College football is becoming more accessible to women, starting with history-making Kent State kicker April Goss
Fall Saturday afternoons mean one thing across much of the country—college football. Nearly a quarter of American women call themselves fans, according to research firm Mintel. But ladies aren't just participating on the sidelines. Last month, Kent State University senior April Goss became the second woman in history to score in an NCAA Division I game when she kicked an extra point to help her team defeat Delaware State University, 45-13. "It felt amazing," says Goss. Her teammates—who she calls her best friends—raised her up on their shoulders and embraced her on the sidelines. (Meet 11 Talented Young Athletes Dominating the Sports World.)
Goss's trip into pigskin history started when she was a sophomore at Hopewell High School in Aliquippa, PA—about 26 miles from Pittsburgh. She'd played soccer throughout her childhood, but decided it was time for a new challenge. Football seemed exciting and fun; after all, Goss grew up watching the Steelers with her family. "Growing up with this city and the success that they've had over the years is exciting, and that drew me to the sport," Goss says.
With the help of her dad, who was a punter on his high school football team, Goss started to practice kicking the oblong ball. She wasn't really serious about it at first, she says, but she gradually started to think, "I don't really know what's stopping me from pursuing this." So she kept building the skills she'd need to prove she was field-worthy. "I practiced for a good couple of months before I told my coach that I was interested in joining the team," Goss says. Junior year, she said goodbye to soccer and secured a spot on the football roster. (Find out Why More High School Football Teams Are Embracing Female Athletes.)
Not everyone thought it was such a smart idea. "Playing in high school, that wasn't something that was very common in my area," says Goss. "There were girls that had done it, but not a lot." Goss's dad worried that her male teammates might bully her or hurt her on purpose—she says he was "just being a dad"—but she convinced him it was worth a shot.
Goss made the team, and the guys she'd previously known as classmates, not teammates, didn't mess with her. In fact, at first, they kept their distance too much. "They were very standoffish, and I was really confused by that," Goss says. However, as they realized she was serious about kicking, they gradually stopped acting distant. But there were other adjustments to get used to, like the fact that the guys farted in front of each other all the time, and during one JV game, the opponents smirked when they saw a female on the field. But Goss found that she thrived in the fast-paced environment of football, and in her two years on the team, Goss scored eight points. (These 18 Women In History Have Changed the Health and Fitness Game.)
As Goss looked at colleges, she knew she wasn't ready to hang up her jersey. "The game in general, it's exciting, it's thrilling; anything can happen at any moment," says Goss. "But for me it was challenging, something I'd never done before and that every day gives me something to work towards." Once she decided on Kent State—a school she was drawn to for its program in criminal justice—Goss immediately started researching the football program, doing recon on how tryouts and practices worked and the process for walking on.
The summer before her freshman year, she contacted the football office and told them she was interested in a tryout. She'd be the first female to ever land a spot in the Kent State football roster. "I remember meeting Coach (Darrell) Hazell, who was my first coach here at Kent, the very first day I went into the office, and he didn't really know why I was there at first," says Goss. "He introduced himself to me and walked out, and then when he walked back in, he realized that I wanted to try out for him." She told him about her experience in high school, and he asked for some tapes of her kicks. Several months later, during the spring semester, Goss was given the tryout that earned her a place on the team.
The players at Kent State were much more accepting than her high school teammates. "When I came to college, I was expecting them to kind of be the same way, to give me a hard time or really expect me to prove myself and show them my experience, but from the get-go, they were extremely respectful, polite, and accepting," she says. She does get her own locker room to change in before games, but since meetings take place in a team meeting room separate from the locker rooms, she doesn't miss out on anything important. However, her teammates have helped her develop a thick skin for friendly trash talk: "They're guys and they get at each other; they pick at each other and make fun of each other and then just let it go instantly," she said. "Where I would come back the next day like, 'you know, I'm really mad that you said that' and they would be like 'I don't even remember what I said.'"
Goss has also bulked up at Kent State, adding about 15 pounds of muscle to her 5'6'' frame. She's never been injured from a tackle, but when you're on the same field as 300-pound linemen, size is your friend. Although she's never lifted more weight than her teammates, she has bested them on some other exercises. In one winter training exercise, where players hang a towel over a pullup bar and hang from it to improve grip strength, Goss is among the top performers. "It makes me feel really good when I beat any of my teammates. It's like beating your older brother in something," says Goss. "It's also an encouragement thing to those guys too. I shouldn't be beating you in these things, so it means you're not working as hard."
Throughout her career, Goss has faced haters who have told her it wasn't possible to play on the gridiron. "Even if people didn't tell me I was crazy or couldn't do it—which they did—I kind of saw it in their eyes," says Goss. "It was tough, very tough, but it was probably the thing I needed because it showed me I don't need to rely on other people, for them to believe in me, that it just mattered that I believe in myself." She says she is occasionally heckled by fans on the opposing teams, although her male teammates aren't safe from that, either. Her tenacity shows—Goss regularly stays late after practice to refine her kicks.
She isn't the only woman making waves in what's been traditionally regarded as a man's game. Jen Welter made history this year as the first woman on an NFL coaching staff, and the NFL Announced It's First Female Referee in addition to naming Elizabeth Nabel Its First Chief Medical Officer. And Goss has her own advice for women who want to get in the action, or achieve any out-of-the-box goal: Anything that excites you but also scares you is the very thing you should go after, because it's going to be the most fulfilling thing you can do. And don't worry what other people say—or imply. "At one point in time, I was the only person that believed in myself—it was extremely challenging, but it helped form me into the person I was," she says.
All those hours on the field will pay off during the next phase of Goss's career. A criminal justice and psychology double major, Goss is graduating in December and plans to attend graduate school for mental health counseling. "I think the fact that I have overcome a lot of obstacles in my life has helped me realize I can pretty much do anything I set my mind to," she says. "I know that no matter what's in front of me, I will find a way to get over it or get through it." (Want more? Get-Fit Tips from Fierce Women in Football.)
Until then, Goss is looking forward to the games ahead—there are six left in the regular season. She'd love the opportunity to score again. "Coach says anything could happen, so just be ready. That's just what I'm doing, staying ready and continuing to work on my kicks, my form, and fundamentals," says Goss. "I'll do anything I can to help the team in any way."