On Sunday in Las Vegas, Harrison Butker will suit up alongside Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Co in Super Bowl LVIII and 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 has made a combined five out of six field goals, including the game-winner in last year’s edition – his success, he believes, will in part be due to his past as a high-school soccer standout.
“My first sport was soccer,” Butker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2020. “I loved playing soccer. I wanted to be a professional soccer player in England, playing the Premier League.
“For me as a kicker, one initial thing in soccer, during the flow of the game, you’re having to kick the ball to your target at a weird angle. It’s not like in football during a field goal when you take your steps and have everything lined up.
“So back to football … sometimes you might get a bad hold; you might trip or mess up your steps, and you must be an athlete and make the kick … having the soccer background as an athlete [you have to] be confident that you’re still going to get good contact and hit a good ball.”
And Butker is far from alone as an outstanding NFL kicker whose athletic experience began with soccer. The Dallas Cowboys’ season ended in ignominy, with a shock 48-32 home loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wildcard round of the playoffs, but if there is one Cowboy who 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% success rate on field goals. He also set an NFL record for the most consecutive field goals made to start a career, with 36. Indeed, Aubrey boasted a perfect record until the very last week of the regular season, when, in a victory over the Washington Commanders, he saw one attempt blocked and another clank back off the upright.
What is most remarkable about Aubrey’s rise is that he had not kicked an American football seriously until 2019, at the age of 24. Prior to signing for 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 of did his soccer background help?
“It’s a huge advantage to have a soccer 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 programme for aspiring kickers. “I would say 99% of the kickers who make it to high-level kicking – whether it’s college or the NFL – grew up playing soccer … It’s almost a pre-requisite.”
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl-winning kicker Martin Gramatica grew up in Argentina playing soccer and says it helped him in his career. “I always kicked with a natural soccer style,” he says. “I naturally lined up sideways. I didn’t take three steps back and two over. It just felt too robotic. I modified my technique to feel free and unrobotic.”
It’s not as simple as walking off a soccer pitch and into the NFL, though. A deeply ingrained soccer upbringing can present its own challenges, something England captain Harry Kane would find if he ever followed up his dream of playing in the NFL.
“First of all, they’re going to find it boring,” Carney says. “There are hundreds of ways to kick a soccer ball during one game – you’re passing, you’re chipping, you’re bending it left, bending it right, driving it. You don’t have that many kicks in football. But then it becomes a challenge to do it every time. You have to do it with the snap and hold. You have 1.3 seconds or less to get that ball up and out of there before it gets blocked. The margin of error in the NFL is very slight. If you’re not in the mid-80s percentile for success rate, you’re in danger of getting fired.”
And while soccer players’ long-honed ball-striking ability means they are conversant with the technical requirements when crossing over into place kicking, there is a degree to which they must unlearn old habits.
“When you’re playing soccer, most of the time you’re chopping at the ball – inside-of-the-foot ball, long pass,” says former Miami Dolphins kicker Olindo Mare, who once tried out for the now defunct MLS club Miami Fusion in the early 2000s. “And your head is always up. You’re always looking around. In kicking, your head has got to be down, all the way through impact, which is completely opposite. That was the hardest thing. When I was playing in the NFL, I’d always have to stop playing soccer during the offseason around June, because I’d have to work on keeping my head down.”
Stephen Hauschka, who played college soccer before embarking on a kicking career in which he won Super Bowl XLVIII with the Seattle Seahawks, says the height of kicks can also make a transition tough. “It’s similar to kicking a soccer ball, but it’s about 20 to 30% different,” he says. “You need to get good lift on the ball. In soccer, you’re rarely trying to kick the ball super-high. [In American football] you need to lock on the ball real hard and then swing up through the ball to get the lift on it, whereas in soccer you usually try to get your knee over the ball and keep it low.”
There is a difference, also, in the sensation of striking the ball. The feeling of catching a soccer shot just right is not the same as how it feels to nail a field goal. That takes some getting used to.
“The soccer ball is really forgiving,” Hauschka says. “You can kick it with any part of your foot. A football is very rigid. The leather is very unforgiving. There’s a very small spot on a football that you have to kick, about the size of a quarter, an inch below the centre. You have to hit that with your bone. If you hit it with your toe, it really doesn’t go anywhere.”
Gameday brings arguably the most demanding adaptation of all for former soccer players. Used to playing continuously for 90 minutes, with all 22 players on the pitch involved in defending, attacking and transitioning between the two phases, they now find themselves on the sideline for most of the game. They must wait for the special teams unit to be called upon, and be ready for the unique pressure that call brings: like a soccer player coming on just to take a kick in a penalty shootout.
“There are a lot of soccer players who can probably make 30-, 40-, 50-yarders,” says Mare. “It comes down to: can you do it when the pressure is on? Can you handle Monday morning when the whole country is criticizing you and can you come and do it again the next week?”
Hauschka agrees that the pressure on a single kick in the NFL is often enormous. “That’s the biggest transition from being a soccer player to a kicker,” says Hauschka. “Every single play feels like a penalty shot. That’s one of the main skills you have to learn: how to totally focus on your kick and do what it takes to get off a nice, confident kick, rather than being shaky. I think a lot of kickers would admit that they do feel nerves out there, but they still find a way to make a confident swing.”
Nowhere will that pressure be more intense than the Super Bowl on Sunday. So, having seen just how quickly and successfully players like Aubrey and Butker have brought their soccer skills into the NFL, is it likely others will follow in their path?
“Absolutely,” Carney says. “We’ve already had a few call.”