The Stephenson Jaguars football team was in desperate need of a kicker after three-year starter Wisdom Nzidee graduated last May.
Nzidee kicked for Stephenson from 2011-2013 and had a season record for points scored (61) in 2012. Through the first four weeks of the 2014 season, the Jaguars did not have an accurate kicker to replace Nzidee. The lack of a kicker cost them a couple of games, most notably the 21-20 loss to Central Miami Aug. 30.
Coach Ron Gartrell and his coaching staff tried some players in the program at the kicking position, “But none of them really came up to the expectation,” Gartrell said.
Cory Johnson, a former coach on the Stephenson staff, told Gartrell about a girl at the school who could kick.
“Of course my response was, ‘I don’t want a girl kicker,’” Gartrell said. “He said to give her a try, and I said if you feel that way then talk to her and see if she can get out there in a few days.”
When junior Zaida Joyeau came to practice to try out for kicker, Gartrell was astonished.
“I was surprised that she was so accurate,” he said.
Joyeau, who is 5-foot-8, is already ranked fifth in the county in place kicking statistics through three games. Before Stephenson’s Oct. 24 game, Joyeau made 12 extra-point kicks out of 18 attempts, which has her at a 66.7 percentage completion.
“If we’d had her earlier in the season, we could be undefeated,” Gartrell said. “She’s been a blessing to us.”
Although this is her first time kicking for a football team, Joyeau is no stranger to kicking. “I’ve played soccer since I was 3,” she said.
For four years, she has played soccer for the DeKalb United Soccer Club out of Wade Walker Park. When she was approached about trying out for the football team, she was hesitant.
“I was scared that they were going to tackle me,” she said. “But my mom told me to try it and see if I was good enough. I came to a practice and the coaches said I knew what I was doing. They said they were going to protect me, so I said, ‘why not make history?’”
She started out kicking extra points for the junior varsity team before transitioning to the varsity team on Oct. 3 against Miller Grove. She has kicked one field goal so far, a 21-yard field goal against Dunwoody Oct. 10.
When she started playing varsity, she realized how much larger the players are on the varsity level compared to the junior varsity level. However, she still went out to the field with little fear.
“I’m confident in my [defensive] line,” she said. “They do what they do well, so nobody is going to get through [to tackle me]. It’s Stephenson, who’s going to come through?”
Gartrell said it has been fun having her on the team and said she has fit in well with the players.
“She has really brought a different personality to the team,” he said. “She’s been a great addition to the team.”
He also mentioned that the players are protective of her, as if she is their little sister. Joyeau said they have been a little overprotective.
“I’m like a little sister with like 100 big brothers and 10 dads,” she said. “I can’t do anything. The [players] are like, ‘Why are you talking to boys?’ And they are still surprised I have nails and I get my eyebrows done. But it’s like a family.”
The team was initially shocked when she showed up on the practice field for the first time, but they have not mistreated her and have shown her respect as a female and as a player. Outside of the team, everyone from the Stephenson fans to its opponents were shocked to learn the team has a girl kicker.
“After my first game, I took my helmet off at the end of the game, and while shaking their hands they were like, ‘Oh my god, she’s a girl!’” Joyeau said. “After another game, when we stood in front of the band to sing the alma mater, this guy in the stands was looking at me and I just happened to make eye contact with him. He was squinting at me, wondering if I was a girl, and I was shaking my head, yes, and I started laughing. People are reacting hilariously. It’s really funny.”
Although Joyeau is following in the steps of Nzidee, she does not put pressure on herself to be as successful as he was.
“I feel like if I put pressure on myself then something bad will happen,” she said. “So I just try to do what I need to do in practice, stay focused, according to coach keep my head down and make sure the ball goes through. That’s all I focus on. All that other stuff will come later.”
If a game ever comes down to a last-minute field goal to win a game, Joyeau believes she can kick a winning field goal.
“I’ll be too scared to miss,” she said. “So it’s going in. I’ll be as focused as possible. But things happen for a reason. If I miss then we weren’t meant to win that game. If I make it then we were meant to win the game.”
“I hope that never happens,” Gartrell said. “But if it’s in her range we have confidence in her to kick it. We’ll make that decision once we cross the bridge”
Joyeau she feels she is paving the way for girls who may want to play football in the future.
“I was always taught not to limit myself,” she said. “There was always a gender barrier, especially in sports. If a girl, 10 years from now, who can kick better than anybody else can, she can come out and not be scared. Go for it.”
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