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‘She’s one of us’: Sophomore kicks her way onto football team

<i>Laurie Skrivan/St.Louis Post-Dispatch</i><br/>
St.Louis Post-Dispatch
Laurie Skrivan/St.Louis Post-Dispatch
"The courage she showed to try something new and being good at it. I couldn't be prouder

By Laurie Skrivan

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    GRANITE CITY, Illinois (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) — Abby Knight had just completed the kickoff, and it didn’t take long to realize the returner could go all the way for a touchdown.

Abby, a sophomore weighing 120 pounds, wasn’t expected to try a tackle for her Granite City High School football team. She initially headed for the sideline but then turned and tried to chase the kick returner from Quincy Notre Dame High School. It was too late. Touchdown.

Although the touchdown would be called back on a penalty call Abby was still unhappy she couldn’t catch the returner. She talked briefly with the coaches, then headed for the bench, sat down, crossed her arms and stared blankly at the field.

A teammate, defensive end Jayden Moore, soon came over and sat down near Abby. He tried to cheer her up, reminding her she was perfect on extra point kicks. Then he peered closer.

“Did you get highlights in your hair?” he asked.

It was another sign of the subtle, and not-so-subtle, changes on the Granite City varsity football team, where Abby, 15, plays kicker.

Abby was already a two-sport athlete at Granite City, playing on the girls’ soccer and tennis teams. Before the new school year started, she decided to add a third sport. She made a last-minute decision to try out for the football team.

“I just like doing new things,” she said, “and this was definitely a new thing to try.”

She had worked with her father, Craig, a former Granite City football player, for a few days in their backyard on kicking a football. Abby had the kicking skills already, as a 2022 Under 16 Missouri Cup Champion on the soccer field. But could it translate to football?

There was another challenge: Abby tore the ACL in her left knee during a soccer tournament in May 2021, and she still wears a brace despite a full recovery.

At the tryout in August, she hesitated at first, but with some encouragement from her dad she walked onto the field and started kicking.

“As I moved further back during my kicks, I remember hearing the coaches … ’OMG she can actually kick. DANG!’” Abby recalled.

During a water break, one of the coaches told her, “With that kind of kick, you’re going win us some games.”

She made the team as a kicker specializing in extra points and field goals.

“If you asked at the beginning of last summer would I be the kicker, I would have said you’re crazy,” said Abby, who maintains a 4.0 GPA.

Head coach Kindle Lyons encouraged the idea of a tryout, although he admits Abby is the first girl he’s coached in a football game.

“She has the will and drive to be great at everything she does,” Lyons said. “She has a stronger leg than most of the young men out here. She belongs on the football field.”

Abby made all 9 of her extra point attempts this season and was 2-for-3 in field goal attempts, with a long distance of 31 yards. When she missed her first field goal in a recent game, bouncing the ball off the left upright, she woke up early the next day. She grabbed a few footballs, climbed over the fence at the school field and started practicing.

“That’s the type of person she is,” said assistant coach Nick Petrillo. “She’s very competitive. She’s not a fluke. She’s not a gimmick. She has a warrior’s heart. She’s one of us.”

Petrillo and other coaches work alongside Abby’s dad, who joined the staff this season to help perfect Abby’s kicks.

“In soccer, I have plenty time on a free kick,” Abby said. “In football, you have 1.3 seconds.”

The number of girls playing high school football has gradually risen in recent years, although they represent only a fraction of team rosters. According to the National Association of State High School Associations, 3,094 girls donned football pads in 2021-22 school year. That was up from 2,404 in 2018-19 and nearly double the number from 2011-12. Yet, it’s still only 0.3% of all high school football players.

Abby was initially wary of how the boys would react to her, but her early concerns faded.

“I had no idea if I would be close with any of the guys (or) if I would be a loner,” she said. “But they just welcomed me … and they are so funny. We all get along and jell really well.”

On the sidelines and on the playing field, she’s just another teammate, stretching and running drills with the other players and joking around with them. One of those teammates, Bay Damiano, 16, said he and the other boys were a bit surprised when Abby tried out because they’d never had a girl on the team. They’ve since become fans.

“If we’re in field goal range, we know can count on her putting three points on the scoreboard,” he said.

For now, Abby’s longest kick in practice stands at 46 yards.

“My ultimate goal by end of high school is to be able to kick a 50-yard field goal,” she said. “Oh, and I want to make a tackle.”

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