As the 1939 Escambia County, Ala., High School football team opened practice, several girls watching on the sideline grumbled that the school spent lavishly for boys’ athletics but nothing for girls’.
Coach Andrew Edington told the girls that nothing in the rules prevented them from playing and four decided to try out. He handed them a football to kick and told them he would put them in a scrimmage.
Edington figured that would run the girls off, but when he noticed Luverne Wise kick with fluidity, he got an idea: He would teach her to kick extra points and she would pack the stadium.
‘A Real Big Plus’
“It was the end of the Great Depression, so packing the stadium was a real big plus,” Edington, 71, recalled from Kerrville, Tex., where he recently retired as president of Schreiner College.
“We dressed her in a cute little ballet skirt. The only requirement in the rule book about equipment pertained to head gear, so we got a helmet and cut holes in it so her curls would come out.”
He also fitted her specially for a pair of women’s Size 6 football shoes.
“Then we had only one problem. I had a boy that just didn’t miss extra points. She would miss now and then. What we agreed to do was that every time we would be 20 points ahead, she would go in. So our team went wild to make points to get the girl into the huddle.”
Not the First
Wise’s exploits were recalled after recent attention focused on 5-foot-1 1/2 Bridget Farris of Fresno Hoover High School, who has kicked five extra points this season. Many people said that she might be the first girl to score a point in a varsity football game.
But following the stories about Farris, it was also revealed that Beth Bates kicked extra points at Williamsburg, Ky., High School in 1982 and 1983.
Bates said she stayed out of a grammar school punt, pass and kick contest in fifth grade because she didn’t want to beat the boys in her class. The following year she entered and won.
Williamsburg coach Bob Rose asked her to kick for the varsity in junior high, but she refused.
“I wanted to get rid of my tomboy status and establish my femininity,” she said. “Then after I got older I realized I could play sports and still be feminine.”
Bates kicked five extra points her junior year and an extra point and a field goal her senior year and last year started at guard for the women’s basketball team at Belmont College in Nashville, Tenn.
But both Bates and Farris were clearly preceded by Wise, who kicked six extra points and threw for a seventh in 1939 and added more extra points the following year--triumphs lost in vanished statistics.
A Smiling Heroine
Life magazine, movie newsreels and newspapers across the nation carried stories on the smiling, bare-legged kicker who wore a white blouse, a blue skirt and no pads. Escambia High, located in Atmore, Ala., promoted her appearances on posters and in flyers, and busloads of fans came from as far as New Orleans, 180 miles away, to see her.
“It packed the stadium and paid the stadium debt and made the team twice as good as it was (Escambia went 17-1 over the two seasons),” Edington recalled, “because they wanted to get her into the game.
“The players and fans all loved it. That was what fooled me. I expected to be lynched. . . . I think it was so unusual that it was no threat to the male ego.”
An excellent golfer, Wise seldom participated in sports after high school, said her husband Tony Albert, who was widowed two years ago when she died from a heart attack at age 60. The couple ran an Atmore sporting goods store for 39 years until her death.
On the wall of the store hangs a 36x36-inch color photo of a smiling Wise, her leg high, following through after a kick. Her holder, J. F. (Red) Vickery is also smiling.
Vickery played on a University of Georgia team that defeated UCLA 9-0 in the 1943 Rose Bowl. He lost his right leg on an island near Saipan during World War II.