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Kevin Butler's 60-Yard Field Goal to Beat the Clemson Tigers: An Open Letter to My Son on the 25th Anniversary of a Great Georgia Bulldogs Victory

Dear Thomas,

As I write this, you are in first grade. You are a good student, a creative young man, and a more athletic fellow than I was at your age. We like watching sports together, just like your grandfather and I did when I was a boy (and we still do today), and I have thoroughly enjoyed taking you to major league baseball games and, of course, Georgia football games. I appreciated the way you stayed awake as long as you could sitting on the couch and watching last Saturday night’s game with me.

You have inherited all of my good traits, and, although you also have picked up a few of my bad ones, you have a number of talents I didn’t and still don’t. While your rambunctious nature sometimes gets the better of you, I agree with Thomas Jefferson (one of the guys I had in mind when your mother and I named you as we did, by the way) that a little rebellion every now and again is a good and necessary thing.

In short, I could not be more proud of you or more pleased with you than I am, son . . . but, even though you are well on your way to leading a happy and successful life, there still are a few things I have yet to teach you, and today---for reasons I will get to soon shortly after a while (patience is a virtue, so listening to your dad will make you more virtuous)---I have something important to tell you.

Today, I want to tell you about a man named Kevin Butler.

Kevin Butler was from Stone Mountain, not far from where your mother went to school before she went off to the University of Georgia, where she met and married me. Kevin was a defensive back at Redan High School, but he considered giving up the game of football when he did not earn a starting spot in the lineup.

Rather than quit, though, Kevin listened to his father’s suggestion that he switch to another position. Kevin had been a soccer player, so he took up placekicking and found out that he was good at it. As a junior, he led his high school team to the state championship, kicking six field goals from 50 or more yards away in the course of the season.

Kevin was heavily recruited, but, in 1980, Kevin was injured in the first game of his senior year. Torn knee ligaments ended his season and the scholarship offers he had received from college programs all over the country suddenly disappeared. Only one of the coaches who had been so interested in him the year before stood by Kevin as he went through surgery to repair the damage to his leg.

That coach was Vince Dooley. Kevin Butler came to Athens and played for the Georgia Bulldogs.

In 1981, Kevin kicked 19 field goals to tie an NCAA freshman record. The 94 points he accounted for that year were the most ever by an SEC kicker. Kevin’s 59-yard field goal against Ole Miss in 1982 set a school record and he made a number of critical kicks as a junior in 1983, including crucial extra points in 10-9 wins over the Florida Gators in Jacksonville and over the Texas Longhorns in Dallas. (By the way, son, if you’re ever in Dallas, you don’t need to wear a wristwatch. Remind me later and I’ll explain why.)

At the end of his college career, Kevin Butler held SEC records for career field goals (77), career field goals over 50 yards (11), and most points scored placekicking (353). It was no wonder that he became the first---and, if memory serves, still the only---placekicker ever inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Kevin went on to become the all-time leading scorer among kickers for the Chicago Bears as an NFL player, too.

As you know, though, son, many players were at their best against particular rivals. We in Bulldog Nation will always associate Buck Belue and Lindsay Scott with the Florida Gators, Theron Sapp with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and Kevin Butler with the Clemson Tigers.

You know, better than most Georgia fans your age, that Georgia and Clemson were longstanding rivals . . . and we still are. You know that, after you’ve turned ten, I plan to take you to see the Bulldogs play the Tigers in Memorial Stadium in 2013. As a Georgia fan who knows his team’s history, you’ve come a long way from the day when, as a youngster with a fondness for "Blue’s Clues," you saw a Clemson player on TV, took one look at the paw on the side of his helmet, and exclaimed, "A clue! A clue!"

Kevin Butler was at his best against Clemson, in an era in which the games between the Bulldogs and the Tigers were as big as any in all of college football. In his four-year career with the Red and Black, Kevin was responsible for 34 points against Clemson, which was almost 59 per cent of all the points Georgia scored against the Tigers in those years. Against the Country Gentlemen, Kevin kicked one field goal as a freshman, two field goals as a sophomore, three field goals as a junior, and four field goals as a senior.

