Women Kickers In Football

Women Kickers In Football

It never took long in any conversation with Tom Coughlin about the kicking game for the Jaguars Head Coach to explain something about Mike Hollis.

“He’s not just a kicker,” Coughlin would say, “He’s a football player.”

That says a lot about kickers as outliers on any football team, but also says plenty about the Jaguars placekicker from 1995-2001.

“I’m 5’7” and 180 pounds” Hollis said this week. “So, my size, my weight and my lack of freakish athletic ability necessitated me having a certain technique to compete.”

Hollis held several Jaguars franchise records, was the leading scorer in the NFL in 1997 and selected to the Pro Bowl the same year. For about a year and a half during his eight-year NFL career, Hollis was the most accurate kicker in league history.

For the past fourteen years, Mike has run the ProForm Kicking Academy, tutoring mostly local kickers on the finer points and the technique that results in the ball going through the uprights.

“I didn’t have a goal to play in the NFL,” Hollis recalls. “I just wanted to try and be as good as I could.”

By using his technique, he distills down to two words, “forward momentum,” Hollis was able to compete at the highest level. Some of his students have gone on to college careers and even a shot in the NFL.

This weekend, Mike and several other nationally prominent coaches are holding a kicking camp at Davis Park for a specific group that has recently showed an interest in becoming kickers: Women.

“Naturally women aren’t as strong as men so giving them my form and technique gives them an advantage,” Hollis explained. “Plus, I’ve found women to be better listeners in general.”

“I’ve progressed a lot,” said Ellie Wilhelm, a junior at Bishop Snyder High School who has been the Cardinals kicker for the past two years. “I was originally kicking about 25 yards. I started learning the form for kicking and started training with Mike. I’ve probably gained 20 yards.”

Wilhelm is a three-sport athlete at Snyder, a midfielder and the backup goalkeeper on the soccer team and competes on the track team in the spring. She’s no different than most of Hollis’ other female students with a background in soccer and in interest in football.

“All of the women I’ve coached have come from soccer,” Mike explained. “Parents and peers also have brought football to their attention. I want to teach these girls a way and a different thought process about kicking. I want them to understand the process of getting the best out of them.”

If there is one difference about Ellie, it’s that she loves football.

“I’ve been watching football since I was little with my dad,” she explained. “My gym coach in high school is actually the head football coach. I played some flag in class and he mentioned that I should come play for the school team. I love football.”

Katie Hnida, April Goss and most recently Sarah Fuller at Vanderbilt are women who have kicked and scored in college football and Wilhelm wants to do the same.

“It was exciting to see Sarah Fuller kick this year,” Ellie said of Fuller being the first woman to score a point in a Power 5 game. “She’s the keeper (on the soccer team) and that resonated with me so much. She just went out there and did what she wanted to do.”

“I’d like to kick in college,” Wilhelm admitted. My goal is to play and kick in college. I’d like to earn a spot. I love football and I’d like to be in the NFL.”

Using his technique while building strength and through practice, Hollis believes there are plenty of women who can become effective kickers. And as a father of a daughter and a son, Hollis wants to see women have a chance.

“We want to promote women in sports, It’s a great thing,” Mike said. “There are girls that play soccer and have a knack for kicking, if they don’t feel odd about playing on a boys’ team, most of them say ‘I want to be a kicker, I don’t care what the boys think.’”

“It doesn’t faze me anymore,” Wilhelm said of being the only woman on the field. “There are some girls on the other teams we play. There was one girl who was a linebacker. It’s not crazy anymore, we don’t care. It’s just a sport to me, whether it’s the boys’ team or not.”

Furthering a career in football for women can be difficult. You might remember the Dixie Blues, a local women’s team that plays in the Women’s Football Alliance an organization that bills themselves as the “World’s Largest Premier Women’s League.” They’ll enter their nineteenth season of play in 2021.

Former Arlington Country Day football coach Terry McGriff coaches the North Florida Pumas, part of the Women’s Tackle Football League. McGriff says they have seventeen teams from Washington state to Palm Beach and plan to start playing in May of this year.

“We want good, competitive games,” McGriff said, noting they have about twenty players now and will eventually cap the roster at thirty-five. “These women want to be out there so they’re easier to coach, they ask more questions. They want to know why.”

