chance meeting with another guy named Grant, while training on the Georgia Tech college football team, that everything changed. Grant openly talked about his Catholic faith in front of Butker. “He was just so different from your normal college guy,” Butker said. “This guy was very energetic and wanted to strike up a conversation with everybody he met. He had this spark.” Intrigued, Butker kept asking him questions about his faith, which Grant happily answered and in turn encouraged him to go and talk to the school chaplain. Again, Butker gave that priest the third degree, and with every question came an answer that seemed to make sense. “Okay, I believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I believe the Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Jesus Christ,” he said. “And then it was, like, okay, well what can I do to get to Heaven?”

The beginning of the answer was one word: confession. That was the moment when everything truly changed: “When I left that confessional I felt like I was finally authentically Harrison, in every area of my life.”

I was impressed by Butker’s newfound faith when we met at his home in Kansas, and the strong conviction with which he was expressing it. But I wondered if it would hold, especially as he became increasingly successful and wealthy. Four years later, with two Super Bowl wins under his belt, two children and a third on the way, and an N.F.L. deal reported to be worth in the region of twenty million dollars, he is more confident in it than ever. As he sat in front of me in Saint Michael’s Abbey, Butker seemed more bold when speaking about his faith on camera. That fragmented person he had spoken about seemed to be whole. I mentioned to him a picture of his winning Super Bowl kick that had gone viral. At the exact moment that his foot made contact with the ball, the cameras caught a glimpse of a brown scapular that popped out from under his jersey. “I’ve been wearing that scapular since college, and it never popped out before,” he said. “I took that as a sign.” “A sign of what?” I asked. “For me to be a witness,” he replied. “People might think, ‘Wow, if Harrison Butker is wearing a brown scapular, maybe I should look into it too.’”

When I first met Butker, I asked him about the reaction he was getting from his friends and teammates when talking about his faith. “It’s kind of hard to change your ways and tell people that you’re not on board with doing certain things anymore,” he said. “I knew I might lose some friends.” But over time he has become less concerned about what others might think. He is strongly outspoken against abortion and is willing to speak on other controversial topics. And he’s not worried about his opinions limiting his career prospects. “We have to be leaders and sometimes that means fighting for something where you might potentially lose something else,” he said. “For me, being pro-life and fighting against the atrocities that occur all around the world is something I’m never going to compromise on. And if I get canceled for that, then so be it.”

These days, Butker is focused on his wife, Isabelle, and their young family. Since he’s starting the off season with a week-long spiritual retreat in Saint Michael’s Abbey, it’s clear he’s focusing on some quiet time after all the noise and hype of the football season. “I’m so excited for the off season to be able to grow in my relationship with my wife and my children, but most importantly with our Lord,” he told me. During our conversation I was struck by how grounded Harrison seems to be. With all the trappings of success, wealth, and fame, come so many great temptations. I asked if this was a struggle for him. “For sure,” he said, and told me that he stopped using social media for this very reason. “That was a source of temptation for me, to grow in pride and vanity. And I feel like I’ve grown a lot closer to God by not looking at it at all.”

Even still, on social media, Harrison Butker has become a hero to many young Catholics. Seeing someone in such a prominent position speak so frankly and honestly about his faith, at a time when it’s quite countercultural, is something that has earned him huge amounts of praise. Butker sees this as a double-edged sword. On one hand, he told me, he is grateful to have such a massive platform to “glorify God.” But on the other hand, he does not feel that he’s the one whom young Catholics should be looking up to. “We need to look at the saints,” he said. “These are our role models, not athletes like myself, or actors, or any of these people. I mean, maybe, one day, God willing, I’ll be a saint, and we should all be striving to be saints.” He tries to remember this, even as his fame grows: “If someone wants an autograph or something, that’s just because God gave me this talent. I don’t allow it to get to my head.”

Near the end of our conversation, I asked Butker if he ever has doubts about the faith. He paused for a moment. “Do you want me to be honest?” he said. “Yeah, I do have doubts. But I have to remind myself of all the times when I have trusted in God and how He’s worked so beautifully in my life. I’m seeing the fruits of following His ways. It’s so easy to turn your back on God, but at the end of the day we’re meant for so much more.”

As we finished our interview, I put it to Butker that at only twenty-seven years of age, he has accomplished so much in life, and asked him what’s next: another Super Bowl win? More victory and glory? “I’ve no clue what’s next. I take it one day at a time,” he smiled. “I’m trying to be the best man I possibly can be. And I’m going to try to know, love, and serve God every moment of my life and God will figure out the rest.” I suddenly remembered that on the field Butker often raises his hands and points to the sky. “I forget, what’s your slogan again?” I asked. “To the heights!” he exclaimed, pointing up.

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Colm Flynn is a reporter with EWTN News, covering Vatican affairs and stories of faith around the world.