Credit: Courtesy of Joe Sturniolo
How the Georgia native who helped win the Super Bowl became a kicker
LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks about Kansas City Chief place kicker Harrison Butker's high school football career at Atlanta's Westminster school with his old coach, Joe Sturniolo.
In Sunday night’s Super Bowl matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs, Chiefs kicker and Georgia native Harrison Butker launched a 27-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining to put the Chiefs on top. Butker is a graduate of Georgia Tech and Atlanta’s Westminster school. When the Westminster Wildcats were looking for a kicker, Butker made the transition to football from soccer. With me now is the high school coach who helped him do that. Westminster assistant football coach Joe Sturniolo spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.
Peter Biello: But let's talk about Harrison a little bit. How did you first get to know Harrison?
Joe Sturniolo: When Harrison was a freshman, he was actually playing just soccer. He had not started playing football yet, and we were having spring practice that year and we were looking for a new kicker. And our senior kicker from the year before I had talked to about finding a replacement. And he said "Coach, there's a guy that's in the band with me that's a soccer player. I think he might be pretty good." But Harrison came out at the end of his freshman year and had never really kicked a football before, had just been a soccer player, decided he wanted to give it a try. And ironically, I was in the soccer press box and his mom was outside the press box talking to another mom. And I heard her say they want Harrison to play football "but I'm just not sure about football. You know, he's always been a soccer player. He's never been a football player. I'm just worried a little bit." And I stuck my head out and said, "Let me introduce myself," and had a conversation with Elizabeth. She consented. Now, she's an absolute huge football fan. I know she was enjoying the Super Bowl as well.
Peter Biello: So what's it like for soccer players who want to be kickers to transition? And did Harrison sort of follow the traditional role or was there something different or special about the way he did it?
Joe Sturniolo: Well, what he did was work harder than anybody else I've ever seen. His work ethic was unbelievable. The transition for a soccer player, it's a little bit of a different kick. Obviously, that the eye-foot coordination, the ability to kick, the strength in the leg, all of that transfers over from soccer well. But the motion of kicking a soccer ball and the motion of kicking a football are different. Your hip's in a different place. You make contact at a different place. And it's all because of the trajectory that you want on the ball. Some people make the transition well, some are not very good at it. Harrison worked very, very hard, not just in season but in the off-season as well. He was constantly looking for for ways to improve. That meant going to camp somewhere, spending extra time where he and I [were] out there. There was many a night that he and and Izzy, who's now his wife, spent on the field with him, kicking and Izzy chasing footballs down by the goalpost while I was critiquing it along the way.
Peter Biello: So Harrison was a football player. He's a kicker. He was a soccer player. He was also in band. He played the tuba in band. How did he juggle all those extracurricular activities?
Joe Sturniolo: He is a very dedicated person, a very committed person. Doesn't worry a whole lot about social media, social activities, things along those lines. He focuses. His focus is tremendous. That's part of what's made him such a great kicker in the NFL ... I mean, last night, obviously he missed the first kick. One of the things that we try to teach kickers: "There's nothing less important than the last kick and there's nothing more important than the next one." His ability to just set aside whatever happened and say, "Okay, that happened, what did we learn from it? Now let's go get ready for the next one."
Peter Biello: So you must be feeling some measure of pride right now.
Joe Sturniolo: Oh, absolutely. But you know, somebody asked me last week, "How would you feel if he kicks a game winning field goal?" And I said "I'll be tremendously proud." But I'm proud of Harrison, whether he made a field goal or whether he didn't, the man that he has become is tremendous, phenomenal father, phenomenal figure in the Kansas City area. And he serves as as an altar assistant in Latin Mass and teaches kids how to do that as well.
Peter Biello: Have you kept in touch with him over the years?
Joe Sturniolo: Absolutely. I texted with him last night.
Peter Biello: What did he have to say last night?
Joe Sturniolo: We kept it short last night. I talked a little bit with him before the game and then after the game. It was right after the game. So he was still on the field when I sent my last text and I said, "I got a few questions, but obviously I'll wait till later. I want you enjoy the night and we'll talk later this week." And he just said, "Thanks, coach. Love you."