And while he says teaching women the basics of football is easier because “they don’t have bad habits to break,” McGriff also believes there is a bigger life skill for women learned through football.

“It can be a violent world out there,” he noted. “And this is a way women can not be intimidated by that. They understand how this can be part of their daily life. To be aware of their surroundings and what’s going on.”

But for this weekend at Davis Park (9-1pm today) it’s about kicking and technique, forward momentum and getting the ball through the goal posts.

“There are a lot of physics that go into kicking,” Wilhelm noted. “You have to get swing and technique. I have more confidence.”

Which sounded a lot like her teacher’s philosophy.

“It sounds funny, but I tried to not care where the ball went,” Hollis once told me about going onto the field for a kick. “I was thinking, ‘If my technique is right, the ball is going to go where I want it.’ Once you get that trust in your technique on game day, that’s the greatest feeling.”

For more information about kicking and women in football you can check out ProFormkicking.com, LacesOutFoundation.com, NFPumas.com or dixiebluesfootball.com

Gate River Run Jacksonville

The Roll Continues With Gate River Run

We’ve been on quite a run in Florida and especially North Florida in the first quarter of 2021. It started with the Jaguars hiring Urban Meyer on January 14th. While sports fans in general and Jaguars fans specifically are split on Meyer and his potential for success in professional football, Meyer’s hiring put the focus of the football world squarely on Jacksonville. The national media fawned over Shad Khan’s courtship and eventual hiring of Meyer.

As the political debate regarding how to deal with the pandemic raged on, Tampa hosted the Super Bowl, with limited fan capacity. The Bucs became the first team to play in the Super Bowl in their home stadium and beat the Chiefs for the NFL title. Tom Brady’s subsequent Lombardi Trophy toss from boat to boat seemed to immediately qualify him for “Florida Man” status

It seemed Brady had barely sobered up when the focus shifted to Daytona for Speedweeks and the Daytona 500. With a huge venue, again spectators were allowed in a limited capacity and the Great American Race as well as the road race the following week went off without a hitch.

Because it’s been such a strange year, college basketball seems a bit diminished and there’s less focus on the NCAA Tournament and March Madness.

So, while Florida and Florida State were both fighting for spots in the post-season, The Players grabbed the spotlight for the sports world for an entire week. NBC promotes The Players as one of the jewels of their sports coverage so when the tournament rolls around, it gets plenty of scrutiny.

This year it held up and more.

The golf course was pristine, the competition was tight, and a worthy champion emerged in Justin Thomas. While The Players does identify the best player through his bag that week, you can only have so many Stephen Ames’ win your tournament and be taken seriously as a significant event on the golf calendar.

That’s why it’s important that Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy and now Justin Thomas have their names on the trophy. All Major winners, all add stature to The Players.

And while NFL free agency rolls on this week, a portion of the sports world still had its eye on Jacksonville for the Gate River Run.

A huge community event, the Gate also is the 15K National Championship that has names like Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit, Grete Waitz, Meb Keflezigi, Deena (Drossin) Kastor and Shalane Flanagan, legends in international running, among the winners.

Last year the Gate River Run got just inside the window of events shutting down because of the spread of Covid-19.

“We were lucky,” race director Doug Alred said of the 2020 race. “If we were scheduled for two days later, we’d have had to call it off. When The Players announced their date, we had to move up a week. We ended up being lucky and they weren’t.”

Through the height of the pandemic, Alred and other race organizers around the country figured out how to host races and runs in a safe and comfortable manner for the participants.

“We tested things in the smaller races to see how it would go,” he explained. “That’s how we came up with our plan for the 8,000 runners for Gate River Run.”

There were unexpected challenges as well. In a normal year, everybody, nearly 25,000 runners in the combined events, shows up at the runner’s expo on Thursday and Friday to pick up their race packets. This year, to accommodate social distancing, participants had to register for a one-hour time slot over three days to get their packet.

Runners had to wear a mask to pick up their packet, and at the start/finish lines.

“We started people staggered in our smaller races,” Alred said. “Our goal was to keep people from being too close. Eight waves with anywhere from 800 to 1500 runners. We had two starting lines; staging areas based on race number.”

