Julia Knapp’s rise to starting kicker on a top-ranked high school football team doesn’t start with a made-for-TV-movie tale of blood, sweat, sexism and tears. It begins, in a very Gen Z way, with an iPhone.
It was the summer of 2017 and Julia, a rising senior at South Iredell High School in Troutman, North Carolina, was doing what most teens do when they’re bored: hanging around with friends. They decided to see how far Julia, a star player on the girls’ varsity soccer team, could kick the football. They headed to a nearby field. Someone kneeled to be the placeholder. Julia, standing a few feet back, took two big strides, cranked back her muscular leg and WHAM — the ball whirred through the air and between the goal posts. She did it again. And again. One guy grabbed his phone and recorded one kick. The clip made its way to the school's football coach.
“‘Who is that?’” he wanted to know. He drove to the school to see her kick with his own eyes.
That fall, Julia joined the South Iredell Vikings as the team’s sole female member. During her mid-August debut, she nailed her first extra point attempt. It was the first time a girl scored in the team’s history. "I wasn't quite sure how it was going to work, when I was supposed to run out onto the field,” Julia recalled. “But after I made the kick it was a really good feeling. It felt like I had accomplished something that no one else had.”
The points mounted from there. With a near-perfect record, she emerged as one of the team’s key players and something of a local star. She’s recognized by strangers when doing things as simple as buying shoes. Little girls wanted to get their pictures with her (one even dressed up as Julia for Halloween.) Scott Miller, the team’s head coach, believes that there was an uptick in the number of young women in the stands at Vikings games. Longtime fans were also smitten: “I think it’s about time,” one self-described diehard high school football fan told me ahead of a November playoff game. “I was born in 1960 and to me, it’s the best thing in the world.”
In October, Julia was crowned offensive player of the game and voted homecoming queen in one night. Her mom, Susan, snapped a photo of Julia smiling with a sash across her bright yellow jersey and pads, helmet in her hand to make room for the crown on her head. After she hit “post” on Facebook's Pantsuit Nation, the picture went viral. A national news site declared Julia part of “the grand new tradition of football players who are also Homecoming Queens,” a set of honors that “united two incredible high school tropes.” It was a feat that upended a vision of high school stereotypes popularized by Hollywood: jock-stocked football teams exuding big man on campus vibes, girls with pom poms cheering on the sidelines.
"I remember walking out and all the girls looked beautiful in their dresses and I was walking out in my uniform,” Julia said about the night she was crowned. “I feel like the homecoming queen has that stigma of, it goes to the most popular or the prettiest girl. You don't necessarily associate that with an athlete. All the other girls were looking from the stands and seeing, she's accomplishing something that not a lot of people can do." (A quick survey of Julia's Instagram feed confirms this. "Slay bby girl," reads one comment. "Legend," says another.)
Almost overnight, TV news crews started showing up at practice. The Knapps got a letter from the Carolina Panthers congratulating Julia on her accomplishments. At least one company reached out about featuring Julia on their blog. The family had expected her move to raise some eyebrows, but they were floored by the interest and excitement she’s generated. “People went crazy,” Susan recalled. ”I think they were starving for something positive.”
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If you ask girls like Julia, the truth is, being the only girl on the team is, most of the time, really NBD. In fact, she isn’t the only young woman making headlines in football. Already this year, Toni Harris made headlines — and history — when she was offered an athletic scholarship to play safety at a Kansas college. (Becca Longo, a kicker, became the first woman to receive a scholarship to play at a DII school last year). A 42-yard missile made quarterback Holly Neher the first girl at her school — and perhaps in the state of Florida — to throw a touchdown pass this fall. In December, K-Lani Nava became the first woman to play in a Texas state high school football championship game. In fact, an estimated 2,000 girls played high school football in the 2016-2017 season, according to an annual survey by The National Federation of State High School Associations. While, that’s less than one half of one percent of the more than 1 million participants nationwide and there are signs that it’s a growing trend. Female students are the fastest-group of new participants in the sport, NFSHA says.
