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For USC's Angela Kulikov, tennis plus football is ultimate doubles play

For USC's Angela Kulikov, tennis plus football is ultimate doubles play
USC tennis player Angela Kulikov gets fired up during a doubles game. Kulikov also plays quarterback for a flag-football team and coaches her brother in football. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Angela Kulikov technically was supposed to be taking a break.

Practice for the USC women’s tennis team was over, so she lay in her bed in the dark, wearing an oversized T-shirt and USC pajama bottoms, talking with Becca Weissmann, her roommate and fellow junior team captain.

But as Kulikov told Weissmann about the message she received on Instagram — a girl seeking advice for tryouts to play quarterback at her middle school — Kulikov could no longer be still. She grabbed her football and stood in the center of her room, giving Weissmann her phone.

When Weissmann hit record, the college student became a coach.

“I look like a Smurf or something,” Kulikov said. “And I just kind of went, ‘All right, this is what I want you to do.’ ”

Kulikov gave the aspiring quarterback tips and drills to practice, asking her to send a video back. She was one of 10 or 11 girls who have contacted Kulikov since she made her Instagram account a couple of months ago, @theqbchick.

With a biography that reads “Tennis Player by Day ... Quarterback by Night,” the account features videos of Kulikov throwing passes to her brother, Chris, making a one-handed catch and weaving through hurdles. Her deliberate movements and refined form reveal the knowledge behind her talent.

“I’m trying to walk on to the football team here. Maybe Clay will notice,” she said laughing, in reference to Trojans coach Clay Helton.

The account has gained more than 3,000 followers, earning nearly 600,000 total views. When a video goes viral, Kulikov keeps her head down on campus the next day. Passersby have asked, “Are you the QB chick?”

Her passion for football is the product of her love for Chris, who recently turned 13. She worked on her throw and studied coverages to pass information to him.

“For her to know that who she is as a person and being true to what you love impacts other people in a really positive way,” USC tennis coach Alison Swain said, “I think that’s a really powerful thing to learn at any time in your life.”

Angela Kulikov
USC tennis player Angela Kulikov quarterbacks a flag football team. Tamar Martinez / @tamar_martinezphoto

Football was a forgotten hobby from childhood until Kulikov suffered a torn meniscus when she was 15, requiring surgery. She then needed surgery for a stress fracture in her toe. For two years, Kulikov was sidelined from tennis.

Starved for activity, she threw the football with Chris in the backyard. That’s when she discovered his arm, and the days of being simply his sister ended. She pushed her parents to let him play quarterback. She watched tutorials on throwing and learned the motion by practicing alone for hours. She relayed the lessons to Chris after school.

Kulikov earned her U.S.A Youth Football coaching certification so she could lead Chris’ team. Coaching her brother quickly became an all-consuming task that continued when she went to USC on a tennis scholarship.

On weekends when the tennis team did not have practice or a match, she returned home to train her brother. Weekday practices ended at 5 p.m., so once a week Kulikov drove to Chris’ football practice in Burbank. Sometimes out of protectiveness, other times curiosity.

“I was thinking about it all day,” she said. “Like, ‘I wonder how he’s doing, if he’s working on that thing in his motion that we were talking about.’ ”

Since then, Kulikov has stepped back, relegating some of her duties to his other coaches and their parents, as her responsibilities on the tennis team grew. She stopped coming home during the week her sophomore year, and now stays on campus more often to enjoy weekends with Weissmann and other friends.

In January, Kulikov took Chris to quarterback coach Greg Holcomb’s camp, and was warming him up when Holcomb filmed her throwing motion. Holcomb posted the clip on his Instagram account, earning more than 114,000 views.

Kulikov recognized an untapped audience for representation of women playing quarterback. The idea of an account formed in the back of her mind.

“It just became timing,” Kulikov said.

Over the summer, she stayed on campus with Weissman and a few other tennis players to train, but needed an outlet so she wouldn’t burn out. She started making quarterback videos, and after confirming the account would abide by NCAA guidelines, began posting them to @theqbchick.

The two sports overlap in Kulikov’s muscle memory. She drops back to smash overheads like she is moving in the pocket, keeping her shoulders open like a quarterback would for a wider view of the court. Her serve flashes extra power because it mimics the throwing motion.

Kulikov enters her third season at USC, playing mostly in the No. 4 spot last season as she and her doubles partner, Rianna Valdes, ranked No. 58 in doubles.

Traces of tennis appear in her spiral. Her arm wraps slightly too tightly around her head as she throws, and her footwork takes on finer, more tennis-like shuffles that she has to keep in check when coaching Chris.

“He mimics me,” Kulikov said.

Angela Kulikov
USC tennis player Angela Kulikov serves the ball during a doubles game at USC. Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

She pushes him on the field, but they tease each other at home, talk football and play video games. When Kulikov is on the phone, Weissman knows Chris is on the other end, because Kulikov calls him “buddy.”

“He’s my best friend, I’m his best friend,” Kulikov said.

Said Chris: “I tell her everything.”

In May, Kulikov received a message on her personal Instagram from Billy Gale, who was trying to start a women’s flag-football league in Los Angeles — TUFF League. She declined at first, fearing a distraction from tennis.

When she later met with Gale and threw passes to two women he brought along, Kulikov was sold. But she needed Swain’s permission.

Because there was no tackling, and the quarterback could not run, Kulikov’s injury risk was low. And Swain could sense Kulikov’s passion for football, an escape from tennis that would not interfere with Kulikov’s focus. So she agreed to let Kulikov participate.

“With anything she takes on, she goes all in,” Swain said, “and she adds that dynamic to our team.”

It was Kulikov’s first time playing football with other women.

At the daylong summer tournament, Kulikov wore all black, with yellow flags fastened around her waist. She warmed up by throwing routes to Darien Pyka, an assistant strength and conditioning coach at USC who played receiver in the game.

When she and Pyka connected for a deep pass down the field, Kulikov bolted to her coach. No more living vicariously through Chris; this play was hers. The two met in the air for a leaping celebration.

As Kulikov landed, she was still smiling.

blake.richardson@latimes.com

@rblakerich_

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