BIG KICKS

Student Caroline Stewart gives America’s beloved sport a leg up

/ photography by Paul Mehaffey

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GRIDIRON GRACE   //   Multi-sport athlete Caroline Stewart is equally at home on the soccer pitch, the hoops hardwood, and the volleyball court, but she’s making history on the Shannon Forest Christian School football team. 

BigKicks_0115_articleA sea of testosterone spills across the 20-yard-line as the Shannon Forest Crusaders prepare for the extra point. That’s when you see it: a dirty-blonde braid bobbing beneath a shiny black helmet. There’s the snap, the braid swings forward, the ball is up, and good! Put one more on the board and make a note in the history books for the small, private Christian school on Garlington Road and its star eighth grade athlete, Caroline Stewart.

“It was an undefeated season, which was awesome,” the 13-year-old says with a big smile. “I didn’t want it to end.” Always a team player, only when prompted does the petite kicker address the fact she was the first girl in school history to play football, the first girl in school history to score points on the gridiron, and it was her points that led Shannon Forest Christian to its first undefeated season in any sport. “Playing with the boys is not as different as you would think it would be,” she reveals. “Instead of having a bunch of girls on your team, it’s just a bunch of boys. I’m a very competitive person, so I kind of fit in with the competitiveness the boys put off. I enjoy the lack of drama. By the end of the season, I had 18 older brothers.”

BigKicks_0115_quoteThrow in Carter, her younger brother back at home, and Caroline has become skilled competing within the boys’ club. Her parents, who are athletic and energetic, say they’ve always encouraged both kids to stay active. But they didn’t know they were raising a barrier-breaking young lady. “We don’t want her changing the face of the sport,” shares her mom, Julie Stewart. “We respect the sport too much. We respect the bond of it, the relationships within it. This is a guy’s sport, but she’s a guy’s girl. I just want her to be a part of it. She knows this is a privilege.”

Like many teen girls today, Caroline tried ballet briefly as a youngster, but quickly moved on to sports that included rec-league soccer and basketball, as well as travel volleyball. She’s a jersey gypsy, moving from court to field and back again, giving up cleats and high tops for sneakers and turf shoes, depending on the time of year. In gym class, she’s the coordinated kid you want on your squad. Captain’s choice? She’s never left standing alone against the wall.

{   GIRL POWER // Caroline—the second leading scorer on her team—was an integral part of the Crusaders’ undefeated season.   }

Back to that wall one year ago, when her P.E teacher asked her to kick a few footballs. Caroline hit the back of the gym . . . again, and again, and again. That’s when head football coach Derrick Sullivan came out from the locker room. “I didn’t know how I did that,” Caroline recalls. “But I did it ten more times, and he said, ‘Well, we’ve got our kicker.’ And he called my parents.”

“We hadn’t tried to kick an extra point in two years,” says Sullivan. “We never attempted them at all. Between the snap, the hold, and the kick, we were inconsistent. It was just better to go for the extra two points.” Caroline’s talent, tenacity, and teachability brought consistency to the years,” says Sullivan. “We never attempted them at all. Between the snap, the hold, and the kick, we were inconsistent. It was just better to go for the extra two points.” Caroline’s talent, tenacity, and teachability brought consistency to the junior varsity Crusaders, while adding another dimension to the squad. “She gave the team a sense of identity,” Sullivan explains. “They know we have a special piece to our puzzle. It’s a piece to be cherished and protected. No one better mess with it. It’s who we are. We are one of the few teams to have a female kicker. The boys take ownership of that. They take pride in that. They are honored to have her.”

Honor comes easily after Caroline served as the Crusader’s second-leading scorer. Now, all eyes look to next year when Shannon Forest plans to field a varsity squad, the next step in building the three-year-old football program. Hopes are high. The J.V. team tested harder turf, playing and beating bigger squads from Blue Ridge and Eastside highs, as well as St. Joseph’s Catholic School. Coach says Caroline will enter 2015 poised to make history all over again as the first female at Shannon Forest Christian School to play varsity football.

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Between Caroline’s spring sports, Sullivan wants to work on increasing her leg strength with special conditioning to attempt longer field goals. And this summer, the student-athlete hopes to once again attend a U.S.C. kicking camp, where last year she was the youngest player and only girl, yet helped her team win the Spurrier Award. “It was a really intimidating camp, but I’m glad I did it,” admits the confident, yet humble teen.

It was at this camp where her mom witnessed one of Caroline’s many life-lessons learned while playing pigskin. Julie vividly describes her daughter’s “deer in the headlights” look when reporting to the field inside Williams-Brice Stadium with screaming coaches all around. “It was a very defining moment. It was such a pivotal moment. But she walked on that field, performed well, and did better than some of the boys out there. I thought, ‘This is going to change her forever. It’s going to prepare her for what’s ahead. It’s going to show her character and what she can handle. There’s no limit for her.’”

BigKicks_0115_featuredCaroline says it’s hard to put into words what she’s taken away from her historical season in helmet and pads. But she has definite thoughts on the future and advice she’ll give to her kids some day. “I want to teach my children, you don’t have to play a game, or be on a team with all guys. You can do anything you want to do. When I grow up, for a job, I know I can do anything.” A winning score in any playbook.

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