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Kicking And Dreaming: Becca Longo’s Triumphant Journey Into History

Kicking And Dreaming: Becca Longo’s Triumphant Journey Into History

Culture

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Isolated, alone on the field, with the spotlight shining brightly. The kicker is the most polarizing player in football. In a moment’s notice, the kicker can be a hero or an outcast. A legend or a loser. And when you’re a female kicker in a sport almost entirely male, that attention magnifies. The pressure is that much greater. But Becca Longo doesn’t feel the pressure. She tunes it out as she zones in, preparing to make college football history.

As Becca Longo prepares to send the ball through the uprights, she’s also preparing to change the game of football. Becca Longo, to millions, is a real-life Wonder Woman. She’s not on the screen, but on the field. She’s not fighting fictitious villains, she’s fighting tradition, discrimination and people rooting against her.

The Pride of Alamosa

Located about four hours south of Denver, the small town of Alamosa, Co., is home to about 10,000 people. It’s also home to Adams State University, a small Division II school. While the school isn’t known for its athletic department, it is known for being the school where Becca Longo kicks on the Grizzlies’ football team.

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But to arrive at Adams State, the school that would make NCAA history, we must first travel to the deserts of Arizona. Where the heat wilts anything under the sun, where the desert shows no mercy, and the sweltering heat makes only two kinds of people on the athletic fields: Winners and losers.

Becca’s Beginnings

Becca Longo grew up in an athletic family, and sports were as much a part of her life as the sweltering Arizona heat. Sports were her first true love and a love she’d never let slip away. From a young age, Longo displayed her athleticism that would help her make collegiate football history.

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To put her athleticism in perspective, Longo, at just 4 years old, was already standing up on water skis, and at 9, she was accurately kicking soccer balls. To her, sports came easy. She was a natural athlete and born competitor. For as long as she can remember she was competing and battling with her older brother Bobby.

Bobby, 11 years Becca’s senior, was a defensive end on the high school football team. But he wasn’t just a defensive end. He was much bigger than that, and his moves on the field influenced his little sister. He was an icon, at least to Becca. It was watching her brother that truly inspired Becca from a young age.

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He was her undisputed idol, and whatever he did,  Becca wanted to do too, only better. If he went over two jumps on the water skis, she wanted three. If he played in high school, she wanted college.  But college was out of the question. Football was a guy’s sport, a brutal game where girls could get on the sidelines only if they were cheerleaders.

It was dangerous and too physical. She would break. She’d get killed on the field.

So not breaking any norm or any bones, Becca stuck with the more traditional sports. She excelled at soccer using her powerful right leg to score goals and starred on the basketball court as a point guard with a smooth jump shot.

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But football — and those memories of watching her older brother play, hearing the crunching of pads during a collision and the bang of a kicker’s foot making contact with the ball — lingered in the back of her mind. They lay dormant but not forgotten, and it would be those exact memories that would shape her future and help her make history.

The Day That Changed It All

Following an ordinary spring day at Queen Creek High School near Chandler, Az., a suburb about 30 minutes from Phoenix, a light went off in Becca’s head. She was walking with a friend from class as her freshman year (2013-14) wound down. Although her year was ending, her dreams were about to begin.

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The football team was practicing and Becca noticed something: there wasn’t a girl to be found on the field. No diversity in sight. No girl on the field defying tradition. No girl in pads ready to re-invent the norm. This didn’t sit well with Becca. She wasn’t happy about it and her frustration with the system turned into raw motivation.

It was at that moment that Becca, a star soccer and basketball player for Queen Creek, declared to her friend that she was going to kick a different kind of ball. She would transition to a sport previously determined unsuitable for her, and for girls across America. She would kick a different kind of ball, but more importantly, she’d break boundaries and push the limits.

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She was going to be on the football team. She was going to be a three sport athlete in the most non-traditional of ways. Becca Longo was going to be a star, something she already knew for a long time. Now, she made a public declaration to alert everyone else of her plans.

Later that day, Becca told her dad that she intended to kick for Queen Creek. A natural athlete with a competitive nature, her dad didn’t question it, nor was he surprised. He had seen it all from a young age, so Becca taking on a new challenge was as common as the sun rising.

