By Taylor Specker
On a cool autumn’s night, the air was crisp but comfortable. The bright lights beaming over the damp field seemed to be more blinding than I had remembered. Tonight was Friday night: game night on Alumni Field. We were standing on the sideline, our backs facing a crowd of rowdy fans who were all staring at the white numbers on our navy blue jerseys. I began looking to my right and to my left, realizing that all of the estrogen in this large group of testosterone belonged to me. My stomach began to feel queasy as I started to feel like an outcast. My shoulder pads were uncomfortable and too big to fit my feminine shoulders and chest. My helmet was loose and wobbly and needed constant readjustment. I smelled like lavender air freshener, probably because I had one in my locker that held all of my football equipment. I was not interested in smelling like a dirty football player. I’m sure my feminine stance, one hip popped to the side, was noticed by many of the fans. My long, brown ponytail hanging out from my helmet surely did not fool anyone either. I completely stood out in this particular group tonight. I was a zebra surrounded by black stallions; I was trying to fit in, but I couldn’t help but stand out.
Our captains were called to the center of the field for the coin toss. I stood back watching in a daze, too nervous to think about the game actually starting. After the captains concluded the toss and chose possession, we all stampeded towards them for our pre-game chant. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. I felt like I was stuck in the middle of a violent mosh pit. I decided to stay more on the outside to avoid getting knocked over and trampled by the stomping of sharp football cleats worn by heavy high school boys.
“Hoorah!” we all responded in a loud synchronization.
At this point I felt awkward, because the last time I checked I was not even close to being characterized as a boy, but I was not expecting them to change the chant just for me. As we retreated back to the sideline, I did not even notice the game had started. I could feel hundreds of eyes staring at my back. I began to feel more nervous, doubting my decision to even play on a men’s football team. I frantically paced along the sideline weaving in and out between the players. In my left hand I carried a black rubber block, which is used for the holder to place the football on when I kicked. I never put the block down; I had to be ready for anything at any moment. In my right hand I held onto my yellow mouth guard, which I chewed on constantly throughout the game, hoping to suppress my anxiety and nerves.
It was too hard to watch the game, I could not stay focused. I was alone; there was no one to talk to or even stand next to. My boyfriend, also my teammate, played multiple positions and was constantly on the field. I did not get a lot of reassurance from him during games because he was too caught up in his own performance. The first quarter flew by. It almost felt nonexistent, like not action had taken place. There were no touchdowns on the board. It was a 0-0 game so far. The second quarter had started without hesitation. We got into close range of our end zone; it was fourth down and our head coach made his call.
“PAT/FG team!” Coach Bassett yelled towards the sideline.
I panicked and ran towards the field without even thinking about what was about to take place.
“Here’s your chance, let’s show everyone what you can do!” Coach said to me.
Running onto the field, I realized that everyone was watching me at this point, and this was not a practice session anymore. I practiced kicking every day at practice all by myself, with no one to return the one ball that was given to me. It is very difficult to kick with full equipment on, especially compared to my private tryout in the summer where I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I realized I could easily reach the range; I knew I could. This was my time, my moment of truth for not only myself, but for the team and fans. I placed my block onto a mound of grass, the spot I wished to have the ball placed. The team lined up in their positions as I was pacing my steps to get ready for the kick. I was kicking on the far left side of the field, which was very intimidating to me. I was used to kicking PATs and field goals that were straight down the middle. I never even thought to practice kicking field goals on the left and right of the field! I did not even know that you could do that in a game. However, I was not going to express my lack of knowledge for the game in front of everyone, especially now.
