By Bradley Davis
JACKSON, Mississippi (WAPT) — Before breaking the internet as the first woman to ever play in a D1 HBCU football game, Leilani Armenta had been kicking for almost as long as she could walk.
“I started soccer when I was five. So I mean, this has been a life goal of mine,” Armenta said.
Her football story started her freshman year of high school with a coach who believed in her.
“He said, ‘You’re interested in kicking?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I mean, I guess.’ And he’s like, ‘OK, well, we’ll see you tomorrow,'” Armenta said.
Her freshman year of college at Jackson State, it was the same story, but a different coach.
“T.C. Taylor was very, very supportive. And he was — I felt really good about playing for him. He believed in me on and off the field, and as a kicker, he had a lot of faith in me, which I appreciate,” she said.
Armenta earned Coach Taylor’s support. She made 98 out of 105 extra points in her high school career. And yes, she did kickoffs, too.
“I had two touchbacks in high school. I do know what I am doing, and yes, I can kick long,” she said.
Armenta was a conference first-team kicker during her Junior season at St. Bonaventure in Ventura, California. That year, she beat out a player who went on to kick collegiately at the University of Berkley.
On the soccer field before her senior year, she had an injury that almost derailed her in both her favorite sports.
“When I was there at the showcase, I ended up tearing my ACL. After that, I felt like my world had just kind of collapsed,” Armenta said.
Football players are meant to be tough, and Armenta is as tough as they come. She played her entire senior football season with her torn ACL on her kicking leg.
After Armenta gets her surgery, going back to no kicking.. and no walking.
“In the back of my head was like, ‘Well, am I going to be good enough? Am I going to be the same player? Am I going to have the fitness for it?’ But at the end of the day, when I was healed and got that final clearance from my surgeon, I was like, ‘I’ve worked so hard to get back to where I was. I’m not just gonna throw in the towel,'” she said.
Just nine months post-surgery, nine months of no kicking, Armenta did what every football player is expected to do when the team calls.
“My back was against the wall,” Taylor said after all three JSU kickers went down with injuries.
She stepped up.
She made contact low on the ball, giving the kick lots of air time before landing at the other team’s 40-yard line, just as planned.
“The strategy was to go in and do a pooch kick,” Armenta said. “We were trying to have them fair catch it, or even have our team grab it. I’m not sure if you saw how the ball bounced; we could have recovered, but it didn’t happen.”
The point of that style of pooch kick is to allow your team time to run down to the return man and force a fair catch, or better yet, recover the ball. If you watch closely at our angle of the kick, you see the Tigers almost hop on top. Fresh off ACL surgery, it was the strategy coach Taylor’s staff decided to take, likely to protect Armenta from aggravating her healing kicking leg.
“I feel like whether it would have been a touchback or not, whether it would have been to the 10-yard line,” Armenta said. “What if they would have returned it? Then what would people have said? What if we had recovered it? There’s always these what ifs, but I just felt like regardless of the type of kick I did, the media was going to be on me because of being a female for the first time at an HBCU.”
Armenta did not return after her one kick, saying leg soreness from her ACL surgery played a factor.
Social media did pile on Armenta, despite her one pooch kick being the longest for Jackson State in the game.
“I saw, I read them,” Armenta said. “For me personally, if they want to go out and do it, they can go do it. I worked very hard. My motivation is nine months ago, I wasn’t walking. It doesn’t really faze me what people think about it. And if it really was that easy, or if it wasn’t a great kick, by all means, go and do it. There’s a reason that I got called. There’s a reason that I’m practicing.”
With all the hate and all the judgment, Armenta keeps going. She keeps rehabbing, and her goal is to return to the football field and show what she can do because, at the end of the day, the inspiration outweighs the hate for Armenta.
“This girl came up to my teacher in high school, and she was like, ‘Is Leilani here today?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, she’s kicking,’ and the girl started crying,” Armenta said. “She came up to me after the game, and we took a picture together, and I remember being like, ‘wow, this one girl was touched by me, and now she wants to kick.’ Now her dad is helping her. And it’s just, I’d rather take all the hate just for one person to feel like, ‘Wow, she really made a difference.'”
Armenta said her rehab is going well, and she hopes to return to the football field soon to show what she can do.
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