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Nothing could stand in the way of her dreams. Becca told ESPN about her will power and unstoppable drive to succeed: “I think it’s just something inside of me. I don’t always have to prove myself — but I always want to.” And it’s that unbreakable, indeterminable mindset that would propel Becca into uncharted territory.

Dreams Becoming Reality

About a week after her declaration, Becca and her parents drove to Gilbert Christian High school, about 20 minutes from Queen Creek, to attend a kicking camp hosted by the Arizona Cardinals. Without much training, Becca dove head first into a sport she’d never played in a camp full of Arizona’s most impressive kickers.

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The camp was star-studded and featured numerous National Football League punters and kickers, closely watching the performances of Arizona’s best high school kickers. With all eyes on her, Becca came through. The pressure wasn’t too great and the circumstances weren’t too daunting. In fact, it’s that type of environment where Becca excels.

After the camp, former players approached Becca and her dad offering to train the future star. She was a diamond in the rough, but she was trainable. She had potential, and they wanted to help her rise to the top. But the Longos wanted to work with Alex Zendejas, a former University of Arizona kicker.

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Zendejas, who runs a prestigious kicking academy in Phoenix, has coached seven Arizona All-State kickers. From the outset, Zendejas was intrigued by Longo. Hesitant, but intrigued. She was tall, athletic, and accurate. But above all, she had the motivation and drive to succeed at one football’s most challenging positions. The prospect of training her was both exciting and historic.

Kicking, like any other position, is a grind, but it also contains a mental element that few other positions encounter. An entire game, the culmination of the team’s entire efforts, can boil down to one play. One kick. If it sails through the uprights, the kicker is a legend, immortalized forever.

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If it misses, a pariah. Hated by the masses. The eyes and the hate of everyone focused on just one player.  As you can see in the picture above, the kicker causes a mass reaction of emotions. In this case, Zendejas sent the kick wide, sending the Arizona State players and fans into a frenzy while he walked off the field alone in a state of misery.

And before Zendejas officially agreed to work with Longo, he needed to see in person if she had the right blend of talent and drive. To dedicate his time and share his secrets of the trade, he needed to make sure she was worthy. Longo knew she would be, and the two would arrange a tryout to confirm the obvious.

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After a quick tryout, held on the football field after school, Zendejas knew. Her form was good, her poise was better. Her technique wasn’t there yet, but it wasn’t far off. And considering she had never played football, that was a promising sign. She would be a kicker, and if she stuck with it, through the ups and downs, she could be a star.

The next day, Becca strolled into the Queen Creek athletic director’s office and calmly stated that she wanted to play football. Just like she had gone into the kicking camp with her held held high, not caving to the pressure of the unfamiliar, Longo once again stood strong staring down the unknown.

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Paul Reynolds, the athletic director, laughed and replied, “I guess you should go for it and try out for the team.” Not exactly a positive, reinforcing response, but it was a response that Longo would use to fuel her motivation. The athletic director’s laughs would turn into motivational soundbites that would help push her to become better, faster, and stronger.

Sophomore Year: 2014-15

Using the tools and skills she learned while training with Zendejas multiple times per week, Longo tried out for the junior varsity team at Queen Creek. She was poised and capable. Not intimidated by her status as the only girl trying out, Longo remembered her techniques. Follow through. Head down. Breathe.

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Little surprise here, and no surprise to Becca, she made it. And during her first season kicking footballs, Longo connected on 30 of 33 point-after-attempts and was a perfect 4-for-4 on field goals. Her long was 30 yards. From the outside, Becca was the pleasant surprise of the season. A girl kicking on the football team with impressive accuracy. To her, it was expected, and anything less would have been a failure.

However, not everything was smooth sailing. Despite being a star on the team, Becca stood out at Queen Creek like a fish out of water. On or off the field, it didn’t matter. Pads or no pads. Her helmet couldn’t hide who she was, or if it did, it only lasted a few hours per week on gameday. She was bullied and made fun of. Her dream became someone else’s bullying material.

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“They’d post pictures on the internet and say, ‘Is that her jersey or her boyfriend’s?’” Longo told The Associated Press. “I got laughed at the entire year.” For some reason, her peers and classmates couldn’t cope with the idea that a female kicker was good. That a girl on the football team was also one of the best players.

