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Faith, Friendship and Football

12/1/2017

By Trent Beattie

Despite an initial feud, former Georgia Tech football players become brothers in the faith

Harrison Butker

Photo by Earl Richardson Photography

Shortly after arriving on campus at Georgia Tech in 2013, Harrison Butker was looking forward to some solitary training on the practice field when he ran into Grant Aasen.

“All I wanted to do was quietly kick some field goals by myself,” recalled Butker, a Decatur native who was recruited as a kicker for the Georgia Tech football team. “This guy I didn’t know at all comes along out of nowhere and acts as if we were best friends.”

A fellow freshman, Aasen hoped to join the team as a walk-on punter and was blasting footballs all over the otherwise empty field. He was happy to see Butker and began chatting. He even asked Butker to videotape him punting so that he could analyze his technique. Whereas Aasen was having a great time, Butker was annoyed beyond belief.

“Harrison was one of the best kickers in the country, and he didn’t find the talkative ways of a low-level punter very appealing,” recalled Aasen, who didn’t make the team his freshman year. “He didn’t want to be bothered by me, and I thought he had a bad attitude, so we basically despised each other.”

Little could they have imagined that by the time they graduated nearly four years later, with Butker drafted to the NFL and Aasen heading to seminary, they would be not only teammates and classmates, but also close friends and brother Knights of Columbus.

THE PATH OF CONVERSION

Grant Aasen, who is currently enrolled at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, was not always interested in God. His spiritual search began three years before he arrived at Georgia Tech, when he experienced a life-threatening injury playing football at Starr’s Mill High School in his hometown of Fayetteville, Ga.

“I was a running back on the JV team before becoming a punter,” Aasen explained. “One day in practice, I was flattened by a guy on varsity — 6 foot, 6 inch, 280-pound Ufomba Kamalu, who went on to play at the University of Miami and now is with the Houston Texans. My head hit the ground and I suffered what they call ‘whiplash of the brain.’”

Aasen was airlifted to Atlanta Medical Center, where a craniotomy was necessary to treat the bleeding of his brain.

“I came close to dying, but after the surgery I recovered a lot faster than expected,” he said. His brush with death and speedy healing prompted an interest in religion. Thanks in large part to his older brother, Davis, who was also a student at Georgia Tech, this interest eventually centered on the Catholic Church.

“Davis and I are really close,” Aasen said. “He and his friends taught me about how the Catholic Church is different from Protestant churches, how Christ founded one Church and that was ours. I saw how being Catholic is not a check-the-box type of thing, but a profound commitment to the entirety of God’s revelation.”

At the start of his sophomore season, Aasen made the Georgia Tech team as a walk-on punter, joining his nemesis, Harrison Butker.

Though Butker was thriving on the field, he increasingly felt frustrated and lonely. An occasional churchgoer during his high school years, Butker entered college planning to put what he perceived as the oppressive rules and regulations of the Church far behind him. But that separation had failed to bring happiness.

Ironically, Butker found himself turning to the punter who had once irritated him so much.

“I knew Grant was a practicing Catholic, and I also saw that he was joyful,” Butker said. “I didn’t understand how someone could live the way the Church wants us to and still be joyful.”

In order to make sense of the situation, he started asking Grant questions about God and the Church.

“He answered a lot of my questions and referred me to Catholic Answers and Father Joshua Allen at the school’s Catholic Center for responses to others,” Butker explained. “The explanations I got about salvation, marriage, family life, science and so many other things made so much sense. I started to see how someone could actually be happy as a practicing Catholic, because I was getting a clearer perspective on the nature of God and man revealed through the Church. I started going to Mass with Grant and then went to confession for the first time since second grade.”

Butker says that his friendship with Grant completely changed his life.

“That aggravating guy from freshman year became one of my best friends,” he said. “I can honestly say that if it weren’t for him, I would still be miserable right now. There are so many blessings for me to count, but even if you just look at football alone, I’m a better player now than I would have been had I not reentered the Church and realigned my life toward God.”

