What made Harrison Butker’s commencement address a great speech?

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Harrison Butker
Harrison Butker delivers the commencement address at Georgia Tech on Saturday, May 6, 2023. Photo courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology.

“Anyone with eyes can see that something is off,” said Harrison Butker, addressing the crowd gathered for commencement at his alma mater, Georgia Tech. “It would seem the more connected people are to one another, the more they feel alone,” the two-time Super Bowl champion said.

Directly addressing today’s loneliness epidemic, the Kansas City Chiefs kicker proceeded to offer the class of 2023 some powerful countercultural advice.

Butker pitted success against fulfillment, arguing that plenty of smart and talented people are successful but remain unhappy. “In the end, no matter how much money you attain, none of it will matter if you are alone and devoid of purpose,” he said.

But why was this such a great speech?

First, it was remarkable because Butker subtly referenced God and Scripture throughout his text. He insisted his talents were “God-given” and noted that all of our deeds, even those things done in darkness, will someday be brought to light. In an extremely inviting and uncompromising way, the frame of his speech used a Christian worldview. In an address at a secular school, Butker winsomely encouraged those in attendance that Christians believe in the meaning and purpose of life bestowed on us all by our creator.

In a world where professionals, teachers and coaches are discouraged from bringing their faith to bear in the public square, Butker’s humble example shows how to insist that Catholics don’t share the same account of the universe as nonbelievers. By insisting our gifts are God-given and alluding to Scripture, his speech was open to the transcendent truths of faith in a way that simply encouraging people to be the best version of themselves or discussing vague values is not.

Second, he offered a dramatic personal witness about the joy of marriage and family life. Brandishing his wedding ring, Butker smiled saying, “This is the most important ring I have right here.” Butker boasted of having kicked the game-winning field goal in both the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. Noting that Super Bowl LVII was the most-watched football game of all time, he insisted, “And yet, all of this happiness is temporary,” Butker said. “And the truth is none of these accomplishments mean anything compared to the happiness I have found in my marriage and in starting a family.”

For Butker, his legacy is built in his marriage. Having children and raising them is what he believes will make the biggest impact on future generations. John Paul II warned, “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” By emphasizing family life, Butker is drawing from the long tradition of Catholic social teaching, encouraging the renewal of the core unit of society.

Finally, Butker emphasized investing in meaningful relationships. He lamented: “Sadly, we are encouraged to live our lives for ourselves, to move from one thing to another with no long-term commitment, to have loyalty for nothing but ourselves and sacrifice only when it suits our own interests.” The loneliness many face is exasperated by attempts to achieve greater self-dependence and in prioritizing professional advancement. In the end, we are not liberated by shirking commitment. Rather, we become the slaves of our own autonomy, trapped without the aid of our responsibilities and our duties.

These relationships demand sacrifice. But they do not, as many people assume today, constrain us. The commitments we make are not obstacles but the very means for our fulfillment.

“Remember your purpose, focus on meaningful relationships and know that with or without the spotlight, your life has value and you are meant for more,” he concluded. Butker’s advice is sound not just for college graduates but for us all. In the end, what could matter more to us than God, our families and our friendships?

Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickMaryOP.

Father Patrick Briscoe

Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is a Dominican friar and the editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Along with his Dominican brothers, he is host of the podcast Godsplaining and a co-author of "Saint Dominic’s Way of Life: A Path to Knowing and Loving God." He is also the author of the OSV seasonal devotional, "My Daily Visitor."