I sliced through the air with a straight arm, confirmed the center between the posts, then took three steps directly back and two to the left. Trapper snapped the ball, and Garrett quickly placed it on the field. He just got the laces turned away in time before my foot made contact with the ball. Whomp!
The ball soared end over end toward the uprights. I held my breath and watched helplessly as it pulled to the right, hit the goal post, and bounced back toward the field. Dang! Not exactly how I intended to start training camp with the Carolina Cougars. I wouldn’t impress Hoss with kicks like that.
“Ya look a little rusty there, Coop,” Garrett said as he jumped up.
Truth was, I was rusty. It had been almost five months since the Canadian League season ended, and I hadn’t worked out as much as I should have in the interim before the NFL training camps began. Dad told me I needed to get more kicks in when I got back from Canada, but I thought I’d have plenty of time in training camp to get my mojo going. I should have listened to Dad.
Trapper thumped my helmet and said through a chuckle, “You sure you’re an Inman?”
I was used to the joshing. Everyone loved to remind me I wasn’t like my older brothers. They were all big, strapping, successful quarterbacks, and me? I was just an average Joe kicker.
Hoss McGinley, the special teams coach, called from where he was standing in the end zone with his hands on his hips. “Inman! Give me ten, then go hydrate!”
I dropped to the ground and pumped out ten pushups as punishment for the missed kick, then jogged to the sidelines, grabbed a water bottle, and watched as Drake Evans kicked a few balls. He didn’t look much better than I did, but it was early in the season. It was between him and me, so I’d have to work hard and up my game to be named the Cougars’ starting kicker.
The Cougars had room on their roster for two kickers and a punter. Garrett was a shoo-in as punter since he’d held the position for the past seven years. My brother, Clark, who’d just retired from the sport, spoke highly of his teammate, Garrett. They’d been Super Bowl champions together as Cougars. Twice.
A bead of sweat slid down the side of my head under my helmet as I squirted the last of the cool water into my mouth. Practicing in the Carolinas in July could be brutal, but it sure beat having to deal with blizzards like they had up north in the wintertime.
As I stood and wiped the back of my neck with a towel, Travon Washington, the Cougars star running back, trotted by and said, “How many holes you gonna play this afternoon, Coop?”
In case you didn’t know, kickers get no respect. The other players always insinuate we do nothing but stand around and stretch and occasionally kick a few balls, that we have plenty of time for golf, and that we don’t know what a real practice looks like. But they tend to change their tune when the game is on the line and a single kick could make or break the day.
I rejoined Garrett, Drake, and Trapper on our side of the practice field. “Where’s Hoss?” I asked as I took a warmup air kick.
“He got a text. Said he’d be right back,” Trapper said as he squatted down to snap the ball.
I traced my sightline in the air, then stepped back. Trapper snapped the ball, and Garrett spun it into position. I kicked. Whomp!
Wide left. Geez.
“Inman, give me ten, then make room for Reynolds,” Hoss ordered in his gruff voice from behind.
Reynolds? Who was Reynolds?
I glanced in Hoss’s direction and saw a lean player standing beside him. Who was this Reynolds person?
I performed the pushups, then stepped aside and watched Reynolds line up and step back. Trapper snapped, Garrett held, and Reynolds kicked the ball straight through the posts.
Hoss called to Reynolds, “Let me see you do it again.”
Reynolds got in position and kicked the ball straight down the center of the uprights again.
Drake and I exchanged glances. What was going on? Did we have competition?
Not wanting to be a jerk, I said to Reynolds, “Nice kick, man.”
Reynolds turned to me and took his helmet off. When he did, two long pigtails unfurled over his shoulders.
Then it hit me. Reynolds! I was staring at Mary Claire Reynolds, the gender-breaking kicker for the Swanee University Sentinels football team.
My sister-in-law had documented Mary Claire’s rise to collegiate fame on her YouTube show, Makayla’s Sportsology. I never missed Makayla’s show, so I knew all about how Mary Claire Reynolds had overcome adversity and prejudice to emerge as a leading female athlete playing in a male-dominated sport. The girl everyone called a “pioneer” had graduated in the spring. Was she at training camp to try out?
I shifted my weight to my other foot. “Uh, sorry about that.”
“Don’t worry,” she said as she propped her helmet on her hip. “I’ve been called worse.”
The sun brought out little green flecks in her doe eyes and made sections of her strawberry blond hair sparkle. She was definitely a lot easier to look at than any kicker I’d ever known. Any player, for that matter. Had she seen my lousy kick?
“Follow me, Reynolds,” Hoss said as he began walking toward the sidelines.
