Football has long been a male-dominated domain, but women are gradually putting their own stamp on the sport. This week, Yahoo Sports will examine the inroads that women have made at every level of the game.
As her middle school’s football coach tried in vain to find a player capable of kicking field goals or extra points, Emma Baker and her dad watched with amusement from the across the field.
“You could probably help them,” Jim Baker joked to his daughter after a flurry of shanks and mishits.
Then he gave it a little more thought.
“Seriously, Emma, maybe you should give this a try,” he said.
Emma Baker scoffed at her father’s idea at first. Even though she was an accomplished soccer player with by far her team’s strongest leg, she had never once kicked a football before. She also worried how her peers in Temecula, California, would react to a girl trying out for the football team.
It took about a week for Baker’s family to persuade her, but she and her dad eventually returned to the football field one summer afternoon to explore whether she had any natural kicking ability.
[WOMEN IN FOOTBALL SERIES: The challenges that face amateur players • Grade-school girls develop an early love for the game • Making female football history in Hawaii • Beth Mowins, Gayle Sierens and broadcasting’s biggest hurdle • A chat with Natalie Randolph, female football pioneer]
The first field goal Baker attempted was from 30 yards. She nailed it. The second was from a bit farther back. Good again. Soon afterward, some of her school’s football coaches approached her to ask how long she had been kicking.
“It was all leg strength and raw talent,” Baker said. “I had no technique. I didn’t know how to do anything. I basically kicked it like what I’d do for a goal kick in soccer and it went through.”
In the four years since she first sent a ball through the uprights, Baker has evolved from a toe-kicking novice to high school football’s most accomplished female kicker.
Baker helped Rancho Christian High School win a state title in California’s lowest-enrollment division in 2016 by converting 75-of-78 extra points and eight-of-10 field goals. The 6-foot senior has even bigger goals this year: Landing a college scholarship and connecting from 49 or more yards to break the record for longest field goal ever made by a female kicker.
That’s how far the dream stretches for Baker, whose football success has even surprised herself. It begs the question: What’s the farthest a female kicker can realistically advance competing against men?
A woman kicking in the NFL remains the stuff of Disney movies for now, but some strong-willed female pioneers are making inroads at the college level.
Liz Heaston became the first woman to score in a college game in September 1997 when she kicked two extra points for Willamette University, an NAIA school in Salem, Oregon. Katie Hnida became the first to achieve the same feat at college football’s highest level in August 2003 when she kicked a pair of extra points for New Mexico. That same year, Tonya Butler became the first woman to kick a field goal in a college game for Division II West Alabama.
Leg strength is often the biggest discrepancy between top female kickers and the male prospects pursued by major-conference college programs. The best female prospects so far haven’t proven themselves dependable beyond 45 yards, nor do most of them consistently send kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.
“That’s the measuring stick for a big-time school,” said Hugo Castellanos, a former kicker at UTEP who now runs camps for snappers, holders and kickers in California. “They want a kid with good leg strength and accuracy who can give you that four-second hang time and put it five yards deep in the end zone.”
No female kicker had ever received a college scholarship until this year when a determined Arizona teen with a booming leg busted through that barrier. Becca Longo accepted a scholarship offer from Division II Adams State last spring and began her freshman season this month as the Grizzlies’ backup kicker.
Longo first dabbled with kicking as a high school freshman and soon discovered she enjoyed it far more than she did playing soccer. She began training with former University of Arizona kicker Alex Zendejas, who offered guidance on her form, helped increase her range to nearly 50 yards and persuaded her to explore the possibility of playing in college.
“It didn’t even cross my mind that college football was even a possibility for me until halfway through my senior season,” Longo said. “My dad was always like, ‘We’re not trying for college,’ and Alex was like, ‘Why not? She can do it. Why wouldn’t she?’ That’s when I started putting film together and sending out some highlights.”
When Adams State football coach Timm Rosenbach watched video of Longo, her consistency from inside 40 yards intrigued him enough to invite her to visit the school’s campus in Alamosa, Colorado. Rosenbach envisioned a scenario in which Longo was near automatic on short and mid-range field goals and a second kicker handled kickoffs and field goals of 50 yards or beyond.
Since Rosenbach is married to a former women’s pro volleyball player and has two daughters who also play sports, he connected easily with Longo during her visit and was instantly comfortable with the possibility of coaching a woman. Rosenbach didn’t have the same anxieties as other coaches who feared that adding a female player could disrupt team chemistry or generate excessive media attention.
“The fact that she wanted to do it was a big thing to me because it takes a lot of strength and courage to put yourself out there like that,” Rosenbach said. “You’ve got to be mentally tough to be willing to do that. That’s the No. 1 quality I’m looking for in a kicker is mental toughness. This is what she wants to do, and she doesn’t want to be just OK at it. She wants to be excellent.”
Longo may not be college football’s only female scholarship kicker much longer given the promising girls in the classes behind her.
At a time when fewer boys are playing football amid concerns over the potential long-term hazards of repeated concussions, the number of female players is steadily rising. More than 2,100 girls played high school football last year according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, nearly 10 times as many played a quarter century ago and more than twice as many played as recently as 2007.
While some of those girls further challenge gender norms by playing every-down positions like wide receiver, running back or linebacker, many female high school football players are kickers. It’s a natural transition for strong-legged girls with soccer backgrounds and no desire to withstand frequent hits.