The water stations in the smaller races had eight-ounce bottles but that wasn’t feasible for a race the size of the Gate.

“We just decided to go with regular water stations,” Doug said. “All of our volunteers wore gloves and masks.”

Once runners get past the starting line, they didn’t have to wear their masks, but there’s no way to keep them apart while running.

“We’re hoping that they are spread out on the course,” Alred added. “We didn’t have any post-race or awards or ceremonies. When they got to the back of the finish line, we told them they can go home.”

Organizers tried to keep the race/run itself as normal as possible with the same course and bands sprinkled along the 9.3 miles for entertainment. But Alred wasn’t even sure if he scheduled the race that anybody would show up.

“My biggest concern was whether people would sign up,” he explained. “That’s one of the reasons we picked just over 8,000. The first day we were open for registration we had 4,500. We probably could have had over 10,000 in the 15K. The 5K is smaller, those people are probably staying home. Our sponsors stuck with us though and that helped a lot.”

Along with the community event, the Gate River Run will also still serve as the US National 15K Championship again this year. That means following all of the USA Track and Field covid protocols for the elite runners.

“We had to almost isolate them,” Doug said. “We put them all at the fairgrounds. Straight there from the hotel, then directly to the start line, and they were all blocked off. This year we started the women and then the elite men and then a couple of minutes later we started the rest of the field.”

In chilly and blustery conditions yesterday, Emily Sisson dominated the women’s field in 48:09, the fifth fastest women’s time in the race’s forty-four years. She was also the first person to cross the finish line claiming the $5,000 equalizer bonus. It was 52 degrees at race time with winds as high as 30 mph atop the Hart Bridge.

Only eleven seconds separated the top nine men in the closest finish in Gate River Run history, with Clayton Young outkicking the field to win by two seconds in 43.:52.

Having the 15K national championship and the elite runners that come with it is an important component of the Gate River Run’s success. The Gate used to compete with the Gasparilla Run in Tampa but once the Gate organizers chose to host the national title, the two races went in different directions. Gasparilla didn’t want to pay prize money and their registrations dwindled.

“They eventually reinstituted prize money and they’re on their way back,” Alred said. “But when you don’t have national media attention because you don’t have the big names it changes the race.”

It was a fortuitous decision to take on the National Championship. Elite runners all over the world refer to our River Run as simply, “The Gate.” And with this being an Olympic year, the elite runners were testing their form on the streets of Jacksonville.

“I didn’t want Gate River Run to just become another big weekend race,” Alred explained.

As the first major running event to be held since the beginning of the pandemic, the Gate, and the organizers literally blazed a trail showing how to get it done.

“We’ve done everything we need to do,” Doug said. “I think Jacksonville will be proud about what we accomplished. It looks like New York and Boston will bring their races back (marathons), but they might have read our playbook. Our Jacksonville Track Club was in a good enough financial position to take a hit on the race this year. Races like the New York marathon can’t afford to cut out half of the runners. Their budgets are too big. We’ll see what happens.”

Justin Thomas

Do’s and Don’ts of The Players

There was a lot of talk this week about what you can and can’t do at The Players Championship.

First of all, you can get a ticket. Even with just about eight-thousand tickets sold there were enough floating around that if you wanted to see some golf, you could get out there. If you really wanted to go today, you can find one.

What you can’t do is walk around without a mask. There were a variety of “spectator ambassadors” on the grounds wearing very official looking vests and carrying those golf signs that used to say, “Quiet,” but now said, “Masks.” I suppose it was a polite way to nudge people to put their masks on despite the eating and drinking that usually goes on at The Players.

What you can do is marvel at how green the grass is all over the place. I don’t know what the rye grass seed bill was this year but whatever it was it was worth it. Every blade of grass was a green as could be, from tees to fairways to the putting surfaces and out to the rough, the spectator areas and even along the walkways to the parking lots.

If it looked manicured, it’s because it was. The Players agronomy staff used twenty-four, twenty-inch hand mowers to cut the rough on Tuesday and left it alone for the rest of the tournament. It took twenty-four workers walking behind the mowers, five hours to cut fifty acres of primary rough. And you thought your Saturday lawn duties were tough.