Football is the ultimate meritocracy. If you’re good, you play. If you’re not, you don’t. For Becca Longo, this meritocracy still couldn’t dispel the rampant sexism and biases that continue in sports today. Although the bullying and tough days at Queen Creek would inevitably shape her and prepare her for life at large, where the real-world can be cold and unforgiving, Longo needed to make a change.

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Facing bullying and minimal respect from her peers, Longo decided to transfer to Basha High School, just 20 minutes down the road from Queen Creek. She took matters into her owns hands and decided to follow the path that was best for her. Her journey, at this point, was uncommon and nontraditional.

New School, New Life

Although Basha High was right next door, the transfer made a world of difference. Becca fit in, rather than standing out. Her kicking was good, but more importantly, so were her peers. Yet, due to transfer rules, Becca was forced to sit out her junior year (2015-16). While not officially allowed to play in games, Becca spent the year with the team honing her craft.

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Perfecting her skills would eventually help her make NCAA history. Although sitting out for a year was hard on her, it was necessary. As they say, patience is a virtue, and being a kicker requires copious amounts of kicking. With the physical kicking skills she already possessed, Becca now had a mental edge on just about everyone else on the team.

When Becca made her long awaited debut as Basha’s starting kicker, during her senior year in 2016, she was just as automatic as before, connecting on 35 of 38 extra points and nailing her only field goal of the season. It was as if she never left. She didn’t skip a beat and proved to players, fans, and coaches that she, a varsity kicker, belonged.

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The misses? They weren’t even her fault. They were blocked kicks, something she has no control over. As for her school, Becca fit right in and made an instant connection with both her classmates and teammates. No longer was she the girl kicker. She was just Becca, another kid on the roster trying to make the team better. The move to Basha, as they say in field goal terminology, was good.

The NCAA Takes Notice

With a stellar senior season — playing multiple sports — regional collegiate recruiters began to take notice. She was accurate, and more important, focused and dedicated. She was also on track to extend her kicking career. She may not be the next Lou Groza Award winner, given annually to the best Division I placekicker, but she was on track to kick for another year, assuming a few more things fell into place.

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While Becca and her father compiled video highlights from her two years of high-school kicking, Adams State offensive coordinator Josh Blankenship got word of an impressive kicker outside of Phoenix, the area that he recruits in. Rumor had it that a certain desert kicker was blossoming into a premier special-teams weapon.

Female or not, Adams State needed a kicker, so Blankenship packed his bags and headed to Basha to watch Becca kick in person. Finding a consistent kicker is much harder than people think, and when a school can lock up a skilled recruit who loves his/her job, that means four years of consistency in extra points and field goals.

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Impressed with what he saw, he invited her to a tryout at Adams State, a permissible move at the Division II level. Once again, Longo would be performing at a tryout with all eyes focused on her and her right leg. All eyes would be watching her technique and poise. Again, she would have to impress the coaches just like she had done with Zendejas and her two high school teams.

On a frigid February afternoon, in freezing Colorado temperatures, Becca, a snapper, a holder, and some coaches walked to the Adams State field to complete her tryout. Her one shot to impress the coaching staff.  Her one chance to do the impossible: Be the first female to receive an NCAA scholarship to play football.

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This tryout would either help or hamper her quest for history.  Fair or not, Longo knew that it was do or die. She knew the stakes were high, but she also knew what she was doing. She’d been there before and this time was no different. Technique and temperament. Master those and this tryout would be like every other day on the field.

At the tryout, with numbing temperatures and gusting winds, Becca remained unfazed, nailing 23 of her 25 field goal attempts. The wind, foreign atmosphere, and magnified pressure could not break her focus or alter her game. The special teams coaches were impressed. Head Coach Timm Rosenbach, a former NFL quarterback himself, who secretly viewed the tryout, was even more so.

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“I don’t care if the player’s a Martian…the gender part wasn’t really a factor to me,” Rosenbach told ESPN. Finally, it appeared, the meritocracy of sport was proving itself. At the college level nothing mattered but winning. Looks, backgrounds, economic statuses, or gender — none of it made a difference so long as you could produce and contribute to winning.

With that, Adams State extended a scholarship offer to Becca Longo, making her the first female to earn a football scholarship at the NCAA Division I or II level. Adams State wasn’t concerned with the precedent. They were concerned with winning, and winning now. In college football, time is of the essence when it comes to winning. Fan bases are impatient and boosters want wins right now.

