By Justin Gamble, CNN
(CNN) — A Mexican American woman has become the first female kicker at Jackson State University, a NCAA Division I Historically Black College and University.
Leilani Armenta told CNN she was nervous when she stepped onto the field during the team’s September 23 game against rival Bethune-Cookman University, but she knew she had a job to do. She said she just focused on playing the game.
“At first, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m playing. I’m playing football,’ Armenta said. “It was after the game, I was like, ‘Wow, that was history that was made. History that was positive and impacted so many people.’”
Armenta wasn’t just nervous about her historic game time debut – the freshman communications major is also recovering from ACL surgery she had last year and has spent the season training and kicking in a brace.
Despite playing through the pain, Armenta was instrumental in Jackson State’s 22-16 victory over Bethune-Cookman University. Her 25-yard kick-off late in the game helped seal the win.
Fans and teammates alike are hoping she can bring the same precision and energy to the team’s October 14 homecoming game against Alabama State University.
Armenta told CNN she chose to attend the Jackson State University, an HBCU, because the school had one of the best programs for her major. But she’s also passionate about sports and has cultivated a love for football since high school.
As a freshman, her talent and skill shocked coaches at St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura, California.
“She was the best freshman kicker that we had,” said Joseph Goyeneche, Armenta’s high school football head coach. “There was no question she was she was the best that we had.”
Armenta also played soccer in high school, which helped her with her accuracy, Goyeneche said. But she tore her ACL playing soccer during her senior year in high school. Doctors told her while she couldn’t continue to play soccer, she could play football.
Goyeneche remembers the conversation he had with Armenta after her doctors gave her the news.
“The doctor said, ‘Well, you’re not going to be able to play soccer this year. But we can hold off on surgery and it’s not going to get worse … you can kick and it’s going to be a little painful,” Goyeneche said.
Armenta said she jumped at the opportunity to continue playing the game she loved.
“I wasn’t going to turn it down,” Armenta said. “I had some of the best days I’ve had playing high school football on and off the field.”
Throughout her high school career, Goyeneche said Armenta made 98 out of 105 extra points attempted and was 5 for 5 in kicking field goals. Her longest kick was 30 yards, he said.
Armenta told CNN she’s now made a 46-yard kick in practice but she’s working with coaches to increase her leg strength and distance. She hasn’t attempted a field goal this season, but her former coach said whenever the time comes, Armenta will be ready.
“She’s incredible and her journey has been incredible,” Goyeneche said. “There’s no difference between her and a male kicker.”
T.C. Taylor, head football coach at Jackson State University, told CNN the freshman is a vital part of the team and has been welcomed with open arms.
“They were excited,” he said, adding Armenta’s arrival filled a huge need for the team. “Our kicker was hurt, our punter was hurt, and we didn’t have anybody else.”
Taylor said Armenta’s soccer teammate recommended her to the coaching staff and her performance on the field stunned everyone.
“She came out and when we saw her moving around and kicking it was like, ‘Okay, this is what God dealt us, so we’re going to go with it.’”
A handful of female athletes have made history playing college football. In 2003, Katie Hnida, a kicker for the University of New Mexico, became the first woman to score in an NCAA Divison I game.
In 2020, Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller became the first woman in history to score in a Power Five college game when she successfully kicked two extra points against the University of Tennessee.
And last month, Haley Van Voorhis, became the first female football player to appear in an NCAA football game outside of the kicker position. Van Voorhis plays safety for Shenandoah University, a Division III school.
Despite her success at Jackson State, Armenta has faced critics who say she’s taking a spot on the team’s roster away from a male. But she told CNN she doesn’t let the criticism bother her.
“The (ACL) injury was like a blessing in disguise. I’ve always loved sports and been thankful to play but when you get hurt and you realize you can’t do something that you love, it was really, really hard,” she said. “I think I’m just not fazed by what people have to say. I feel like I’ve earned (the right) to be here I’m going to continue working hard just to get better and better.”
Coach Taylor described Armenta as a competitor and said he wants her to be more involved in games as she continues to regain strength in her leg.
“The way this team operates, you know, if you can help us win football games, and you come out there and work hard, they’re going to accept you. And she did that from day one,” Taylor said, adding Armenta will be a member of the team for as long as she wants.
“I’d like to stick with it in college. That’s my goal,” she said, “I love kicking.”
As for what comes next, Armenta said she’s focusing on the present but welcomes an opportunity if a professional sports league comes calling.
“If it happens, I would love it,” she said, “If anyone wants to pick me up, I’m more than happy to do it. That would be awesome.”
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.