Lauren Luttrell gives kicking a shot
On a July afternoon inside Famous Dave's BBQ restaurant in Fredericksburg, Va., David Turner decided to try again. Almost every day Turner, a 24-year-old bartender and shift supervisor, had nagged one of his co-workers, hostess and incoming Virginia Tech freshman Lauren Luttrell, about trying out for the Hokies football team. Turner had never played football, nor had he seen Luttrell kick, but as an avid Redskins and Hokies fan, he wanted his friend to try out for the team.
Standing close to 5-foot-10, Luttrell had played soccer since she was 4 years old. During her four years at Spotsylvania (Va.) High School, she was the soccer team's corner kicker and had scored goals from 45 and 50 feet. Two of her soccer coaches were also on the Spotslyvania football staff and, early in her senior year, convinced Luttrell to try out for a spot on the team.
On her first attempt, she shanked the football, sending it about 10 feet. But she taught herself by watching film and despite having to do a schedule juggling act (she also played on the women's volleyball team), Luttrell earned a kicking spot.
The team wasn't too good (a "rough year," head football coach Ben Lawrynas says), so scoring opportunities were few. Still, Luttrell made 11 extra points, and in one of the final regular-season games kicked a 31-yard field goal, handing the game ball afterward to her father, Robert.
Luttrell hadn't touched a football since the season's last game when finally, to silence Turner's repeated requests, she agreed to email the Virginia Tech athletic department.
"I figured they'd tell me no, that I couldn't try out, and then it would be settled," Luttrell says. Instead, she received a response from Virginia Tech associate director of athletics for football operations John Ballein, who asked her to stop by his Blacksburg office on the first day of classes.
Which is how Luttrell found herself standing on one of Virginia Tech's football practice fields this past Saturday on an overcast, 59-degree morning, waiting her turn to attempt field goals for Hokies head coach Frank Beamer and his staff -- for the second time.
According to the Women's Sports Foundation, more than 700 girls play high school football in the U.S. as kickers, quarterbacks, linebackers and ends. But it's a feat much rarer at the collegiate level.
In 1995, Kathy Klope was the first female to make the roster and suit up for a Division I football team. Klope was a four-year soccer player for the University of Louisville before deciding to try out as a football kicker in her final season of eligibility. Her only prior football experience had been kicking a 30-yard field goal in high school during a powder puff competition; however, the soccer team shared facilities with football and she'd befriended several of the coaches, who encouraged her to try out.
At 5-7, 160 pounds, Klope made the team as a kicker. During practice, she'd ask for tips from the teammate ahead of her on the depth chart, future NFL kicker David Akers. "I was just hoping to get a chance -- I thought I'd get an extra-point kick," Klope says. She never made it into a game but still calls the season one of the best athletic experiences she's ever had. "The intensity of the guys was so high and I enjoyed playing and practicing at that intensity and camaraderie level," Klope says, while pointing out that the range of sports offered to women as well as the attention paid to them has grown significantly since her collegiate years (thanks, in large part, to Title IX).
Since Klope, several women have kicked for collegiate football teams, mostly at the Division II or Division III levels. And there are athletes like former University of Colorado and University of New Mexico kicker Katie Hnida, a former high school football kicker who was the first woman to score in a Division I-A football game, while playing for New Mexico in 2003.
Hnida's name became well-known in 2004 when, in a Sports Illustrated column by Rick Reilly, she revealed that she'd been verbally abused and sexually assaulted by several of her former Colorado football teammates. Still, she says she hopes to see more women playing college football. "My story is so overshadowed with everything that happened at CU but when you get down to it, I'm an athlete, and in New Mexico, I had a really, really great experience," Hnida says. She talks about how her New Mexico teammates respected her and treated her as an equal -- an experience so positive that she has played arena and semi-pro football for several subsequent years and, at age 30, still may try for another season.
In the spring of 1995, Heather Sue Mercer kicked in the Duke spring game. But after being eliminated from the team that fall, she sued the school in 1997, claiming that coaches cut her because of her gender, a Title IX violation. The Duke coaches argued that they cut Mercer because she lacked the size, speed and leg strength of the other kickers. Under Title IX legislation, schools are permitted to ban women from men's contact sports; however, if they allow women to try out, they must be granted equal consideration.
A federal jury awarded Mercer $2 million in punitive damages in October 2000, which Mercer -- who now co-owns a baking company in New York City -- vowed to donate toward establishing a college scholarship fund for female place-kickers. In November of 2002, a federal appeals court overturned the monetary damage award, but not the verdict.
Gender-fueled kicking controversies continued into the spring of 2003 when, because of Mercer's lawsuit, University of Minnesota coaches refused to let place-kicker Mary Nystrom try out for the football team, despite her older brother's tenure as one of the team's most successful kickers.
Several weeks ago, LSU soccer player Mo Isom made national headlines after trying out as a kicker for the Tigers. The 6-1, 190-pound former goalkeeper -- whose attempt drew attention from the "Today Show," CNN, and the "Ellen DeGeneres Show" -- says she decided in January 2011 to try out for the team after feeling "called by God to build my platform for His glory and really see what I'm capable of" (Isom is a devout Christian). The gregarious senior had become close with many members of the football team as well as the coaching staff, and says that the football team was very receptive to the idea, even offering to help her train. Her first few football kicks were essentially "line drives" before she learned how to add height and rotation to the ball. Now, Isom says she can score from the center of the 40- or 45-yard line and has kicked the ball between the uprights from as far as 51 yards.
Isom didn't make the team; LSU coach Les Miles said in a news conference afterward that four players were ahead of any of the potential kickers trying out. He also said that he worried about Isom handling the physicality of the SEC -- specifically tackling, which is sometimes required of kickers.