But for all the success stories, there are plenty of examples of girls facing pushback in their quest to play. In Utah, six women have sued the school district for failing to give them a team of their own, citing Title IX, the landmark law aimed at promoting gender equality in sports. At one private school in Georgia, an aspiring kicker was blocked from joining the boy’s team this fall. Other schools in that area had similar policies. “I could probably write you a book on why it’s not a good idea,” one local private school coach told reporters at the time. “Our main goal... in football is to build strong men who are warriors. We have other programs designed to build women of character.”
And yet, in Troutman (population 2,674), adding a girl to the squad has been anything but controversial. At first glance, it might seem like a surprising backdrop for a story that upends gender norms in sports. The small town, about 35 miles north of Charlotte, is in the heart of Iredell County, a conservative stronghold. At Randy’s, the red-boothed joint serving up heaps of mouth-watering pulled pork and hush puppies, the photos and memorabilia covering the wall can be grouped into three buckets: NASCAR, barbeque, and the South Iredell Vikings. Football is the school’s main sport — and the heart and soul of the community. Big crowds turn out for the games on Friday night. There are cheerleaders and a band, a concession stand serving up fries and hot cocoa, and a student section packed with enthusiastic fans clad in coordinated outfits. Pump up music blares over the speakers before the announcers take the mic. At the start of the game, many in the crowd bow their heads as someone leads a prayer over the sound system.“I think of it as that old-fashioned high school football experience,” Julia’s dad Rob tells me.
That traditional football experience hasn’t always included girls on the field. But the team has welcomed at least two female players in the past. And to Coach Miller allowing girls to go out for the team is a matter of principle. He credits high school football for turning his own life around, giving him discipline and drive that led to a career in the military. That opportunity should be open to anyone good enough to play. “A player’s a player in our mind, we don’t see gender or race or anything,” he said. “If you perform, you perform.”
When it comes to evaluating Julia's performance, Coach Miller believes her calm demeanor is what makes her such a great kicker. “If she misses a kick," he says, "she looks at me and giggles. She knows it frustrates me, but that’s just Julia.”
“She’s just one of the guys, I guess,” Ethan Little, a teammate and friend, told me. “I don’t really think about it. She doesn’t get coddled at all, just because she’s a girl. I guess people would expect us to treat her like she’s fragile or whatever, but not at all."
Over the course of two days in Troutman, I encountered only one critic. He was hanging just beyond the stands on Friday night, not paying much attention to what was happening on the field. “Tell the people: Boys rule and girls drool,” he declared. He was 6 years old.
I first met Julia on the eve of that playoff debut. Sitting at a large wooden table in her family’s periwinkle-painted kitchen, picking at desserts and sipping tea, she showed no signs of pre-game jitters. “The first scrimmage, I was shaking. But I don’t get nervous anymore,” she explained. She was, however, a little worried about the forecast. The temperature on Friday night was expected to dip into the low 40s — unseasonably cold for North Carolina in early November. Unlike in soccer, where Julia zig-zags the field as a center mid, kickers spend most of the game on the sidelines, trying to stay warm and focused until it’s time to attempt a field goal or extra point post-touchdown.
“Do they have any jackets for you to wear?” her dad Rob asked.
“We can wear Under Armour underneath. I have to try to find my navy one from my room.”
Rob let out a laugh. “Yeah, good luck with that.”
After a quick peek into Julia’s room, I understood the joke. It was, in typical teen fashion, a total disaster. Clothes covered the floor. Cast-aside stuffed animals spilled out from atop a bureau. Halloween candy wrappers were strewn through her unmade sheets. She desperately wanted to add a goldfish to this fragile ecosystem, but the current state of negotiations with Rob and Susan involved keeping this room clean for a few weeks and Julia was pretty sure there was no way that was going to happen (For the record, Julia did manage to tidy up enough to earn the goldfish. It died a week later).
Teen stereotypes aside, it’s hard to blame Julia for not finding the time to clean her room. Most days, she rolls out of bed at 6:45 a.m., gets ready and out the door in as few as 7 minutes, and doesn’t get home from practice until well after 6 at night. Then comes dinner and two hours of homework (she’s got a 5.16 GPA in a rigorous International Baccalaureate program). All fall, she was consumed with applying to college.
