THOMASVILLE — With football season now at hand, the United Way of Thomas County brought in one of the most celebrated kickers in collegiate and pro football history to kick off its annual campaign Wednesday.

Kevin Butler, an All-American at the University of Georgia and a Super Bowl champ with the Chicago Bears, drew the comparisons between his time in football to the United Way’s mission. 

“I can tell by talking to the people I’ve met that you are very proud of your community, and that’s what the United Way is all about,” he said. 

Wednesday’s event started the annual United Way of Thomas County campaign that has a goal of $235,000 and supports 19 member agencies.

“The money that you donate to the United Way of Thomas County stays in our area,” said United Way board member Deb Phillips said. “Ninety-nine percent of the donations we receive stays in the area.”

Butler acknowledged that he could tell, through talking to people he’s met in Thomasville, how proud they are of the community.

“And that’s what United Way is all about,” he said. “The United Way looks at the community and you try to make the community as strong as it can be, by working with each individual and giving them the foundation to be able to be successful. All that helps the financial stability of the community.

“I compliment you on your enthusiasm and your commitment to making your community great,” he said. “When people fall behind, you offer them a hand. That’s what it’s all about.”

As head coach Kirby Smart is building the Georgia football program and its brand, Butler likened it to how the United Way builds the community.

“Kirby is building the program the same way the United Way builds program — with big expectations and we want to help everybody,” he said. “We want to be there to support everybody.”

Under Smart, the Bulldogs won a Southeastern Conference championship last season and also finished as national runner-up to Alabama two seasons ago. 

Going to the Rose Bowl, and beating Oklahoma, was big, Butler pointed out, as was going to the national championship game. Going up to Notre Dame two years ago was huge, too, and the Fighting Irish play Georgia in Athens this fall.

“The expectations have gone sky-high,” Butler said. “And the expectations start with Kirby. The expectations for those big games are now expected for the University of Georgia. 

Butler, a Savannah native who attended high school in Stone Mountain, is the only place-kicker in the College Football Hall of Fame. He still holds the record, 52.4 percent, for successful kicks of 50 yards or longer.

Butler played 11 of his 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears before retiring. He kicked three field goals in the Bears’ Super Bowl XX win over New England.

Butler left Georgia for the NFL without his degree. He returned to Athens to finish his coursework a couple of years ago.

He noted that when he went into the office of a business executive, he was “never on a level playing field with them because I knew somewhere behind their desk was that nice framed piece of paper — a diploma. And I never had one.”

Butler said he took a look at finishing online when he was living in Chicago, but that would mean having to sign up through Penn State University — which beat Butler and the Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl for the 1982 national championship.

"So the education was not that important to me at that point,” he joked. "I had all my children graduate and it was time for me to go back. I had to juggle it around work.”

When he went back to class, he was more than twice as old as the students with whom he shared a classroom. 

“To see the faces of these students when they walked in the door and look at me and wonder, ‘what’s the old man doing in the back?’ It was really fun,” he said. “I got to see how education has changed in 33 years. I got to see how the university changed in 33 years.”

When Butler was approached to coach the kickers at Georgia, then-coach Mark Richt asked if he was a full-time student. He needed to take 12 hours. But he wasn’t signed up for that many classes.

At Richt’s urging, and with his help, he signed up for two online classes, Georgia’s Nature and Birds in Our Life. It enabled him, as a full-time student, to work with kicker Rodrigo Blankenship.

“Coaching is a lot of work,” Butler said. “I enjoyed it and I drew a relationship with them.”

Eventually, Butler got his diploma, even sharing a business professor with former Bulldog player and Thomas County Central star Ray Drew. He also got to walk through Georgia’s arches — an honor that legend reserves for graduates.

“It was a personal victory for me,” he said. “I got my picture finally taken under the arch in the right garb. That means a lot to me.”

Butler played with Herschel Walker in college and with Walter Payton in the NFL — and the man dubbed “Sweetness” was a prankster, Butler said. 

One of Payton’s favorite pastimes was to set timed fuses to cherry bombs and stuff them inside the blocking sleds used by the offensive linemen.

“To be able to kick Herschel’s extra points and Walter’s extra points, I felt I was the golden place-kicker,” Butler said.

Payton, who passed away in 1999, and Butler were in business together after life in the NFL.

“He transcended the football field,” Butler said. “He was a great husband, a great father and a great teammate. He was a great mentor. We lost a great one in Walter.”

Butler said his biggest thrill in football was watching his son Drew, a punter for the University of Georgia, play.

"Forget all the halls of fame," he said. "To be able to see your son go out and do that, never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that."

Editor Pat Donahue can be reached at (229) 226-2400 ext. 1806.

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