This is the fortieth Players Championship I’ve covered, all of them at the Stadium Course,t and it’s a far cry from when the tournament began there in 1982. There are places you can play from now where you wouldn’t even walk back then.

“We really didn’t have money for maintenance,” former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman explained. “We had enough to maintain the tees, fairway and greens and that was it. Even the goats were leased.”


To the left of the thirteenth hole was a large island that had a lot of scrub brush that needed to be cleaned out, but the Tour didn’t have the money to get it done. So, they leased a trip of goats (yep, that’s what a bunch of goats are called) to clear the place out.

One night a valve that controls the water level on the course was left open and the goats crossed off the island and found a new thing to much on: the cedar shake roof shingles on the Stadium Course’s new clubhouse.

When the staff discovered what had happened, they were terrified at what Beman’s reaction might be. But in a stroke of genius, when he arrived to see the goats on the roof he said, “Where’s the cameras?” Beman realized it was a public relations bonanza to show the goats munching away.

As a player, crossing from the par three, thirteenth green to the fourteenth tee there used to be a giant corrugated pipe you drove your cart through, tunneling under the spectator mound that was built there. You never knew what you might encounter as you emerged from the pipe. Before the Sawgrass Marriott was built, all of that was swamp land and was ruled by wild things. More than once a twelve-foot gator was using the fourteenth tee as a sunning ground, only to walk off, clearly annoyed, when a foursome appeared.

This week the PGA Tour also told Bryson DeChambeau that he can’t just make up his own golf course along the way. After winning at Bay Hill, DeChambeau was asked how he might use his prodigious length to take advantage of the Stadium Course. A real “out of the fairway” thinker, Bryson said he might just hit his tee shot on eighteen over the pond to the left and come in from there. “It’s a better angle,” he said. Under the guise of “player and spectator safety,” the Tour quickly instituted an ‘internal out of bounds’ on that side of the lake, preventing DeChambeau and the rest of the bombers out there these days from straying from Pete Dye’s original plan.

There are a few other things you can’t do that are part of The Players history.

You used to be able to stand at the clubhouse and see what was going on at seventeen just calculating the size of the gallery there. No more. Hospitality chalets surrounding seventeen mean you can’t see down there from the clubhouse anymore.

Remember in 1987 when FSU student Hal Valdez jumped into the water on seventeen just as Jeff Sluman was lining up a six-foot birdie putt for a win in a playoff over Sandy Lyle? Valdez jumped in on a dare from his fraternity brothers. He wouldn’t be able to do that today. Fans aren’t allowed in that spot anymore. I guess he could get a running start and do a half gainer from the second story of the Michelob Ultra Lounge behind the green. But don’t get any ideas.

In 1988 as Mark McCumber was walking down the eighteenth fairway in the final round, some fans unfurled a banner saying something like, “Mark McCumber, Jacksonville’s Hometown Champion.” They’d have to find a new spot to do that this year. A very nice hospitality chalet spans the hill between nine and eighteen with great views of both holes.

The whole practice area-putting green-first tee-second green-third tee area is something you can appreciate as a sports fan. The revamped design there gives spectators a chance to see a half dozen different things going on with just a turn of the head or a twenty-step walk. And there’s beer, cocktails and snacks nearby. No wonder that’s a popular spot.

You can see the best players in the world competing for the best prize money against the best field in your own backyard just by flipping on your television. It’s fun to see a big focus of the sports world happening just down the street.

“We want this to be the best of everything we can offer,” The Players Executive Director Jared Rice said. “Our community is a huge part of what we do. It’s what makes us one of one. It’s important that we stay connected and engaged.”

You probably can’t throw the Commissioner in the water after you win any more either. When Jerry Pate was walking down the eighteenth getting ready to win the inaugural Players Championship at the Stadium Course in 1982, he had decided to throw course architect Pete Dye in the water next to the green. Deane Beman happened to be standing there, so he threw him in too. Then did a swan dive off the bulkhead himself.

Forty years later, might this year’s winner grab the Commissioner and throw him in? Probably not.