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“I was completely shocked. Everybody who has it on video said my jaw dropped to the floor,” Longo said in an interview with CNN. And rightfully so. Female kickers had come before her, but none had done enough to earn a scholarship from the football team. No female kicker had proven to a college coach that she was worthy of a coveted scholarship offer.

At Adams State University

“Becca is a football player. That’s it,” Rosenbach told Bleacher Report, after Becca visited the Grizzlies spring practice in April 2018. With that statement, the coach and the team were behind Becca. Address the uniqueness of the situation one time and move forward and focus on football, the reason that Longo is with the team to begin with.

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“You will treat her like any other teammate and welcome her on to our team.” No problems, no distractions. Focus on football and let Becca do her thing on the kicking side. She earned her spot on the team and it would be a distraction to focus on anything but her kicking.

At Adams State, Becca has seamlessly transitioned into the college life. Signed on to be a two-sport athlete (basketball and football), Longo is like everyone else on the gridiron. Unlike in high school, players on the football team do not view her as an outsider. They don’t view her as girl or a propaganda accessory.

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She’s just a player like everyone else, putting in the work trying to make the team better. No preferential treatment and no extra attention. Said senior quarterback Jorge Hernandez in an interview with ESPN, “She gets after it just like all of us. She’s not just here to be on the team. She’s here to play.”

While Becca redshirted her freshman year, her sophomore year is a clean slate. She’s put in the work and is ready to kick when her name is called. Currently, Longo and fellow kicker Erick Ruiz are engaged in a weekly kicking battle to determine who gets the start. Equal playing field at its finest.

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Although not slated to start the first week, Longo remains optimistic. She knows she belongs and it will only be a matter of time until her name gets called. And when it does, she will trot out to the field a historic figure in her own right. She’ll be the female athlete that future generations look up to for inspiration and motivation.

Making History

When the time comes for Longo to boot her first collegiate kick for Adams State, it’ll be an NCAA first. It’ll be like a moon landing or discovery of the South Pole. Monumental for all of those who witness it and for those who hear about it years, even decades, later.

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She won’t be the first woman to score at the Division I FBS level. That belongs to Katie Hnida. Hnida originally started at the University of Colorado and transferred to the University of New Mexico where she’d set the record by kicking a PAT in a blowout victory in 2003.

Nor will she be the first woman to score at the Division I level in general, a monumental accomplishment that helped female athletes understand that playing college football is possible and attainable. It may not be easy, but it is possible. It may not be a smooth ride, but it can be done.

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That incredible feat belongs to Ashley Martin, who successfully hit an extra point during the 2001 season while playing for Jacksonville State University, a Division I FCS program. Little known fact: Jacksonville State University is not located in Jacksonville, Fla. It’s located in Jacksonville, Alabama. Before being a Division I FCS school, the Gamecocks were Division II.

What Becca Longo will be is the first female on an athletic scholarship to take the field as a football player. She will be the first female to get her education for free thanks to a football scholarship. Even though Becca understands the magnitude of her historic feat, she can’t let it get to her head. She has a job to do, a job she must do well in order to live up to the hype and attention she’s garnered.

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Despite others scoring before her, none have done so as a player specifically recruited to play football. The others were walk-ons, invited to try out for the team, but not specifically recruited for it. Only time will tell how successful Becca will be, but there’s already a big ripple effect stemming from her improbable journey.

An Inspiration For Millions

Longo tries to keep her excitement contained about the upcoming season, but there’s a certain palpable energy that can’t be bottled up. She’s an inspiration to millions of young fans and encourages them. One look at her Instagram page and you’ll see just how passionate she is about her career and motivating others.

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Said Longo in an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America, “If they want to play football, go out and play football. If they want to play hockey, they can go out and play hockey.” Her message is clear: follow your dreams and don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way.

So far, through three games in Sept, 2018, Adams State University went 1-2, with Longo not appearing in any action. But she’s not just there just for looks or for positive publicity. She’s definitely not there to keep the bench warm. She will get into a game and, eventually, establish herself as the team’s primary kicker.

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When her first kick does in fact sail through the big yellow uprights, Longo and millions of others will celeb’rate the triumph. She’s extremely popular on social media and is closely followed by fans around the world. The tale of Becca Longo is just getting started, and wherever it ends, it’ll be a fascinating journey that changed the lives of millions of young girls.

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