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A CHALLENGING GOAL : Soccer Star Michelle Akers Has Ability to Become NFL’s First Female Player

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The sky was gray and the breeze was cold, the kind of day Grantland Rice wrote about--a good day to launch an era in football.

The kicker stepped into the ball and sent it through the uprights from 31 yards away.

A high school football player doing his off-season laps paused and did a double-take: “Wow! Why don’t we have a kicker like that ?”

The kicker he was referring to was named Michelle, and if she turns up on a National Football League roster one of these years, Grantland Rice will roll over in that great press box in the sky.

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Michelle Akers, from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, is arguably the best woman soccer player in the country, a four-time All-American, member of the U.S. national team and the first woman to receive the Herman Award, as well as Adidas and Soccer America magazine player-of-the-year honors.

The occasion was the opening of Ben Agajanian’s free weekly spring kicking clinic at Millikan High School in Long Beach, and Akers flew out so the kickers’ guru could judge her prospects.

It wasn’t her idea.

“But I think it’s a good idea,” she said. “I think a woman can do it.”

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The idea was Jim Masson’s, a Ft. Worth chiropractor who does motivational work in the downscale Dunbar district of the city. Masson had heard of girls playing high school football and told a football coaching acquaintance, “I think a girl can make it in the NFL.”

“But it will have to be a kicker,” the friend said.

Masson pursued the notion with Texas Christian University soccer Coach Dave Robinson, who told him, “There is just one (woman) who could do it. Her name is Michelle Akers.”

Masson brought Akers to Ft. Worth to work out with former TCU kicker Bill Adams.

“She was putting them through the uprights from 50 yards away without a tee--regulation NFL balls,” Masson said. “Bill was impressed. (He said,) ‘I’ve never seen a woman kick like that.’ ”

Masson, being near Dallas, then learned about Agajanian, who has worked with Cowboy kickers for 23 years.

“He said Agajanian’s the best,” Akers said. “And we figured if he flew me out here to work with him, Ben could tell us right away if I had anything going for me and we wouldn’t be wasting our time.”

Before he ever saw Akers, Agajanian said: “If I think she’s for real, I’ll recommend the Cowboys sign her.”

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But that was before Jerry Jones bought the franchise and brought in Jimmy Johnson to replace Tom Landry, leaving Agajanian in limbo.

Agajanian said the only difference it makes is that “now I can recommend her to anybody.”

The footing at Millikan was terrible that day, with heavy clumps of grass only partially covering the bare spots of mud.

Akers kicked with two of Agajanian’s proteges, Jim Powers, formerly of Harbor College, and David Caylor, formerly of Cal State Long Beach, who have made the rounds of NFL tryouts since leaving school.

“You can’t believe how much easier it is on (artificial) turf,” Powers said. “Check out the leading kickers in the NFL every year. They all play on turf.”

Akers warmed up by kicking her first three attempts through from 24 yards, then ran off to retrieve the balls.

“I told her, ‘No favoritism,’ ” Agajanian said.

Akers was successful on five of six from 26 yards, but even when she converted from 31, Agajanian told her, “Too Tall Jones would have blocked it. Now, how do we get more height? Follow through.”

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She kicked another from 41 yards, slipped in the mud and shanked a second, then hit a third straight, high and long.

“Gee,” the high school player said.

He was more impressed than Akers.

After the initial test, she went to the sideline, sat down and said, “Ben is basically going to tell me, ‘You have some talent, but you’re going to have to work. Come back and see me in six months or whatever.’

“Or he might tell me, ‘Michelle, just go play soccer.’ ”

Akers was close the first time.

“Forget about she’s female,” Agajanian said. “Most kickers that come with me are learning to kick off the ground. It takes a year or two years.”

Many good college kickers fail in the NFL because they can’t adjust from using a two-inch tee to using no tee at all.

“I don’t doubt a bit that off a kicking tee she can kick 50-yard field goals,” Agajanian said. “She showed me from 40 pretty good. But kicking off the ground is a different technique, and she hasn’t learned it yet.

“Heck, she hasn’t even kicked off a tee. She’s never kicked at all. Right now I would say she needs at least a year or two years before she should try out.”

Compared to Powers and Caylor, Akers seemed to strain from the longer distances.

“She needs a little more quickness in her leg and a little more leg power to rate with an NFL kicker,” Agajanian said. “She needs to keep from leaning backwards. She needs to follow through better. She needs a lot of things that no one has shown her.

“But I’m not saying she can’t develop. Starting to kick just a couple of months ago by herself and doing this well, I’d say she could improve. I’d say she has a chance to kick in the NFL.”

Akers, 23, spent her childhood in Santa Clara and attended high school in Seattle. She is 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, slightly under average size for an NFL kicker, but she wouldn’t be the smallest.

Jim Breech of the Cincinnati Bengals is only 5-6, and he seemed headed for Super Bowl stardom until Joe Montana zeroed in to Jerry Rice.

She has been working out with the kickers at Central Florida.

“They think it’s great . . . real supportive. There are some jerks, but only one guy has been against it that I’ve talked to, and once he saw I could kick, I guess he got some respect for me. I’m an athlete. I’m used to that.”

Playing soccer, she also has taken her lumps--far more than the average NFL kicker.

“I’ve had two ‘scopes on each knee for torn ligaments, torn cartilage,” she said. “I just knocked out two teeth this season--bashed into a girl’s head.

“I’ve had stitches in my head here and here, concussions, black eyes. I think I had four black eyes this season.

“When I grew up in Santa Clara, I’d be the only girl out there playing football. I wanted to play football until my mom got me into soccer, and I really didn’t think about football again--never in my wildest dreams.

“I’d have to put a lot of hours in. I already have a career in soccer . . . two coaching jobs in Orlando set up for next year already, and then I have camps. I know how to succeed as a soccer player. You can make a lot of money doing that--like you can make a lot of money kicking footballs.

“If I decide to take it seriously, I want to be the best. It’s not going to be some gimmick because I’m a woman. This has nothing to do with the feminist movement. If I decide to put the effort into it, I want to be the best kicker I can be.”

She may attend one of Agajanian’s five-day kicking camps scheduled in Arizona, Texas, Tennessee and Thousand Oaks, Calif., in June and July.

Akers said her parents are divorced and somewhat divided on the prospect of having their daughter kick in the NFL.

“My dad is just afraid of me getting hurt, physically,” Akers said. “My mom said, ‘Yeah, that’s great. Go for it.’

“You gotta have thick skin. I think I do. Of course, I don’t know what I’m getting into yet, either.”


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