I placed my small, rough, yellow mouth guard in my mouth staring at my black rubber block. The air was cold- cold enough for me to see my breath. My toes felt frozen in my soccer cleats and barely moved to create heat. My holder was the quarterback, and I trusted him since we had worked together a lot during pre-game practices. He looked at me waiting for me to signal that I was ready. I nodded my head towards him, even though I felt like running off the field and into the locker room to hide. Kenny signaled to the snapper that I was ready and he was as well. The ball was snapped. It did not land in Kenny’s hands, but over his head. I immediately went in for the kick assuming that the ball was placed on the block like it was supposed to. Coach always told me to assume that the ball will be on my block and not to hesitate too long. Kenny had to stand up to catch the ball, and instead of throwing the pass for the two point conversion like he should have, he placed the ball on my block. I already was in motion for my kick and it was almost impossible to reset myself without having my kick blocked by the other team.
“Kick it!” he screamed at me furiously.
I leaned back and kicked awkwardly. The ball went straight up and was close to being a complete kick, but fell too short. A player on the opposing team caught the ball and ran for a ninety yard touchdown. We all ran after him, including me. I had no idea how to tackle, but I knew that I had to at least chase him down. Tackling was never something I was taught in practices. Running at my fastest possible speed, I finally caught up to him and was pushed from behind by a very large, strong opposing player. His strength and force sent me off my feet, causing me to roll down the field. My adrenaline racing at this point did not even let pain sink in. I eventually got back up and kept on running. It was my fault that this player got the touchdown; I knew it, and everyone that came to that game did too.
Distraught and almost forgetting my rubber block, I jogged back to the sideline. I had tears forming in my eyes and could hardly breathe. My shoulder pads were restricting my gasps for air. My hands trembling, I tried to console myself before approaching the team. I could not look weak, but I felt weak and like a failure. Coach Bassett ran up to me concerned.
“Are you okay? Your leg isn’t hurt right? Are you hurt at all?”
“I’m fine,” I said, barely able to make the words out.
“You know, if you were blonde you would have made that kick,” Coach Komer said as I walked by.
Coach Komer, the defensive coach, always had something sarcastic to say to me, especially when I wanted to be left alone. I said nothing and retreated to the sideline, back to the spot where I stood before. At this point, no one stood in range of me. No one said a word to me. Their disappointed looks in my direction said it all. All I do is kick for the team, and I could not even do that when I had the chance. I would not even dare to look at the fans; I could not even handle being on the sideline. I really wanted to run away now and go to my room and cry. The referee announced that the touchdown was called back because of an illegal block in the back. My hit by that player caused the touchdown to be taken away. I took one for the team, but no one seemed to care because we could have been ahead at that point with my kick.
Second quarter was just about to end, and we ended up with the ball back on offense. Play after play, we encroached closer and closer to our end zone once again. One last play would be all we needed to get the first touchdown of the game. Kenny made a complete pass to my boyfriend, Nick, who scored the first touchdown of the game. Everyone cheered enthusiastically as the Panthers scored their first touchdown of the season. Unfortunately, I knew I had to go back out there. With the previous kick playing over and over in my head, I waited for Coach Bassett to call off the PAT/FG team and go for two point conversion instead. Waiting for the call, I was trembling more than before. I squeezed my rubber block as I heard Coach Bassett yell commands.
“PAT/FG team!” he yelled.
Everyone on the sideline seemed to be disappointed with his decision and I assumed everyone was. Who would want to risk something else going wrong? I had to go back on the field, but this time it was right where I wanted it- right down the middle. All of my practice kicking PATs by myself was finally going to pay off. I began to feel ecstatic and anxious. Walking towards Kenny, I had something to say before I kicked.
“I’m really sorry about the last kick. That was my fault. I should have made that.”
“Don’t be sorry, just make this one,” he told me.
I shook my head and walk towards my spot. I placed my block on a new mound of grass; I paced my steps preparing myself.
“I’m ready,” I said to Kenny before placing my mouth guard in my mouth.
He made his signal to the snapper. The snap was perfect, just as it should have been the first time. Kenny caught the football, placed it on my block, and I kicked. The kick was strong, I felt all of the adrenaline releasing at this point. Everyone could hear the power behind it. The ball had good rotation and flew through the white uprights right down the middle with accurate height. Everyone was completely silent; I heard nothing, not even my own heartbeat. Looking at the two referees under the uprights, I waited for them to signal the kick was good. Both of their arms were raised indicating that I successfully made my first PAT.