"It was interesting when he brought up that point because that was never evaluated in the tryouts, whether I can tackle or take a hit," Isom says. "But it makes perfect sense because of the principle -- there's specific skill and technique to a tackle so that you don't break your neck and it's very much a learned skill, male or female. I appreciate him saying that as opposed to taking something away from my kicking."
Isom says she plans to try out again in August and will continue working on her kicks throughout the summer, specifically her field goal and extra point kicks.
Virginia Tech has seen only one other woman try out for football. In August of 1997, Sasha Young, who had kicked for her team at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, Va., attempted to join the Hokies. She didn't make the team.
Luttrell met with Ballein on a Monday in late August, where he told her that if she wanted to try out for the team that Friday, she'd need to fill out various medical forms and waivers. When Luttrell went to the office to pick them up, the desk clerk asked her what sport.
"Football," she said.
"Football?" he asked.
"Yes, football," she said.
The clerk stared at her for a few seconds. "Well, OK then," he said, picking up the appropriate forms.
Luttrell hadn't practiced all summer, so she found a run-down local high school field and asked whether she could practice there. Her older brother, Ryan, a fifth-year senior at Tech, gave her an old football and often came to the field with her, retrieving her kicks. Luttrell had never kicked without a block and didn't realize they weren't used at the collegiate level. Her first attempt on the muddy field "was terrible -- it went maybe a foot off of the ground," Luttrell says. "I was so worried I'd make a fool out of myself."
She went back to her dorm room that afternoon and researched how to kick without a block, noting the different stance and approach. She returned the next day and, while she hadn't harnessed the distance or power that she wanted, her kicks were more accurate.
At Tech's fall tryouts, the kickers lined up in the center of Lane Stadium's 25-yard line. Each kicker had six chances. Luttrell missed one kick inches to the left, another hit the goal post and she made the other four. She says that the other kickers each missed at least two kicks, so she felt good about her performance. Coaches told the kickers to stop by Ballein's office the next day for the results.
When Luttrell returned to Ballein's office, she ran into Beamer, who gave her the news.
"I was impressed with her -- she was very accurate and you could tell she's kicked before," Beamer said of Luttrell's initial tryout. "You're getting ready for a season and we were pretty well set, so it's tough to give her a lot of attention. Kicking here is so competitive."
Beamer encouraged Luttrell to return for spring tryouts. She went back to Fredericksburg over winter break and began working with former Maryland and UConn kicker Dave DeArmas. DeArmas met Luttrell at a local field on a cold, windy December afternoon.
"After two kicks, you could hear the 'thump' come off of the ball -- she had that nice thud you're always looking for in a college kicker," DeArmas says. "Her rotation impressed me -- it was consistent throughout the entire process -- and the fact that she gets the ball up very quickly."
The two worked together several times over the next few weeks and DeArmas designed a workout program for Luttrell to follow when she returned to Blacksburg. He also coached her on the mental aspect of the kicking game.
Luttrell worked out once and sometimes twice a day through the winter while juggling academic responsibilities and a part-time job in one of the campus dining halls. Occasionally, fellow hopeful Hokies kickers joined her for practice on the track field. Because the field had no goalposts, the kickers placed two trash cans nine feet apart to set the width and a set of band director stairs in the middle to approximate the height.
Coaches set the kickers' spring tryout date for March 31. Luttrell woke up early that morning, moving through her stretching routine. When she arrived at the Hokies' practice field with her roommate and brother, close to 20 men stood ready to try out as kickers, punters and snappers.
Luttrell and nine men lined up for the first round of kicking spot auditions. They would kick through three rounds, with cuts made after each one.
In the first round, each player kicked from 25 yards out, dead center. Luttrell nailed all four kicks off the tee and advanced to the next round. The coaches cut three kickers, leaving seven remaining.
The kickers moved to the left and right sides from 35 yards out for the second round. Luttrell made all of the kicks but one from the left side, which fell just short of the goalpost. Before moving to the third round, Coach Beamer announced the players who would move on. Luttrell's number wasn't called out.
"I wasn't disappointed -- I thought to myself, 'I did really good today, I beat out three other guys,' so it was fun,'" Luttrell said. As she walked off the field, Beamer pulled her aside.
"She's really got good technique and her steps are very good," Beamer said. "I think her power, right now, and the explosiveness through the ball is what she'd have to develop more to have a chance to kick at the college level. That's what I told her. As far as her technique, I think it's very good. She did a good job."
Luttrell lingered to watch the rest of the tryouts (three kickers advanced to Monday's final round) and even attempted a few kickoffs. Before she left, Ballein gave her a big hug, telling her he was proud of her, calling her a role model for his own daughters.
The next day, Luttrell emailed Ballein to ask about her future prospects: If she worked on her kicking all summer, would she have a better chance at making the team in August? His response echoed Beamer's comments -- that while they would never tell an athlete, male or female, that he or she cannot do something, Luttrell has "a ways to go to reach the power needed to compete at the collegiate level."
Luttrell needed those words, she says, for a sense of closure.
But while one door may have closed, another opened. One of Luttrell's former high school coaches is on the coaching staff of a local arena football team, the Virginia Badgers. He told Luttrell she'd be welcome to try out for the Badgers, which she plans to do. "I'd be OK with getting paid to kick, that'd be fine," Luttrell says, laughing, before adding, "But it'd mean more to me to be kicking for Tech."
For now, she will focus on finishing the academic semester. And for the first time in a long time, she'll take a break from kicking on the local high school field each week.
"I didn't grow up thinking 'I want to be a college football kicker,' but that became a dream of mine once I saw that I actually could do it," Luttrell says. "I've never been one to give up on something that I've wanted. This will also teach me that sometimes your best just isn't good enough. And that's OK."
Anna Katherine Clemmons writes for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.