But, I don’t think as good of shape all of these guys are in, if one of them goes super low and decides to grab Jay Monahan and toss him in the lake, there wouldn’t be much Monahan could do about it.

But probably not.

Could be fun though.

The Players Championship

From GJO to TPC and Beyond

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what The Players Championship is because it’s actually so many things at once.

It’s a premier golf tournament that the best players in the world want to win. Adam Scott said so when he won in 2004. Rory McIlroy reiterated that saying, “I don’t think my career would be complete without winning The Players.”

For golf fans, especially those from North Florida, it might be the best party, and probably the best social opportunity of the year. Just ask anybody who’s been to the tournament on a sunny Friday afternoon.

If those fans are serious about watching golf, it’s the best venue to see live golf, and the best field of players assembled, just about anywhere in the world. The Stadium Course was built as just that, a ‘Stadium’ to provide the best sight lines for fans.

For corporations, local, national and international, it’s the best client entertainment opportunity anywhere. There aren’t many places where you can treat your clients to a breakfast on the beach and a surf lesson in the morning and head across the street to watch the best players in the world the same afternoon.

And for North Florida, Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra and just about everywhere else nearby, images sent all over the world of what we have here you just can’t buy. The St. Johns, the beaches, boating, golf courses, natural spaces and everything else are showcased like no other event can.

The Players is all of those things and strives to be the best at all of those at once. And usually succeeds.

“I didn’t envision all of those things at the very beginning,” former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, who developed the concept of The Players Championship, said this week from his home in Ponte Vedra. “When I was a player on the policy board, (then-Commissioner) Joe Dey asked if I thought we should have a special tournament. I thought the Tour should have a very special event that represented the organization.”

Beman succeeded Dey as the PGA Tour Commissioner in 1974 and said creating the TPC became one of his ‘chores.’

“As of March 1st, the tournament had been scheduled for Atlanta, but the whole schedule hadn’t been made yet,” he explained. “We wanted to make it something that was more than ‘just another event in Atlanta.’”

“All we could do was make it the best of everything it could be,” he continued. “The best prize money, the best field, the best competition and the best community support. When it started, Joe’s concept was to move it around like the US Open and the PGA. But I became convinced after Ft. Worth (site of the second TPC) that the tournament needed to be in one place. It would have the best chance to be the best of what we could make it if it was played in the same place.”

Much has been written about Beman’s quest to find a home for The Players and the one dollar deal he made with the Fletcher brothers for the property as a home for the PGA Tour headquarters and the new Stadium Course. Originally, Beman contacted the owners of Bay Hill in Orlando, but Arnold Palmer was looking there as well and eventually acquired the club.

“We just happened on Sawgrass,” Beman said of Sawgrass Country Club, the tournament’s home from 1977-1981. “My son was out of school on spring vacation, and I took him with me when I visited a couple of events as Commissioner. I was at Deerwood at the GJO and asked if there was a place we could go play. They said, ‘Go to Sawgrass nobody plays there.’ After nine holes we quit because I told him we had found the place and we needed to play our tournament there.”

He didn’t waste any time making the decision.

“I drove right back to Deerwood and met with John Tucker and said, “How about we do a deal?” he said.

It didn’t take long for Tucker and the other Red Coats, the past volunteer chairmen of the Greater Jacksonville Open, to say yes. The Tour, through Beman, said they could increase the charity contributions to over $100,000 if the GJO expanded their scope and embraced he TPC as a national event.

“He was talking about an international event that would compete with the Majors,” Tucker recalled this week. “He was very expressive and wanted something beyond what anybody else had.”

Beman tried to buy Sawgrass for the Tour and even looked at property off of Hecksher Drive and on the Northside. But the deal with the Fletchers proved to be the right one to get things started.

“I don’t know of any other business enterprise that has gotten things going like that for nothing,” Beman said with a laugh. “And I mean for nothing.”

Tucker and company took what they had learned by running the GJO and expanded it for the new TPC.

“It’s the highest performance in the world by the best players in the world,” John explained. “We tried to match the people in attendance with the level of play. We raised the level of watching the tournament in interest and convenience. We had provided childcare for the players at the GJO and did the same at the TPC. We arranged shopping trips for the wives. The GJO gave the top 60 players a courtesy car. We gave all 144 players cars for the TPC.”

