A GIRL ON A FOOTBALL TEAM?

By Amanda Alto

When soccer star Liz Heaston walked into her classroom in September of 1997 as a 20-year-old junior on her college campus of Willamette University in Salem, OR, little did she know that she was about to become the first female to play football on a college team. As she strolled into her course on coaching athletics, the professor, who also doubled as the small university's head football coach, greeted her with, "Well, Liz, want to try out for the team?" Liz thought he was kidding.

But Coach Dan Hawkins assured her he was serious by inviting her to come to the Willamette University Bearcats football practice after class. Simply put, the Bearcats needed a kicker. Liz did a lot better than she thought she would. Three weeks later, on October 18, 1997, just shy of halftime in an NAIA Division league game between Willamette University and Linfield College, Heaston kicked a field goal for the team.

In a way, Heaston had prepared to kick her entire life. She'd played soccer since she was young, specializing in booting the ball to the other end of the field in her position as sweeper. She also ran track in high school, competing in sprinting events, and during summers she coached team swimming for a recreational league. While growing up, though, football had never entered the picture. She'd never tried to join a football team, and had never even tried to kick the pigskin through the uprights. Yet when Coach Hawkins presented her with the unique kicking opportunity, she had utter confidence in herself.

The day of the first game, Liz had a soccer match at noon. The football game was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. The game was already into the second quarter when the Heaston family van pulled up to the edge of the field and Liz hopped out, strapped on her kicking shoes, and joined her second set of teammates on the sidelines. Then she jogged onto the field, lined up, and fired the ball through the middle of the uprights, scoring an extra point for the Bearcats. In the fourth quarter she did it again, contributing another point to the teams' winning score of 27-0.

The following days were a whirlwind for Heaston, with a call from Letterman and an appearance on the Today Show. But a week later, the tide of stardom turned.

"The coach had said I wouldn't be kicking anymore and so I came to the game in my street clothes with my jersey on. I just happened to bring my helmet and my cleats with me. He saw that I was there, and at halftime, the kickers had missed. He looked at me and said, "Get your stuff on." I was like 'holy smokes.' but I put my stuff on. I missed both of those kicks. I wasn't prepared. I had no idea what I was doing."

Her faults did not go unnoticed. "I was in Sports Illustrated under the Losers column when I missed those two kicks. They didn't put me in when I made the first two. It made me a little angry, but after a while I thought about it and said, you know, not very many people I know are going to make it into Sports Illustrated, so, you know, Winners column, Losers column, it's OK," she concluded with a laugh.

What does Heaston think about women's future in football? "I don't think girls are ever going to be able to play on the line," she says. "Physically we're just not as big. But kicking is something that's totally possible. I've talked to a lot of little girls. It doesn't matter if it's a 'guys' sport, I tell them. You can still do it."

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1997 was the silver anniversary of Title IX, the Equal Education Act of 1972, that was to assure that women would not be treated differently or discriminated against in the world of athletics. Perhaps there couldn't have been a more fitting year for Heaston to kick through this barrier.




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