He was not perfect against Clemson, though. In fact, Kevin missed a combined four long field goals against the Tigers in his sophomore and junior seasons. In 1982, when Georgia played the first night game in Sanford Stadium in more than 30 years in a nationally-televised Labor Day showdown with defending national champion Clemson, Coach Dooley asked Kevin before the game how long he could kick one. Kevin said he could make a field goal from 57 yards.

In the second quarter, the Bulldogs made it to the visitors’ 42 yard line. Coach Dooley sent Kevin in to try a 59-yarder. Kevin’s kick fell two yards short of the crossbar. (He wound up kicking the game-winner, anyway.) The following year, at Fort Hill, Kevin kicked the game-tying field goal after the Red and Black came from behind, but the Tigers tried a long kick after reaching their own 49 yard line.

Clemson’s kicker, Donald Igwebuike, tried a 68-yard field goal and came up well short. Georgia took over with time to run one more play in an effort to break the deadlock and get the win. Kevin came on to attempt a 66-yard field goal into the wind. He didn’t make it, but he would have his chance to boot a game-winner one year later in Athens.

Clemson was the No. 2 team in the country when the Country Gentlemen arrived in Sanford Stadium in 1984. The Tigers built up a 20-6 halftime lead and it looked like the Bulldogs were going to be embarrassed on their own home field. The Red and Black clawed their way back, though. Just like they did against Arkansas last Saturday night, the ‘Dawgs hung tough in the face of adversity and fought back. They knew they weren’t losing; they were just behind.

Georgia tied the game at 20 points per side and took the home team’s first lead of the day when Kevin kicked a 43-yard field goal. It was an important accomplishment for him, because Kevin had missed a 26-yard chip shot in the second quarter. He said later that he felt at the time that he had cost his team the game.

He hadn’t. Kevin kept trying, and gave Georgia a 23-20 lead. Clemson wouldn’t go away, though. The Tigers drove 48 yards in twelve plays and kicked a 48-yard field goal to tie the game once more. It looked like the two teams were playing for their second straight series draw.

A little over two minutes were left in the game when the Bulldogs took possession at their own 20 yard line. Thanks to a draw play on which Tron Jackson picked up 24 yards, Georgia managed to make it into Clemson territory . . . then Kevin Butler ran onto the field to try to kick a 60-yard field goal. No Red and Black kicker had ever kicked a field goal that far.

Up in the booth, Larry Munson was already grumbling. "So we’ll try to kick one 100,000 miles," he said. "We’re holding it on our own 49 and a half, gonna try to kick it 60 yards plus a foot and a half." Kevin put his foot into it, and Larry’s voice rose as the ball did. "Butler kicked a long one," he began to yell, "a long one. Oh, my God! Oh, my God! The stadium is worse than bonkers. . . . I can’t believe what he did!"

A great baseball player named Joe DiMaggio inspired Ernest Hemingway when he wrote The Old Man and the Sea and he inspired Simon & Garfunkel when they wrote "Mrs. Robinson." Kevin Butler’s 60-yard field goal to beat Clemson not only inspired what was arguably Larry Munson’s most memorable call in a Bulldog home game, it inspired what was almost certainly the most memorable column ever written by Lewis Grizzard, a great sportswriter and a huge Georgia fan.

In an open letter addressed to the son he hoped one day to have, Lewis wrote:

I hugged perfect strangers and kissed a fat lady on the mouth. Grown men wept. Lightning flashed. Thunder rolled. Stars fell, and joy swept through, fetched by a hurricane of unleashed emotions. When Georgia beat Alabama 18-17 in 1965, it was a staggering victory. When we came back against Georgia Tech and won 29-28 in 1978, the Chapel bell rang all night. When we beat Florida 26-21 in the last seconds in 1980, we called it a miracle. And when we beat Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl that same year for the national championship, a woman pulled up her skirt and showed the world the Bulldog she had sewn on her underbritches. But Saturday may have been even better than any of those.

