As her middle school’s football coach tried in vain to find a player capable of kicking field goals or extra points, Emma Baker and her dad watched with amusement from the across the field.
“You could probably help them,” Jim Baker joked to his daughter after a flurry of shanks and mishits.
Then he gave it a little more thought.
“Seriously, Emma, maybe you should give this a try,” he said.
Emma Baker scoffed at her father’s idea at first. Even though she was an accomplished soccer player with by far her team’s strongest leg, she had never once kicked a football before. She also worried how her peers in Temecula, California, would react to a girl trying out for the football team.
It took about a week for Baker’s family to persuade her, but she and her dad eventually returned to the football field one summer afternoon to explore whether she had any natural kicking ability.
The first field goal Baker attempted was from 30 yards. She nailed it. The second was from a bit farther back. Good again. Soon afterward, some of her school’s football coaches approached her to ask how long she had been kicking.
“It was all leg strength and raw talent,” Baker said. “I had no technique. I didn’t know how to do anything. I basically kicked it like what I’d do for a goal kick in soccer and it went through.”
In the four years since she first sent a ball through the uprights, Baker has evolved from a toe-kicking novice to high school football’s most accomplished female kicker.
Baker helped Rancho Christian High School win a state title in California’s lowest-enrollment division in 2016 by converting 75-of-78 extra points and eight-of-10 field goals. The 6-foot senior has even bigger goals this year: Landing a college scholarship and connecting from 49 or more yards to break the record for longest field goal ever made by a female kicker.
That’s how far the dream stretches for Baker, whose football success has even surprised herself. It begs the question: What’s the farthest a female kicker can realistically advance competing against men?
A woman kicking in the NFL remains the stuff of Disney movies for now, but some strong-willed female pioneers are making inroads at the college level.
Liz Heaston became the first woman to score in a college game in September 1997 when she kicked two extra points for Willamette University, an NAIA school in Salem, Oregon. Katie Hnida became the first to achieve the same feat at college football’s highest level in August 2003 when she kicked a pair of extra points for New Mexico. That same year, Tonya Butler became the first woman to kick a field goal in a college game for Division II West Alabama.
Leg strength is often the biggest discrepancy between top female kickers and the male prospects pursued by major-conference college programs. The best female prospects so far haven’t proven themselves dependable beyond 45 yards, nor do most of them consistently send kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.
“That’s the measuring stick for a big-time school,” said Hugo Castellanos, a former kicker at UTEP who now runs camps for snappers, holders and kickers in California. “They want a kid with good leg strength and accuracy who can give you that four-second hang time and put it five yards deep in the end zone.”