Georgia Kicker Wants To Blaze Trail For Female Football Players
RIVERDALE, Ga. - Tonya Butler swings her right leg, and she and her Riverdale High School teammates watch her kick reach its apex, descend back toward earth, crash into the crossbar - and bounce over.
It's only practice, but Butler squeals with delight and leaps high in the air. Her teammates close in around her, doling out high-fives. "Isn't that a personal best?" one of them asks.
Indeed, it is. Butler has just made a 50-yard field goal. Not bad for a high-school kicker, boy or girl.
"She's just one of the guys to us," says Brandon Chappell, a senior center who has known Butler since elementary school. "She can kick better than any of those guys out there."
Others are starting to take notice. Central Michigan, a Division I-A school in the Mid-American Conference, told Butler she might be in line for a unique scholarship that would combine football and women's soccer. Nearly two dozen I-AA schools have shown interest - some not even realizing she's a girl.
"Dear Tonya," some of the letters begin. "We have a great school for male athletes such as yourself."
This spunky 18-year-old with hazel green eyes, freckles on her nose and a long, brown ponytail dangling from underneath her helmet chuckles at the thought.
"Tonya Butler," she says. "That's a strange name for a boy."
A chance on Tonya?
Her coach, George Spencer, is convinced the 5-foot-6, 125-pound Butler is ready to break new ground. Liz Heaston kicked for
Willamette University in Oregon last year in the NAIA, but there has never been one at the NCAA level.
"I think what's going to happen at the end of the year is someone is going to come up and say, `We want to sell some tickets. We'll take a chance on Tonya,' " says Spencer, whose suburban Atlanta team was unbeaten after seven games and ranked among the Top 10 in Class AAA.
"Her consistency is the main thing," he said. "You'll see kickers who are a little longer than she is, but they're not as consistent."
Butler describes herself as "a total girl" who wears fingernail polish and dresses, flirts with boys, shops at the Gap and is unashamed about crying when things don't go her way.
But, while serving as manager for the junior high football team in eighth grade, Butler watched in amazement as one boy after another failed the seemingly simple task of kicking an extra point.
"One of the coaches said, `Tonya, you play soccer. Why don't you come out here?' I thought he was just joking around," she says. "So, during a water break, I went out to kick it - and I nailed it. And he was like, `Let's back up.' I finally missed on like the 35. He was like, `Wow! Go suit up.' "
Butler has been a kicker ever since. She gets a lot of media attention - her teammates jokingly call her "Miss Hollywood" - but she would prefer to drop the gender qualification.
"I want to be known as a kicker, not a girl kicker," says Butler, who finished second among 42 kickers invited to a scouting combine at the Florida-Georgia prep All-Star game last summer.
Won job as 10th grader
Butler won the starting job at Riverdale High as a 10th grader, making 7 of 8 field-goal attempts and 28 of 31 extra points to become the first girl ever to make the all-state team. She slumped a year ago, connecting on just 5 of 10 field goals and 20 of 23 extra points, but she's back on track this season, thanks to a tip she got from Carol White, who was a full-time kicking coach at Georgia Tech in the 1980s.
Butler is now wearing a high-top shoe on her left foot to give her better stability on impact, though she rolls a sock over the taller shoe because she thinks it looks silly.
This season, after seven games, she had made 4 of 7 field goals, including a 39-yarder that's the longest of her career, and missed only one of 36 PATs, that because of a bad snap.
All three of the field goals she missed were longer than 40 yards, but she was quick to point out that distance wasn't a problem on the first two.
"I pulled them both to the left," Butler says. "They had plenty of leg."
Mom not thrilled
Polly Butler wasn't thrilled with the idea of her daughter taking up football, but finally gave her consent. Her son, Tony, also played at Riverdale and is now a linebacker at I-AA Georgia Southern.
"I was afraid she was going to get hurt," Mrs. Butler says. "I guess I just realized she was good at it and she had her mind set on doing it. In her very first football game, she got tackled, but she got right back up."
Now, the mother has another mental hurdle to clear - the thought her daughter might get a chance to play college football.
"In college, there is such a difference," she says. "Those boys are big, really big. She's getting closer and closer to having a chance of really getting hurt."
For now, Tonya is getting closer and closer to the Riverdale High scoring record of 132 points held by Dainon Sidney, now a rookie cornerback with the Tennessee Oilers.
"That's not the reason why I'm out here," she says. "But it would be kind of neat just to say I accomplished something on the football team, left a mark."
Butler wants to be a complete football player. She lifts weights with the rest of the team on Mondays and Thursdays, attends meetings on the weekend and runs wind sprints at the end of each practice.
Maybe that's why she's never run into any resistance from her teammates. A brief melee broke out during Butler's sophomore year when she was hit late after kicking an extra point and her teammates jumped to her defense.
"She doesn't get any breaks. She does what she needs to do," quarterback Andreco Hines says. "I wouldn't want to have anyone else kicking for us."
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