It was the wrong thing to do for all the right reasons.
Katie Hnida became the first woman to play in an NCAA Division I-A football game Wednesday when she attempted an extra point for New Mexico against UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The kick was low, it was wobbly and it was blocked by Bruin linebacker Brandon Chillar. The kick never had a chance, not even close. If Chillar’s hand had not hit the ball, any one of another six hands would have.
Women are not strong enough to play big-time college football, not even as kickers. Making extra points in practice is not the same as facing athletes such as Chillar, a 6-foot-3, 234-pound man, running at your face.
Hnida is not small. She is 5-9, 150 pounds. But on this field, when she trotted in from the sidelines, Hnida disappeared into the huddle. Her waist and thighs and chest are tinier than any of the men’s.
New Mexico Coach Rocky Long says Hnida earned her chance to become the first woman to play in a Division I-A game.
Long says Hnida works hard, practices hard, puts up with the hardships, of dressing by herself, of walking away from her teammates after games to take a solitary shower, of hearing the whispered comments and disparaging insults.
She has never complained, Long says. She has never asked for favors or special treatment.
Hnida considers Long a special kind of hero, a man of “courage and integrity,” she says.
When Heather Sue Mercer sued former Duke football coach Fred Goldsmith for not giving Mercer a fair chance to make the Blue Devil team, the suit was considered an insurmountable hurdle for other women who might want to try out for a man’s team. What would be the upside for a coach who decided the female wasn’t good enough if he was afraid to cut her for fear of a lawsuit?
But even after an unpleasant experience at Colorado, where Hnida played for a year, she wasn’t able to give up her dream.
Hnida says she belongs on a Division I-A football team, that she makes all her extra points in practice, that her leg strength is fine, that she is not intimidated by men twice her size and speed running at her. Long gave her a chance to try out as a walk-on. Hnida took the chance.
So this wasn’t what it seemed at first -- a stunt, a cheap holiday trick. You know, put the football chick into the Christmas Day game, a second-level bowl game where the play is mostly for fun and maybe a little pride.
ESPN cameras could focus on Hnida’s blond ponytail and blood-red fingernails. Less attention had to be paid to a mostly dreadful football game.
It could be pointed out that Hnida was homecoming queen in high school.
And when the kick failed, there were some giggles, some head shaking. What was Long thinking? What if Hnida’s miss had cost the Lobos the victory? What if New Mexico lost by a point instead of 27-13? Was it worth embarrassing Hnida for some outrageous publicity?
“Anybody who says, just because of this one miss, that I can’t play or shouldn’t play, they have stuck their foot in their mouth and they can take it out when I’m the starter next year,” Hnida says. “Because I’ll be back next year and I’m going to win the job.”
She won’t. She can’t. Football is not the place where women can be competitive with men.
Whether anybody likes it or not, whether it’s fair or not, men are bigger, stronger, usually faster. Men have more leg strength, 99.9% of them, and will be able to kick higher and farther.
Hnida was asked if she thought her appearance in this game made a statement, if it would prove to be a jumping-off point for other women, that more little girls would want to grow up and play college football.
“I don’t know,” Hnida said. “That’s not why I’m doing it. I’m not doing this to be a role model or anything. I’m doing it because I want to be a football player.”
And certainly in her career, both at Colorado and New Mexico, Hnida has done nothing to draw attention to herself. She has tried to stay in the background. Once she made the Lobos as a walk-on, Hnida has refused interviews saying there was nothing to talk about until she got into a game.
At Chatfield High in Littleton, Colo., Hnida made 83 of 87 extra-point attempts and four of five field-goal tries in her three years on the varsity. She knows that college is different, that the speed of the game is 100 times faster than high school.
“I thought I hit it good,” Hnida said of her first college kick. “I hit it in the middle. I was shocked when I saw [Chillar’s] hand up there. Because when I dreamed of this, it always was the same ending. I made the kick.”
Dreams don’t always have happy endings. Since no one on New Mexico has kicked a field goal longer than 32 yards and since Long had used three other kickers this year (who missed two extra points), no one was hurt by Hnida’s attempt. But whether intended or not, Hnida’s kick was more stunt than sport.
“I just wish she had made it,” UCLA punter Nate Fikse said, “because there will be people who will say she shouldn’t be out there.”
It’s not that she shouldn’t. It’s just that there seems to be no point.
In 1997 Liz Heaston kicked two extra points for Willamette, then an NAIA school. A year ago Ashley Martin kicked four extra points for Division I-AA Jacksonville State. Neither became a starter, and Hnida won’t either. Long will look for other kickers, stronger kickers. Hnida will stay on the sidelines. Window dressing, by herself.
Diane Pucin can be reached at email@example.com.
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*--* Getting Even The Bruins were 9-4-1 in bowl games under Terry Donahue, but have been 2-2 since. A look at the last four bowls: Jan. 1, 1998 COTTON BOWL defeated Texas A&M;, 29-23 Jan. 1, 1999 ROSE BOWL lost to Wisconsin, 38-31 Dec. 29, 2000 SUN BOWL lost to Wisconsin, 21-20 Dec. 25, 2002 LAS VEGAS BOWL defeated New Mexico, 27-13