The past couple Friday nights have been good ones for Dawson High School senior Claire Jeffress. At halftime of the school’s homecoming game against Brazoswood two weeks ago, she was crowned homecoming queen. Then, in the final seconds of last Friday’s game against Pearland, she had an even bigger moment: She kicked the game-winning field goal, a thirty-yarder, in the waning moments of the game, putting Dawson up 38-35 for the win.
Jeffress plays soccer year-round, but she also serves as a kicker with the boys’ football team. She’s not alone among female kickers in high school sports—Katie Hnida, who was the first woman to score points as a kicker in Division I college football (first at Colorado, then at New Mexico State), estimates that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 girls kicking field goals at the high school level at any time—but the image of her in shoulder pads and a homecoming sash is one that still challenges a few stereotypes.
The game-winning field goal was the culmination of a journey that began for Jeffress when she was in seventh grade. Her school’s football coach was also one of her teachers, and he was struggling with a dearth of potential kickers—so he recruited Jeffress. “I tried out after volleyball practice, in my volleyball shoes, having never kicked a ball before,” she says. “But I made it, so I went home and told my mom, ‘Mom, is it okay if I play football?’ She was kind of confused, and I said, ‘Well, I kind of already told them I would…'”
Jeffress plays club soccer year-round, as well as soccer for Dawson, plus football. That adds up to an extremely active training regimen—she works out three times a day, and has to balance the need to build muscle for kicking with her need to be able to run for miles on the field in every soccer game.
“Every day, it kind of depends on what I know I’m going to be doing in other sports. I have to plan my schedules around each other, as far as athletics,” she says. That’s forced her to consider her kicking style, too—she often can’t work on long-distance kicks because she needs to preserve her leg for soccer. To balance that, Jeffress began considering at a young age what she had to offer in a football game, and how she could draw from her soccer experience to accomplish things that might make her a special player.
“In seventh grade, before a lot of the boys hit their growth spurt, I wasn’t much weaker than they were. I could hit from distance compared to what everyone else could do,” she says. “In high school, it started getting frustrating because I couldn’t condition my body for football. I couldn’t get bulky, because I knew I had to run miles every soccer game. Knowing that, I was like, ‘What can I do that’s different?’ And that was to be consistent. When it comes down to high-pressure situations, that can be really hard on athletes. So that’s something I’ve really focused on—how to be controlled and consistent under pressure. Soccer has definitely helped me with that. My club team played in a tournament in Spain where our penalty kicks went to fourteen rounds. So having to kick penalty kicks has definitely helped me.”
The fact that she plays soccer may have dictated Jeffress’s workout regimen, but Hnida says that a female athlete who wants to kick might not want to bulk up anyway—which means that Jeffress probably made the right decision in what she chose to focus on. “Here’s the thing about kickers: it depends on your own body type,” Hnida explains. “When I was at CU, I bulked up—I went from 120 to 160 in about seven months, but my kicking got screwed up. It wasn’t a natural fit for my body type. I ended up dropping back down to about 130 for most of my career at New Mexico. It’s small for a player, but it’s what worked for me.”
It works for Jeffress, too, who’s made 66 percent of her field goals this season and who says that her range is roughly 33-34 yards and in—though she did hit a 45-yarder once in practice, with the wind on her side and without pads.
Jeffress likes kicking, and she likes football, but she says that the most important part of the experience for her has been the way that the team and its supporters have embraced her as an integral part of the Dawson football community. When she first joined the varsity squad, one of the team moms ensured that her locker, in the girls’ locker room, would be decorated the same way as the boys’ locker room. She’s played with most of the same boys since she was in seventh grade, all throughout high school, and describes the team as very much a family that views her as a sister—which means that she’s essentially had sixty-some big brothers for the past six years.
“It’s awesome,” she says. “I can’t describe it. People ask me all the time, ‘Are you afraid to get hit?’ Absolutely not, at all. Every time I’m out there, I look out there and I see [offensive linemen] Payne [He’Bert] and Spencer [Wells], who are both over 200 pounds and going to incredible colleges to play football, so it doesn’t scare me, because I know that they’ll have my back, and whether it’s school, sports, social, anything—they’ve always had my back. I can’t even put it into words.”
Jeffress is on a farewell tour as a football player. There are three regular season games left on Dawson’s schedule, and if the 5-1 team holds up over the next few weeks, there may be playoffs, too. After this season, though, she knows her football days are done as she plans to focus on soccer in college, where she hopes to play Division III ball. That makes her reflective on the game, even as she’s enjoying this final ride.
“I’m going to miss football so much,” she says. “One of the things that made football so amazing was that the team was my family, and I’ve grown up with those boys. They’ve protected me like a sister, and they’ve had my back like a family. It’s a super fun sport, and I’ve loved being involved, but the biggest thing for me is the family that I’ve had.”