Saturday in Athens was a religious experience. I give this to you, son. Read it and re-read it, and keep it next to your heart.

And when people want to know how you wound up with the name "Kevin" let them read it, and then they will know.

Son, that football hung in the air for six seconds, which is an eternity when you’re waiting to find out whether you’ve won. Kevin Butler knew immediately; as the pigskin flew westward, the placekicker ran eastward and sank to his knees, where he was mobbed by his teammates after the official signaled that the kick was good.

The official need not have bothered. It tied the longest field goal in the history of the Southeastern Conference, but it cleared the crossbar by at least five yards. Kevin might have split the uprights from 70 yards. Kevin was still trembling in the locker room afterwards, when he said: "It was the best feeling I’ve ever had."

Danny Ford, the Clemson coach whose team lost its shot at the national championship because of what Kevin Butler did, told the press, "That ball must be flat now. He kicked the fool out of it." Vince Dooley realized immediately how important that field goal would prove to be in the course of Georgia football history. He said:

I think that it will be in the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, where people can walk in, and pick up that phone and push the button and see Kevin Butler kick that record-breaking field goal to win the ballgame. That’s going to be a very exciting play, just as Buck’s pass to Lindsay, and . . . this has got to be one of the greatest in Georgia history.

It was. The day that you and I went to interview Chappy Hynes, the Georgia team chaplain took us on a tour of Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, where that Kevin Butler kick is immortalized. I’m sure you remember it, because that’s the day I made this picture of you:

In a way, I wish this letter was being written by someone else to someone else. I wish it was being written by Lewis Grizzard to his son, Kevin Grizzard. Unfortunately, Lewis was already in the last decade of his life when that column was written, and Kevin Grizzard was never born . . . but, by the grace of God, you were born, so it falls to me to mark this occasion.

Kevin Butler kicked that famous field goal on September 22, 1984. Today is the 25th anniversary of that magnificent moment, yet it remains as clear and perfect a quarter of a century later as it seemed at the time.

I know I spend too much time on too many Saturday afternoons worrying about who is going to win a football game, although I really enjoy getting to spend those Saturday afternoons with you, son. I know, and I know that you know, that, at the end of the day, they are just games.

Still, there is a reason why I feel such pride when I take you with me to the campus where your mother and I met. There is a reason why I feel like I am doing well at my job as a father when I point to men like Mark Richt and David Greene and David Pollack as fit role models for you to emulate as you grow from boyhood to manhood.

There’s a reason why Kevin Butler’s 60-yard field goal meant so much to us then and still means so much to us now. Kevin Butler didn’t start as a defensive back in high school, and he thought about quitting, but he didn’t quit. He stuck it out, adapted, worked hard, and excelled.

Kevin Butler suffered a setback, but some of the people who had given him their word stood by him, and he came back from his injury. Vince Dooley made good on the promise he made to Kevin, and Kevin made the most of his opportunity. Kevin missed what ought to have been an easy field goal against Clemson in 1984, but he didn’t let it get him down. He kept after it, and, when he got his chance to atone for his earlier mistake, he did something extraordinary that inspires us even today.

The story of Kevin Butler is a story of perseverance and commitment and character. It is a story of teamwork and integrity and triumph over adversity. Yes, it was just a football game, but, no, it wasn’t just a football game.

It has been 25 years since Kevin Butler kicked that field goal, but there are lessons to be learned from the arc of that ball as it hurtled through space for what seemed like forever. Life is a lot like that football, son; it can fly as high and as majestically as you make it go through your talent, your hard work, and your willingness to take advantage of your golden opportunities and second chances . . . and, like that one field goal, one life can make all the difference in the world, produce joy in those who were there to witness it, and inspire those who heard of it.

Do with your life what Kevin Butler did with that football. Kick the fool out of it, son, and clear the bar with room to spare. If you do that---and I know you can---then 25 years later, folks still will be looking at you and your achievements, and they still will be saying, "I can’t believe what he did!" They will be telling their sons, "When people want to know how you wound up with the name ‘Thomas’ let them read it, and then they will know."