Grant Aasen stands with fellow seminarians for the Archdiocese of Atlanta David DesPres (left) and Kyle Simonis, both past grand knights of Georgia Tech Council 14496, in the main chapel of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Photo by Zack Smith Photography

A CATHOLIC COMMUNITY

At Georgia Tech, Aasen and Butker were part of a vibrant Catholic community. Some 80 students attend daily Mass at Georgia Tech’s Catholic Center and 200 to 300 attend each of the center’s four Sunday Masses.

“Father Josh is amazing. He has helped Harrison, other football players — three this year alone — and many more people into the Church, which meant probably 20 converts total last year,” Aasen said.

Father Allen, who serves as chaplain of Georgia Tech Council 14496, is aided in his pastoral ministry by the Knights and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

Kyle Simonis, who served as the council’s grand knight in 2013-2014, had followed in the footsteps of his grandfather when he joined the Order in high school. He worked to build the same fraternal atmosphere on the Georgia Tech campus.

“I saw that the Church appeals to men from all walks of life,” said Simonis, whom Aasen credits for his own decision to join the Knights in 2014.

Aasen explained, “I had looked up to Kyle and knew good things would come from the Knights since he was a member. He drove me to my First and Second Degree ceremonies, and my brother Davis joined, too. This was because of the good example from Kyle.”

Butker, who was deepening his faith and looking for camaraderie with other young, practicing Catholics, also joined Council 14496 in the spring of 2015.

“I was intrigued with the Knights of Columbus for all the charitable work that they do as well as their strong presence at the March for Life every year,” Butker said.

Simonis graduated the following December with a degree in aerospace engineering and is now in his second year of seminary for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He estimates there are currently around 20 Georgia Tech alumni in seminary or religious formation.

Butker and Aasen graduated in May 2017, each with degrees in industrial engineering. Butker ended his career at Georgia Tech as the school’s all-time leading scorer, with 337 points. After being drafted by the Carolina Panthers in April, he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs Sept. 26. His first game with the team, which was also his first regular season appearance as a pro, included a game-winning 43-yard field goal against the Washington Redskins Oct. 2.

Aasen still had a year of athletic eligibility when he graduated last spring, but rather than staying at Georgia Tech, he decided to forgo the extra year and apply to seminary.

“I want to bring people close to Christ, and the priesthood seems like the best way for me to do that,” Aasen said. “The priesthood is an amazing thing, but I don’t think I should get credit or some award for pursuing it. If that’s my calling, that’s my calling, just like another young man might be called to marriage.”

Butker, in fact, is engaged to be married in February 2018. His fiancée, Isabelle Tehrani, had her own path to conversion while studying at Georgia Tech and came into full communion with the Church last Easter.

“Being a practicing Catholic has made me a better man, a better football player, and, I anticipate, a better husband and father than I would have been,” Butker said. “Being a practicing Catholic means I have a sense of purpose and a sense of peace in my soul, as well as a sense of connectedness to others that had been lacking.”

Though their daily routines are now very different, Aasen and Butker continue to share common bonds.

“Despite our initial differences,” Aasen said, “we both shared a deep desire for happiness — a desire that the world, despite its promises, cannot fulfill — and this brought us together as friends in faith.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Some quotes from this article originated in interviews the author previously conducted for the National Catholic Register.

TRENT BEATTIE is a correspondent for the National Catholic Register and the author of Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015).


Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs

HARRISON BUTKER’S ROOKIE YEAR

Harrison Butker, pictured kicking one of five field goals during an Oct. 8 victory over the Houston Texans, has made a dramatic NFL debut with the Kansas City Chiefs. Previously a captain of the Georgia Tech football team and its all-time leading scorer with 337 career points, Butker was initially drafted by the Carolina Panthers last spring and was later signed to Kansas City from Carolina’s practice squad. A member of Georgia Tech Council 14496 in Atlanta, he has garnered formidable statistics in his rookie season.

• Kicked the game-winning field goal for the Kansas City Chiefs in his NFL debut game against the Washington Redskins Oct. 2
• Third kicker since 1950 to connect on eight or more field goals in his first two NFL games
• First player in league history to hit five or more field goals multiple times in his rookie season
• Named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for October after hitting 18 field goals — the most by a rookie in a single month in NFL history
• As of mid-November, has kicked 19 consecutive field goals, three shy of tying the franchise record