Savannah Curtis, one of the state of Wisconsin’s elite soccer players, has started at kicker for Lodi High School the past two years and hit a 40-yard field goal last year. Sydney Gormley, also a two-year starter at kicker for Lakewood High in Arlington, Washington, converted an onside kick and hit a game-winning 32-yard field goal on the same night last October. Savanna Melton established herself as one of the state of Arkansas’ premier kickers last season by connecting on seven of nine field-goal attempts and 56-of-58 extra points.
“Am I going to be amazed if five years down the road we’re talking about girl kickers in Division I? No, I think it’s going to happen because I’m already seeing the next generation coming in,” said Zendejas, who runs camps and trains kickers in Arizona. “I think girls soccer is bigger than boys soccer here in the U.S. A lot of these girls soccer players, they’re not scared to try to kick a football. When they show some potential, they’re like, ‘Wow, I can do this.'”
That’s an attitude that reflects how much has changed since football’s first female kicker made her debut.
The first time a girl kicked in a high school football game, it was a shameless publicity stunt.
Luverne Wise Albert kicked extra points for the Escambia County football team anytime the Alabama school led by more than 20 points during the 1939 and 1940 seasons. She wore a white blouse, a blue skirt and no football pads during games. The school promoted her appearances with flyers and posters, drawing busloads of curious fans eager to witness the spectacle.
It has become much more common for high schools to have female kickers during the past quarter century, but gender discrimination often still persists. Girls typically must prove themselves to their teammates and coaches to gain acceptance and respect.
When lifelong soccer player Elise Chaffin tried out last year for the football team at Heritage High in Littleton, Colorado, she had kicked for only a few months. She would study YouTube videos of NFL kickers and attempt to emulate their technique.
Heritage High had a shortage of capable kickers, so Chaffin landed a spot on the school’s JV team as a freshman even though she initially couldn’t make a kick longer than an extra point. Anytime she botched a short kick during practice, Chaffin became an easy target for jokes.
“I was a freshman, I was a kicker and I was a girl, not really the best combination already, and then I also couldn’t kick very far since I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she said. “That’s initially what happened to my reputation. All the guys saw me not being very good and that was their first impression.”
Even though Chaffin improved rapidly in practice over the course of the season, the Heritage High coaches were reluctant to trust her in games. The JV team repeatedly went for it on fourth down in field-goal range and often attempted two-point conversions after touchdowns rather than sending Chaffin in to kick an extra point.
In overtime of the JV team’s final game of the season last November, Chaffin finally received the chance to attempt a field goal for the first time all year. She calmly jogged onto the field and hit a 37-yarder to win the game, a kick that boosted her confidence and gave her credibility in the eyes of some of her skeptical teammates.
“I got picked up and carried off the field,” Chaffin said. “I was like, ‘Oh, you guys actually like me.'”
For female kickers, the battle for legitimacy typically doesn’t end with gaining the support of their own team. Some have endured taunts on social media or heckling from opposing fans trying to get in their head. Others have withstood helmet-rattling hits from opposing players eager for a rare chance to waylay a girl. And nearly all of them have experienced opposing players trying to flirt with them in between plays.
“When I take my helmet off and I’m going through the handshake line, I get a lot of ‘Daaaammn’,” Longo said. “I can’t help but laugh. Even the guys on their line will tell my guys on the line, ‘Hey, can you give me your kicker’s number?'”
The best female kickers typically find a way to transform the constant fight for credibility into a positive. A crucial fourth-quarter field-goal attempt doesn’t faze them as much as it might a male kicker because they’re already accustomed to the pressure of having to prove themselves with every kick.
Emma Baker epitomizes that trait so much that her teammates at Rancho Christian have nicknamed her “Money.” She’s almost automatic from inside 45 yards and she has shown range out to 52 yards in practice.
“She’s somewhere between a Division I and Division II kicker,” Rancho Christian coach Jim Kunau said. “Her height and accuracy is something that will be prized. Once she expands her range a bit and proves she’s accurate from the high 40s, coaches like that consistency. That’s the thing she does better than any other kicker I’ve had. She’s the most consistent of all of them.”
For Baker, earning a football or sand volleyball scholarship might be her only path to attending college debt-free. Sometime in the next month or so, Baker will begin inundating football and volleyball coaches across the West Coast with highlight videos of her putting away kills as a star outside hitter or sending footballs into orbit.
“It’s too much money for us to pay for Emma to go to a big college,” her father said. “That’s not really an option. We’re not a rich family. I’m a contractor. We have good years and we have terrible years. I told her it’s really important for her to use the skills she has to help her get through college.”
One advantage Baker has over other female kickers is a mentor who has endured many of the same challenges she has. She and hair and makeup artist Heidi Villa have grown close since a mutual kicking coach introduced them three years ago.
Just like Baker, Villa was a soccer standout who began messing around kicking footballs in eighth grade. Villa became a three-year starter at King High School in Riverside, California, set a national record for female kickers with a 48-yarder in September 2004 and eventually went on to play soccer in college at UC Riverside.
In addition to attending several Rancho Christian games the past couple years, Villa also came to Baker’s house last spring to do her hair and makeup before prom. She has witnessed firsthand Baker’s evolution from a strong-legged novice unsure whether she belonged in a male-dominated sport to a college-ready senior who’s a threat to surpass Villa’s record-setting kick.
“I hope I’m at the game she does it so I can shake her hand and congratulate her in person,” Villa said. “She’s such a wonderful young lady and a great, dedicated athlete. If she broke my record, I’d be honored.”
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Why the two teams that need Kaepernick won’t sign him
• Japanese baseball star to forgo millions to play in U.S.
• Failed drug test could actually be good news for UFC star
• Why it’s time to really worry about AdrianPeterson