Kenny ran over and hit me on my helmet. The smack was loud and made my ears ring. I was not used to that. I did not want to celebrate over something that seemed easy to everyone else. Kicking was not easy at all, especially when it came to place kicking between two white posts. I was proud of myself, knowing that my family was watching and witnessed what I could do. I ran towards my block, reached down to pick it up and retreated back to the sideline.
“Well done!” Coach Bassett exclaimed.
“Good kick…for a girl…” Coach Komer teased.
I ignored the comment. I was too preoccupied with what the rest of the players would have to say to me. I walked to my spot on the sideline, holding my block and surprisingly a number of players walked my way.
“Good job Taylor,” they told me as they all gave me high fives.
“Awesome kick!” one player said to me.
Still, I did not receive the respect from most players that I expected, many of them on the starting offense and defense lines. Having some players recognize my efforts was good enough for me to settle. No other touchdowns were scored that game; we lost our game opener to Leicester. The head coach for Leicester was our team’s previous head coach; he had left the year before. He had no idea Coach Bassett had picked a girl from the Varsity soccer team to be the team’s place kicker. I did not get to go out and kick again, but I was recognized for the one point I gave the team. The game concluded, and many of us were disappointed with the results, including me. Although this was my first year playing football, I already could not stand losing. We lined up against the other team to shake hands. We all removed our helmets. Steam rose from our warm, exposed heads as the cool air hit us. My hair was all over the place, but none of them would dare to judge me since they never cared what they smelled or looked like after football. As we approached the other team, many of the players were confused when they saw a girl in the lineup.
“Whoa! Dude that was a girl!” many of them commented.
I chuckled hearing the humorous comments once I walked by. With our heads hanging low, we all jogged and took a knee in front of our coaching staff. We were given a talk about the game and how we made mistakes which cost us points. We all just wanted to go home; no one wanted a play-by-play of the game after we had just lost. We all knew that the next practice would not be a good one. Sprints would probably be our punishment, and we were all smart enough to know that. After one last chant as a unit, a team, we began to walk off the field. Walking with my boyfriend, expressing our frustration with how things went, he gave me a kiss and told me he was proud of me.
“I know… but I feel like it was my fault,” I responded.
“Well you made one kick, not many girls can even say they did that on a football team!” he said, reassuring me.
“True,” I said, chuckling.
My family was standing at the fence waiting for my approach. I could tell by looking at their faces that they enjoyed the game, all of it- even the bad stuff. My dad teased me about getting tackled in my first game. My mom, concerned about how I was feeling after getting hit, gave me a hug and expressed her love towards me.
“We are so proud of you honey”, they both said to me.
“Thanks mom, thanks dad. That means a lot, especially after tonight,” I said.
The fans were clearing out, disappointed in how the game went, but still hopeful for the rest of the season. The other team celebrated excessively as they passed by, even the coach, which just made him look immature. Rolling my eyes, I continued talking to my family, trying to avoid the frustration with our loss. The coaches were standing in a group discussing what went wrong during the game and what we all needed to work on. We had such a strong drive as a team, and then as the game went on, we seemed to have lost our motivation. I was just about to leave my family to go change when a young girl approached me. I had never seen her before and she did not look familiar to me at all. She was wearing jeans and a pink gymnastics sweatshirt. I had no idea that this was Coach Bassett’s daughter, Mackenzie. She was a cute girl and couldn’t have been older than ten. Looking at her face, I realized that she had something on her cheek. It was my number, number four, painted on her right cheek in black paint, covered in sparkling glitter. She spoke to me before leaving that night, and it was something that ignited my drive.
“I know we don’t know each other, but I consider you my hero. I wish that someday when I get older I can be just like you,” she said.