After they got out of earshot, Drake asked, “What do you think that was about?”
“Maybe she’s going out for the team,” I said.
“No, no, no,” Trapper scoffed. “Girls don’t play in the NFL. Not gonna happen.”
“Yeah, the whole league would implode,” Garrett said. “Can you imagine having to watch every single word out of your mouth for fear of her bringing some sort of lawsuit against you? Nah, the NFL’s a man’s world, and it’s going to stay that way.”
Would the league ever accept a female player? Would the fans? Makayla reported on the protests at Swanee University when the Sentinels decided to let Mary Claire play. Classes were disrupted for weeks, several administrators and coaches resigned, and more than two dozen students left the school.
But the last laugh was on them. Mary Claire shattered every school kicking record and helped get the Sentinels to the national playoffs the past season. Why wouldn’t an NFL team want to give her a shot?
“Coop, you’re up,” Garrett said as he gave me a playful punch to the shoulder.
I marked off my steps, but before Trapper snapped the ball, the sight of Mary Claire walking toward the exit distracted me. I kicked, but my timing was off and the ball hooked to the right.
“Inman!” Hoss bellowed from across the field.
“I know, I know,” I yelled. I dropped to the ground and gave him ten. No, not at all the way I intended to start training camp.
I stepped into position and took a final glance at the uprights. Then the long snapper snapped the ball, the holder positioned it, and I sent it sailing straight down the center.
Yes! My first ever kick on NFL turf was a success. Just as I was about to relax, Coach McGinley said, “Let me see you do it again.”
My throat went dry, but I quickly reminded myself I’d kicked more field goals my last year in college than any other kicker on any other team that season. If I could kick one goal on NFL turf, I could kick two.
So I did.
“Nice kick, man,” the guy who Coach ordered to do push-ups said.
I know he didn’t mean anything by it, but I couldn’t let it pass. I’ve never been ashamed of my gender and wanted those men on the field to know they weren’t the only ones who could kick.
When I took off my helmet, the guys stiffened, except for the one who’d complimented me on my kick. He actually leaned forward, almost as if he knew me.
I tried not to look at the other players, the ones who were burning holes in me with their eyes. I was used to the stares. To the disparaging comments hurled at my back. Or to my face. So, imagine my surprise when the player who spoke to me apologized for calling me a guy.
“Uh, sorry about that,” he said.
“Don’t worry. I’ve been called worse,” was all I could think of to say. It was true.
I found his eyes through the opening of his helmet and met his gaze. Unlike the huffy stares I felt coming from the other players, his reddish-brown eyes were soft, and it was as if they were searching, like they were trying to see inside me. They were kind eyes. I wasn’t used to finding kind eyes on the field.
“Follow me, Reynolds,” Coach McGinley said as he headed toward the sidelines. I put my helmet back on and rushed to catch up to him.
Was that it? Was that all the time I got?
Coach McGinley stopped when we got to the breezeway that led to the parking lot. He faced me and said, “So, how far are you willing to go with this?”
“How far are you willing to go with this?” he asked, more emphatically.
Then he crossed his arms, as if he expected me to read his mind. A good kicker I was. A good mind reader I wasn’t. So, I just stood there.
“Look, do you want to practice with the team or not?” he finally asked. “I can’t promise you any play time during the preseason games, but the bozos I’ve got out there now haven’t hit two in a row all week. Maybe you’ll light a fire under them.”
Not exactly the reason I’d like to be considered to participate in training camp, but if I could get my foot in the door, maybe it’d be like it was at Swanee. Maybe I could prove how valuable a player I was and get a real shot at securing a number on the roster. And since I didn’t have anything else to do anyway, why not try? I’d do anything to get my mind off Jason.
I found my full height and said, “Coach McGinley, I’m willing to take this as far as I can.”
“Good. Come back in the morning. I’ll need to prep the guys. Make sure they’re in the right frame of mind to have a girl on board.”
I cringed. I hated being called a “girl.” But like my father told me early on, you can’t change everything all at once.
Coach McGinley turned to leave, then said, “And nobody calls me Coach. Call me Hoss.”
“Thank you, Hoss,” I said as my stomach did a little flip. Was I really going to get an opportunity to work out and play with real NFL players?
I tossed my helmet in the backseat of the Prius and instructed the Bluetooth to call Trace. He wasn’t going to believe the day I’d had. I could barely believe it myself.
After the Kick is the fourth book in a The Inman Brother series by Savannah Adams, author of the Love Stories from Magnolia Grove series. Each book in this clean sports series is a complete story with overlapping characters and can be read in any order. A swoon-worthy ending guaranteed!
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