Will Carli Lloyd open the door for the NFL’s first female player?
Carli Lloyd’s well-publicized visit with the Philadelphia Eagles wasn’t her first appearance at an NFL training camp, but this one ended with a Hall of Fame executive advising teams to give her a tryout.
The footage of Lloyd, a two-time Fifa player of the year, booting 55-yard field goals reignited the discussion of whether a woman will appear in an NFL game. Lloyd’s visit to Houston Texans in 2015garnered headlines for a humorous kicking competition against defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. Last week, her seamless execution of long-range field goals during a joint practice between the Eagles and Baltimore Ravens triggered the conversation that her Hard Knocks cameo didn’t. The spark came from NFL Hall of Fame executive Gil Brandt.
To Brandt and Tucker, Lloyd has the physical capabilities to kick in the NFL. Women have earned college scholarships to kick, scored points in college and professional games and even broken into professional coaching ranks.
So what would it take for her or any other woman to be the first to make a NFL roster? It’s not a question of physical limitations. Instead, it’s mastering the skills necessary for anybody to kick in the NFL: Precision, focus, and a willingness to embrace a job known for psychological torment.
While college and professional football combat a participation decline caused by fears of head trauma, women are playing more than ever before. Kicker Becca Longo was the first woman to receive a college scholarship in 2018 to attend Adams State University (she left the school after an injury and is currently training in Arizona); free safety Antoinette Harris became the first non-specialist to receive a scholarship after playing for two years at East Los Angeles College and will attend Central Methodist University in the fall; in 2017, kicker K-Lani Nava was the first woman to ever score points in a Texas state championship game.
One of those kickers was Julie Harshbarger. After starting her career as a high school freshman at Hononegah High Schol in Rockton, Illinois, she kicked at Rockford College for two years and seven seasons for various Chicago teams in the Continental Indoor Football League. In 2014, she was the first woman to win an award in professional football when she was named Special Teams Player of the Year in 2014, which she’d win again in 2015.
“I always felt comfortable partly because I played beginning in high school,” Harshbarger says. “My name was recognized by teammates in college. Social media was helpful as well. I guess my timing was good as I had a lot of people played with me and against me. When I started kicking around the indoor leagues, I wasn’t the new girl showing up anymore.”
Harshbarger’s path mirrors a few of her contemporaries. In 1997, Wilammete’s Liz Heaston became the first woman to score in a collegiate game; in 2003, New Mexico’s Katie Hnida was the first woman to score points in a bowl game. Kent State’s April Goss remains the last woman to kick in a FBS game after scoring an extra point against Delaware State in 2016. A woman hasn’t emerged as a regular on a Division I team yet, but higher participation from women makes it increasingly likely that a woman can kick at the highest collegiate level within the next few years.
“I think [kicker or punter] would be the first positions because of their independent practice model,” says Dr Jen Welter, who became the first woman to coach in the NFL when she joined the Arizona Cardinals staff in 2015. “If you have a superior athlete like Lloyd and access to the right coaching then there is no reason why it couldn’t happen or develop.”
When Welter mentions an “independent practice model”, she’s describing the solitary life of kickers and punters. While most players hone their technique among teammates, kicking specialists are often practicing alone on a separate field. To perfect a field goal requires working in concert with the long snapper and holder: the kicker must know when the holder is ready to call for the snap, the snapper must deliver a ball easy for the holder to catch and balance on the turf, and the kicker must strike it high enough, hard enough and accurately enough in between the goal posts. Run too quickly toward the ball and the kicker can’t generate enough height or power; run too slowly and the defense will converge to block the attempt.
Kickers aren’t always at fault for missed field goals, but they often bear the entire blame. If the coaching staff trusts its kicker, then the job can be secure for years, even decades. But since points are always on the line, second chances aren’t guaranteed.
“Once you get a reputation as a head case, it’s hard to come back even when it wasn’t your fault,” Welter says. “There could be timing issues from the long snapper, poor communication from the holder or the kicking coach messing with the player’s mechanics.
NFL teams are notorious for treating kickers like perishable goods. In Anthony Lynn’s first 22 games as head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, the team employed six different kickers. The cruel “double-doink” that ended the Chicago Bears’ 2018 season led to the dismissal of kicker Cody Parkey and triggered a sort of mania in head coach Matt Nagy. Not only has the team tried out nine kickers since Parkey’s dismissal, a detailed report from Sports Illustrated chronicled Nagy’s insistence to randomly stop practice and force kickers to attempt field goals from the same place Parkey missed his kick while the team and front office watched in silence. The team currently has just one kicker on their roster – Eddy Piñero – and he’s never attempted a kick in an NFL game.
“I think kickers have to be the mentally toughest athletes in sports,” Welter says. “Every time you’re on the field, it’s a scoring opportunity. Imagine if a golfer’s job was to sink putts with thousands of people hollering while an entire team was running at him to stop it from going in”.
Even those considered sure bets often fail. In 2016, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Florida State’s Roberto Aguayo in the second round, making him just the third kicker to be drafted in the first 60 picks since 1994. Expected to solve the team’s kicking woes, Aguayo finished last in field goal percentage as a rookie. When the Buccaneers cut him midway through the 2017 preseason, he was just 23 years old. He hasn’t appeared in a regular season game since his rookie year and is currently working out of football.
A coaching staff will justify a player’s poor progress at virtually every other position. But when you’re a kicker, blame is seldom directed anywhere but toward the player himself. When a team doctor once notified Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells that the team’s kicker was barely healthy enough to play, Parcells memorably responded: “He don’t have to play, Doc. All he has to do is kick.”
If the first woman to play in the NFL is a kicker, she’ll assume one of the game’s least forgiving and most psychologically taxing jobs. And if the first woman to kick in the NFL struggles, it could be a convenient excuse for NFL teams never to take a chance on a woman again.
“To be the first of anything means setting the trajectory for anybody who comes afterward,” Welter says. “They could be the reason why the door could be closed tighter after you. You’re in a microscope to a degree that other people aren’t. Nobody is going to ask that question if she’s injured, it’s just that the girl didn’t make it.”
Welter thinks that if the public is going to see a woman in the NFL soon, she may be from Australia. Colleges are actively recruiting rugby and Australian League Football players to punt and kick because of the skills necessary to kick during the run of play and from different angles all over the field. The growth of women’s rugby in the country has increased girls’ participation, meaning young women are receiving the necessary reps and perfection of a kicking skill set.
Harshbarger senses a more traditional trajectory for any woman to make it to the NFL: prove yourself to be one of the best at each level, then teams will have no choice but to take you.
“You don’t typically see 25-year-old guys just pick up kicking in the NFL because they have been doing it for an extended period of time,” Harshbarger says. “If it’s going to be the first female to do this, she will probably need to be even better than the men, especially since teams don’t carry more than one kicker.”
Lloyd told SI’s Planet Futbol TV that she received calls from some NFL teams gauging her interest. Would it be too much too quickly to give her a tryout now? Harshbarger believes that a woman will need to prove herself in college before an NFL team actually allows her to take a snap, but isn’t opposed to wondering how it would look tomorrow.
“Being a kicker in the NFL is one of the most exclusive positions in sports. There are only 32 of them since no team carries two,” she says.
“But If you put [Lloyd] in a game situation and she can still do it, then why not right? That’d be pretty sweet.”