There were 2,167,819 participants across the U.S. in the 2014 and 2015 high school football seasons, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Of those participants, less than 1 percent — 3,509 total — were girls.
The Missouri women’s basketball team has two of those girls: Sophie Cunningham and Kelsey Winfrey.
Cunningham and Winfrey were the first girls in their high schools’ histories to score a point for the football team, and both were kickers. Cunningham went to Rock Bridge High School. Winfrey attended Lebanon High School. While Missouri did not provide data to the NFHS about how many girls played football those two years, it’s safe to say the two are in rarified air.
Their paths to becoming the first girls in their high school football teams’ histories to score a point started through playing soccer growing up, messing around and kicking for fun — and one-upping their friends.
“It was me and some of my friends out on the football field. We had free time during weights, so I just decided to kick a field goal because none of them could,” Winfrey said.
Winfrey approached Will Christian, the head football coach for Lebanon, about joining the team her junior year. He told her to talk to her parents and Robin Pingeton, head coach for Missouri women’s basketball, about playing for the Yellowjackets. Winfrey’s parents were okay with it. Both her brother, the senior starting quarterback at Lebanon, and Pingeton thought it was a terrific idea.
Cunningham’s first kick had a wider audience. She was supporting Rock Bridge in a game against rival Hickman in her senior year when she was selected to be a part of a field goal challenge between quarters, despite sporting a walking boot due to a stress fracture.
“My best friend kicked it for (Hickman) and she missed and I was like, ‘Dang, I got to make it,’” Cunningham said.
Her kick sailed 45 yards through the uprights and caught the attention of those in attendance. The next game after her kick, the Bruins’ kicker tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Head coach A.J. Ofodile — former Missouri tight end and current wide receivers coach — approached her and asked her to join the team.
She jumped at the chance, making her debut the final week of the season against CBC and converting 2 of 4 extra points.
Winfrey, on the other hand, played the entire season for Lebanon. Christian was especially impressed with her work ethic and ability to balance her hectic schedule. That fall, she played football, volleyball and ran cross country in addition to staying on top of her schoolwork. Her daily schedule entailed running cross country in the morning, practicing volleyball after school ended, kicking after volleyball practice then heading home to do homework.
“Sometimes I think I was more busy in high school than I am now,” Winfrey said. “It definitely prepared me for all the stressing of schoolwork, balancing grades and basketball and sports, knowing the plays. It really helped prepare me for college and being busy from morning to night.”
Christian also took note of how Winfrey accepted a lesser role on the football team despite being a standout basketball player for Lebanon.
“She wanted to be a part of our program. She wanted to wear the uniform, the helmet, the shoulder pads and do whatever she could to contribute and help us, and that was good enough,” Christian said. “I think that’s a rare quality.”
While Christian’s praise for Winfrey centered around intangibles, Ofodile talked up Cunningham’s accuracy on kickoffs.
“Sophie was probably the best directional kicker in the state of Missouri,” Ofodile said. “I’ve had some good kickers. I had kickers that went on to play here (Missouri), and I had nobody that could place a ball as accurately as her on a kickoff.”
Ofodile complimented the energy she brought and mentioned how much fun it was to have her on the team. He did reveal one pesky problem about her presence, something anybody who has watched Cunningham during her illustrious career for the Tigers might have guessed.
“Just trying to get her not to tackle people was the biggest challenge,” Ofodile said.
There’s an inherent set of characteristics — some might say clichés — that accompany football and the people who play it. Competitors are tough and hard-nosed, and they’ll take a mile if you give them an inch. That logic certainly applies to Cunningham, a player known for her tenacity and in-your-face style of play, and Winfrey, who averaged 4.9 steals a game as a senior in high school.
“Kelsey and I are a lot alike, and a lot of people don’t know that,” Cunningham said. “She can kick the heck out of the ball, let me tell you.”
Female player participation in high school football has risen over the years. In 2017, 2,237 girls participated, according to the NFHS, nearly 300 more than in 2015.
Winfrey said being one of the 1,944 girls who played high school football in 2015 has inspired others.
“Ever since I did play football, I’ve had a lot of other girls come up to me saying I inspire them,” Winfrey said. “There’s one girl that liked wrestling. She told me that I inspired her to keep wrestling. It’s just cool how I impacted other little girls‘ lives.”