Sep. 29—Armed with a new tee and football fresh from the sporting goods store, Mary Ford Fitzjurls took to the football field with her father this summer and filmed herself booting kicks through the uprights from 35-40 yards out.
Fitzjurls had regularly joked about joining the Frederica Academy middle school football team, but now, the eighth-grader is proving her prospects on the gridiron are no laughing matter.
Four games into her kicking career, Fitzjurls is 17-of-19 on extra point attempts while also handling the Knights' kickoff and punting duties, becoming an indispensable member of the team. Not even a sixth-grade Fitzjurls could have imagined that when she first teasingly informed then-Frederica assistant Alex Mathis of her interest.
But even two years ago, Fitzjurls' humor was not rebuffed; instead, she was encouraged to try out for the team if she was truly intrigued. Though Fitzjurls wouldn't immediately take him up on his offer, she would soon get her opportunity.
Frederica's incumbent middle school kicker Smith Veal broke his arm, leaving the Knights without a kicker for the upcoming season. Again, Fitzjurls kidded about her ability to fill in for, and again, her jest was met by encouragement from her family and peers, along with some natural concern.
"I talked to my best friend Maggie about it, and she was like, 'Yeah, you should totally play,' because her brother plays on the team — he's a sixth-grader," said Fitzjurls, who also plays for the Frederica soccer team. "I talked to my parents about it, and they're like, 'Maybe, but you couldn't get hit,' because my mom is a doctor, and she's like, 'You can't get hit in the head and get an injury or whatever.'"
When friend and Frederica football player Patrick Dunn pushed Fitzjurls to give the sport a shot, she hit the field and soon replied with fateful footage.
The videos only confirmed Dunn's belief in Fitzjurls, and he advised her to share the clips with middle school head coach Ryan Lawless. As Fitzjurls says, "The rest was history."
"That night, I sent an email to the coach — this was at like the beginning of school, probably like the first week or the second week," Fitzjurls said. "So I sent him two videos of me kicking field goals with my dad just for fun over the summer, and he sent an email back saying like, 'Welcome to the team; we'd love to have you come out.'"
Still, Fitzjurls' father wanted to make sure his daughter was capable of repeating her performance in pads and a helmet, so he encouraged her to attend the Knights' first practice.
Few on the team were aware of what was in the works until Fitzjurls arrived at practice fully equipped, but she immediately earned the respect of her teammates when she knocked through her kicks and was awarded her jerseys.
Fitzjurls' kicks have a habit of doing that.
"The videos definitely weren't a joke," Lawless said. "We were really shorthanded as far as kicking goes — we didn't have any idea who was going to be our kicker, and we weren't going to be going for extra points or field goals. Mary Ford has been a great addition to our team... From kickoffs, she put one in the end zone, and she was consistently over kicking their returners every time. I've never seen an eighth-grader kick that far, boy or girl, which was incredible to watch. She's just been an incredibly valuable addition to our team."
A soccer player and cheerleader by trade, Fitzjurls has always held some level of interest in football spawning from a childhood spent watching the Arkansas Razorbacks with her parents. Last year, Fitzjurls also found herself inspired by the story of Sarah Fuller, a Vanderbilt soccer player who filled in as the football team's kicker over the 2020-21 season.
As Fitzjurls prepared to audition for her spot on Frederica's team, she continued to seek wells of inspiration to draw from.
"Over the summer, when I kind of really wanted to do it but wasn't actually on the team yet, I was watching a bunch of videos of girl kickers in high school and stuff at a bunch of other schools around the country, like, 'That would be really cool,'" Fitzjurls said.
A few months later, Fitzjurls finds herself in the same position as an inspirational figure at Frederica Academy. Her dedication to her teammates alone is worthy of admiration.
Fitzjurls still goes through workouts with the soccer team in addition to football practice. After a full football practice Monday of kickoffs, onside attempts and the lot, Fitzjurls goes through an hour of football Tuesday before cutting out early for soccer practice. On Wednesday, Fitzjurls participates in a full football and soccer practice, and Thursday is game day.
And in shattering through the glass ceiling of what is thought of as a boys sport, Fitzjurls has become a paragon of fearlessness.
"It makes me feel really good," Fitzjurls said. "Coach (Dominique Clinch) told me his daughter would watch me, and then I have a bunch of girls come up to me after the games like, 'Good job,' and the cheerleaders always cheer for me. They made a new cheer for me."
Frederica's traditional roar of "Go, FA Knights," during the opening kickoff has been altered into "Go, Mary Ford." In the Knights' third game of the season, Fitzjurls' mother recruited girls in the neighborhood to make signs of support — one reappropriating the meaning of the phrase, "Kick like a girl."
At Frederica Academy, "kicking like a girl" has been a boon for an undefeated middle school program. In addition to her nearly 90 percent success rate on extra points, Fitzjurls estimates her range out to 20 yards on field goal attempts. The hang time on her kickoffs serve as proof of the underlying leg strength.
"As it turns to, Mary Ford is a lot more athletic than a lot of kids on our team," Lawless said. "She's been playing soccer since she could probably run, taking corner kicks and whatnot, so she's got a lot of physical activity under her belt, and she knows what she's doing kicking the ball."
Fitzjurls is even aiming for her first career tackle over the final two games of the Knights' middle school slate. Lawless did credit her for forcing a ball carrier to run out of bounds when he would have otherwise scored.
"It was so scary," Fitzjurls whispered with a smile. "I've never tackled anyone before because that's not something I thought I was going to be doing. Then I saw him running, and I was like, 'What do I do?' so I just pushed him out of bounds."
For a player that kicked off a football off a tee for the first time this summer, and hadn't kicked with a holder since elementary school gym classes, Fitzjurls' progression has been nothing short of miraculous.
And while her middle school career isn't done quite yet — Frederica hosts Pinewood Christian at 5 p.m. Thursday before traveling to St. Andrew's for its season finale a week later — she hasn't ruled out the chances of sticking with the sport at the prep level.
"I wasn't like planning on it, I was planning on just having this year be like me as a fill-in for the other kicker," Fitzjurls said. "But, I mean if I'm given the opportunity, I don't know. I might have to be the high school kicker too.
"That would be so fun."