Sports are at the center of Julia’s universe. A natural-born athlete with a fierce competitive drive, she first laced up her soccer cleats when she was 4 years old. One favorite family story involves a young Julia complaining that everyone else on her pint-sized team was doing cartwheels instead of drills. She got so frustrated that Rob called the coach and told them she wouldn’t come to practice unless her teammates took it more seriously. She went on to join more competitive travel leagues. She played other sports, including basketball and softball, too. Trophies and medals marking those feats cover the seafoam wall of her room. By her junior year, Julia had made two varsity squads — basketball and soccer — to fill her time and her college apps.
Even with those feats, one of her favorite sports remained out of reach.
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As the family tells it, Julia has wanted to play football for pretty much her entire life. She and her dad bonded over cheering on the Panthers on Sundays. “My sister’s not very athletic and doesn't really like to watch sports, [but] my dad always liked to have someone to sit down with and watch games with,” Julia said. “I've always been a big fan.” But Rob and Susan, who worried about concussions and other injuries, deemed it too dangerous. After much lobbying from Julia (and her guy friends, who were sorely in need of a new kicker for the upcoming season), they agreed to let her go out for the team her senior year. Coach Miller was open to the addition, as long as she was serious: “ I let her know from the very beginning that nothing is given on this team, everything’s earned. And we’re not doing a publicity stunt. I asked her how genuine she was and did she really want to kick?” That summer video from the field demonstrated to him that she was and she did.
Even though she had been dreaming of playing for years, Julia had some hesitations. "I was a little scared of what the boys would say, how they would treat me, just the overall response," Julia says now. “But then I thought it’s my senior year — why not?” She says she encountered no pushback or problems from teammates. But adding Julia to the squad did take some adjustments. One day, a nurse pulled her out of class for measurements so they could order custom pads to fit her spritely 5’9 frame. Julia, used to completing conditioning drills on the soccer and basketball teams, had to learn to navigate barbells and squat racks as part of the mandatory weight room sessions. “I couldn’t move! I didn’t know what any of it meant,” she recalled. “Everyone in the weight room stopped and was cheering me on.”
It’s rare for a high school kicker to get sacked, but Julia still joined teammates in blocking and tackling drills, just in case. (Miller says one of his top concerns was the guys being too protective of her: “I told them look, if someone takes a cheap shot at her, she’s a big girl. She put the pads on that’s what she’s here for. You can’t retaliate like someone hit your sister, you just can’t. And they understand that.”)
Then there was the whole locker room issue. Julia had to change solo in the girls’ room. This part sucked — cell service on campus is spotty, and she sometimes missed updates from the guys. “It’s kind of lonely sometimes, if I'm just getting ready for the game,” she said. “I don't have really anything to do until kick off.”
To fix that, Coach Miller gave her a locker in with the boys’, too. After everyone was dressed, she joined teammates for pre-game pep talks and rituals, like singing in the dark to Phil Collins (“The first time, I was so confused. They didn’t explain it to me. They were just like ‘sit down!’ and turned off the lights.”) The whole thing is a much bigger production than she was used to. Before the start of the game, the team charges out of the locker room and through a gauntlet of fans onto the field. The crowd — magnitudes bigger than the turnout in the soccer stands — goes wild.
It’s now been two months since Julia’s first and only season on the team came to an end. The Vikings lost in the third round of the playoffs. Basketball season is in full swing now, and Julia’s looking ahead to her senior spring, which will include soccer. She was admitted to University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, her top choice school, earlier this month. While she doesn't know what she wants to study in college, she hopes to play intramural sports. In the meantime, she’s as busy as ever, but she finds herself longing for the adrenaline rush — and drama-free camaraderie — that came with being on the football team.
Looking back, she says the experience made her “more open to try new things and take opportunities." It’s an outlook she hopes to carry with her to college and beyond. But even more so, at a moment in time when many headlines around women are so bleak, her story is a reminder that in little pockets of America, there is another, more quiet gender revolution happening. Young girls like Julia are inspiring even younger girls to follow their dreams and pioneer new roles. Or, as she put it “I feel like a lot of women just need to be empowered and have that notion that we can do anything. It's not just men.”