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How one woman tackled college football

In “Still Kicking,” Katie Hnida recounts her days playing the game, and the struggles she had to face. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Katie Hnida made history by becoming the first female kicker to score in Division I college football, and again almost two years ago when she came forward with explosive allegations that she was raped by a fellow player at the University of Colorado and sexually harassed by other teammates. Hnida visited the “Today” show to discuss her memoir, “Still Kicking: My Dramatic Journey As the First Woman to Play Division One College Football.” Here's an excerpt:

Most people quit football because of an injury. In my case, I took up the game because of one. My gridiron career actually started with an awkward slide on a soccer field. I was 13 years old and playing in a preseason game with my competitive club team. It was a cold, wet February weekend so the field was a swampy mess. I was chasing after a player who had the ball when I hit a particularly slick area of the field. I knocked the ball out from under her feet, and it squirted out of bounds. Unfortunately, one of my legs went one way with the ball, while the other leg stayed on the field. A sharp, searing pain shot through my left thigh. It felt like it had been torn in half. Before I even stood up, I knew it wasn’t good. It took just a moment, but a slip and a slide on a soaking wet field changed my life forever.

I didn’t know how long I would be out of action, but the days quickly turned to weeks and then to months. I spent a lot of time resting the leg, icing it, and stretching it. But every time I tried to run, I couldn’t go more than a few strides before the shooting pains hit. Then I’d start limping. When the leg didn’t get better, I finally had an MRI. As it turned out, the tearing feeling I had felt on the field that day was exactly that. The scan showed a complete tear of my left quadriceps muscle.

The next thing I knew, instead of spending most of my time on the soccer field with my team, I was spending it at a rehab clinic with a therapist. The season rolled by as I tried to nurse my quad back to health. It did start to heal, but it seemed like every time I made some progress, I’d hit a growth spurt. I would grow, but the injured muscle wouldn’t grow with me. Every time I ran, it went into spasms.

Spring turned to summer, and summer to fall. Even after months of rehab, I still couldn’t get the full motion and agility I needed to make the cuts and slides on the soccer field. Eventually I got to a point where I could jog, but I still couldn’t sprint at full speed. I knew soccer, at the level I played at, was out of the picture. One year and three doctors later, I was finished — at least for an unknown period of time.

The reality hit me hard. I had been playing at the highest competitive level in the state and was preparing for high school. I would be going to Chatfield High School, which boasted one of the top girls’ soccer programs in the state. And the University of Colorado, where I wanted to go to college, had just added women’s soccer to their athletic program. Even as a 13-year-old, my goal was to play Division I college soccer. The thought that I might not be able to play soccer in college, let alone high school, was hard to swallow.

Then it happened. On a typical spring evening more than a year after my injury. After dinner, Dad; my younger brother, Joe; and I went to the backyard to toss a ball around. We had a big yard that held soccer nets, batting tees, even a makeshift baseball diamond for our own pickup games. That night, the ball we tossed happened to be a football. We jogged around, doing pass plays and chucking the ball back and forth. On one particular play, I propped the ball up and kicked it back to my dad. Just on a whim. The ball flew about 20 yards over his head.

“Holy smokes, Kate!” My dad was amazed. “Could you do that again?”

“I don’t know, probably ...” I shrugged. It wasn’t any big deal to me, I’d just kicked the ball.

“Hang on a second.” He grabbed the ball, ran over, crouched down, and held the ball for me. “Give it a shot.” Joe ran back to the edge of the yard to catch it. I lined up behind the ball, took a few steps, and gave it a pop. BAM! The ball sailed over Joe’s head and landed in a neighbor’s yard.

“Stay there!” Dad yelled to Joe. Dad retrieved the ball and began counting his steps as he made his way back to me. “That went close to 40 yards!” Dad exclaimed. Chuckling, he said, “Well, kiddo, if you can’t play soccer, maybe you can make a career out of kicking footballs.”

I laughed, too, but after a second started thinking, “Football — could I play football?”

Maybe. After all, I had always loved the game. I was a diehard Denver Broncos fan and lived in an area where “Bronco-mania” ruled the fall and winter of football season. I followed the pros on Sundays, the University of Colorado on Saturday afternoons, and watched Joe play Little League football on Saturday mornings. I followed the sport so closely that when I talked to my guy friends at school, they were surprised at how much I knew about the game.

In elementary school, I had even written a short story about a girl who played football. She was a quarterback who would hide her long hair up in her helmet so no one would know she was a girl. She went on to lead the team to the championship and at the end everyone is shocked to find out she is a female. The next season, she wears her hair in a ponytail outside her helmet.

But that night in the backyard, something definitely felt right. It was 1995, and while it wasn’t unheard of for a girl to play football, it certainly wasn’t common. And I had thought due to my gender and size, I would always be stuck dreaming about the game from the stands. Little did I know that that would change in the weeks to come.

Excerpted from “Still Kicking: My Dramatic Journey As the First Woman to Play Division One College Football,” by Katie Hnida. Copyright © 2006 by Katie Hnida. Excerpted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.