If Not Carli Lloyd, Someone Will Kick Down NFL Gender Barrier

By Tom Keegan Boston Herald

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Soccer star Carli Lloyd is making plenty of noise for her recent 55-yard field goal kicked through the uprights during a joint practice of the Ravens and Eagles. However, as Tom Keegan reports, there are some lesser-known female kickers waiting in the wings to kick down the NFL gender barrier.

Boston Herald

Two-a-day practices, one at 6 a.m., another at 7 p.m., had rules that if broken came with consequences, regardless of the excuse.

So when Abby Vestal, the first girl to play varsity football at Lawrence High in Kansas came to the field 15 minutes late, nobody had to tell her to do grueling bear crawls. She dropped to the ground and did them on the morning dew.

"You know Abby, I have to treat you just the same as I do the boys," then-coach Dirk Wedd told Vestal after she finished.

"I know, coach," Vestal said. "Coach, do you think you can have a janitor open the girls locker room in the morning?"

Wedd, reached by phone Sunday, looked back on that morning and said it still makes him "feel about 6 inches tall."

Wedd had remembered to tell a janitor to open the boys locker room but forgot to tell him to do the same for the girls.

"Most of the guys, if they're late, they'll have a million excuses," said Wedd, now working for the University of Kansas football program. "Here it was my fault and she didn't say a word. She just showed up and did the bear crawls. Right then, I knew how tough she was. After that, I never forgot to open up the locker room again."

Vestal was late because for her first practice because she had to find someone with a key and eventually found the cheer coach. For games, she dressed in the cheerleaders locker room.

Vestal, now 30, played girls soccer for the high school in the spring and approached Wedd about kicking for the football team. He gave her a tryout. She was the backup as a junior and started as a senior.

Originally Wedd had her kick only extra points and field goals until she convinced him to let her kick off. They reached a compromise. She could kick off provided she ran directly off the field to avoid injury.

"She was good about it, then one day she doesn't get off the field and they break it," Wedd said. "She makes the tackle of the year and gets up with a big smile on her face with her mouthpiece half hanging out of her mouth. I said, 'I thought we had an agreement.' She said, 'Coach, I wasn't going to let them have six points.' She wasn't the best kicker I ever had, but I guarantee you she was far from the worst."

Looking back on it, Wedd said, he probably was too cautious with the tackling restriction, although Abby's mother, then a nurse in an orthopedic surgeon's office, had no complaints.

Vestal has seen video of the 55-yard field goal kicked through the uprights by Carli Lloyd during a joint practice of the Ravens and Eagles. Hasn't everybody seen it? Lloyd said a couple of NFL teams contacted her about the possibility of kicking in the fourth exhibition game, but her schedule with the U.S. women's soccer team didn't allow for it.

Lloyd, 37, said she might try out for an NFL team next summer, but with the Olympics coming, that might not work for the two-time World Cup champion. If not Lloyd, someone eventually will break the gender barrier in the NFL.

"No reason a woman can't be a kicker in the NFL," said Vestal, now living in Little Rock, Ark., and competing for the Pro Rugby Training Center and the Little Rock Stormers. "Then it goes back to the questions that ran across my mind: How will the players take it? How will the players accept me? Will they protect me as blockers? Things like that."

The answers?

"They were all my big brothers," Vestal said. "They had my back. I remember one game, a guy took my legs out on a kick and every single one of my linemen got in his face."

Vestal kicked a 39-yard field goal in a game and a 47-yarder at a local kicking competition, but she said the transition from soccer to football and back to soccer was not easy.

"It took me a long time to get my timing down and figure it out," Vestal said. "I was coming from a soccer background, where you can take however many ever stops back you want. Switching to two-step approach changes how you kick, how your muscles need to fire, how your body reacts, your position over the ball. I remember after practicing football over and over and over, I couldn't get the soccer ball off the ground. It was a little tricky for me. You practice that step over and over again, eventually you're body's like, 'Oh, I got this.'"

Lloyd never has practiced proper field goal technique but showed she has the requisite leg strength. She took four steps into the ball, which means the kick would have been blocked in a game.

An unofficial iPhone stopwatch timing of her field goal from snap to kick came in at 1.56 seconds, compared to 1.25 seconds for Stephen Gotkowski's game-clinching field goal in Super Bowl LIII. A quarter of a second is more than enough time to be the difference between getting the kick off and getting it blocked. It's also a gap that could be closed with a single-minded devotion to getting the technique down.

Concerns about a woman not bringing enough as a tackler rank among the shallowest of arguments made by those hellbent on the sport remaining an all-male realm. Not all NFL kickers are built like the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Gostkowski.

Remember Garo Yepremiam?

A native of Lanarca, Cypress, Yepremian came to the United States with his brother, Krikor, a scholarship soccer player at Indiana. Garo was not eligible to play an NCAA sport because at the time, his professional soccer experience in England disqualified him. After watching football on TV, his curiosity got the best of him and he decided to pursue a career as a kicker.

He kicked for the Lions, Saints, Dolphins and Buccaneers.

In "Placekicking in the NFL: A History and Analysis," author Rick Gonsalves writes of how little Yepremian knew about football when he joined the Lions. Yepremian had heard Lions coach Harry Gilmer say they had lost the coin toss and would have to kickoff. Yepremian grabbed the tee and sprinted onto the field to search for the lost coin.

Yepremian, of course, was most famous not for the 1,074 career points produced by his foot, but for the seven points he gave to Washington that jeopardized the Dolphins' perfect season. The Dolphins went on to win Super Bowl VII, 14-7, and the late Yepremian never was shy to poke fun at himself about the worst pass in NFL history, one that slipped out of his hand, was tipped and intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Mike Bass.

At 5-foot-7, 175 pounds, Yepremian didn't exactly draw comparisons to teammate Nick Bouniconti as a tackler. None of Yepremian's shortcomings kept him from twice being named first-team All-Pro and being voted to the NFL's All-Decade team for the 1970s.

The day will come when a woman kicks in the NFL, and if she kicks well, she'll keep her job. If she misses too many, she'll be cut for not doing her job. That's football. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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