Tucker and Beman were on the same page when it came to their vision of the new Tournament Players Championship.

“How can we make this better,” they both told me on separate occasions.

“Every staff member at the time, and it was much smaller than now,” Beman said. “They were dedicated to make this the best event in the world. How it was run, the spectators, the charity money, how to accommodate the players, the commercial interests, all of it.”

“We put packages together. We had client entertainment, sky chalets, offered visitors to play golf at various courses around the area,” Tucker, who became the Tournament Director in 1983 said. “They looked at our tournament as a model of what all the other tournaments should be.”

John made a reference to the old GJO days that some of you will remember and sums up the growth of the tournament outside the ropes.

“As much funs as it was, we didn’t want a Swingers Tent any longer,” he said in between laughs. “There are a lot of companies that their first view of the Jacksonville was the golf tournament, so I got the chamber involved. We were looking to offer the entertainment level high enough and commensurate with the quality of the golf.”

“These assets in our community that we know so well are things we want to promote,” current Players Executive Director Jared Rice said this week. “They are big contributors to how we promote this championship nationally and internationally. For that week, we’re the concierge for everybody who comes to visit the tournament.”

Beman points to four things that pushed The Players forward during his tenure that are part of the historical lore of the tournament that couldn’t have been planned.

“The first Players Championship was won by Jack Nicklaus,” he said of the best player in the world reigning as The Players champion. “He was the super, world-class player at that moment, and he won the tournament. Then we went to Sawgrass, and we had horrendous weather the second year we played. That was disruptive but gave the tournament notoriety.”

When the tournament moved to Sawgrass Country Club in 1977, the windy weather in the second round that year led to a tournament record eleven over par as the cut for the first thirty-six holes. The next year, Nicklaus won for the third time in five years of the ‘TPC’ posting a one-over score after a 75 in the final round.

“When we came over to the Players Club,” he continued.” The fact that the golf course was too difficult gave it more notoriety. The greens were on the other side of unfair. There was a huge controversy about it.”

While the greens and the course have been softened a bit, the golf course itself and the ‘Stadium’ concept became a celebrity.

“Just the brand name of ‘Stadium Golf,” Beman added. “That was new to golf, nobody had ever even thought of that. And the public interest in the 17th hole was different. A simple hole, a little shot, just a wedge or a nine iron, and all the of the sudden this simple shot became the toughest shot in the world. All of that helped it become a unique and special tournament.”

“One of the greatest things was Deane’s concept that it would always be played on one course,” Tucker added. It’s was a course built just for spectator golf. It was a course that didn’t offer any relief for two or three holes for the players. It was a real championship golf course.”

Tucker continued, “What he said he wanted was, ‘A community that wants us, where our players feel at home and the GJO has all of those prerequisites. The players come here because they love how they’re treated here. They love coming here.’ And everybody admired what had been accomplished here. Plus the acceptance by the R and A and the USGA, they all admired what Deane had done.”

“It’s one of one,” Rice answered when I asked about the uniqueness of the current Players Championship. “Our guests and fans can be out here for business development or just to see friends. They can be sports fans and want to see a big sporting event.

Rice agreed when I said I thought The Players has separated itself in the pantheon of sporting events, not just golf tournaments.

“Our expectation is to deliver it for our players, fans and volunteers at the highest level, if not perfectly,” he said. “As we go forward, it’s the signature event within our community and in our sport. We want to use our event to showcase how great our community is to live work and play and show how Northeast Florida is supportive of this event. We want people from around the world to come here and see how great this community is.”

Noting that no other tournament has been played in one place longer than the Players except the Masters, Rice added, “Our community is a big part of what our tournament is about. We want to promote the tournament nationally and internationally to have people to see how great the restaurants are here, that there are great places to rent or buy on the beach. To see the active lifestyle we have. It’s all the things we know are great that we want to promote.”

When I asked Beman if The Players is now everything he envisioned, he said it would be impossible to have seen what it has become.

“It’s hard to answer whether this was my vision because nobody could think of all the things that were done to make it what it is today,” he explained. “From day one I was dedicated to make it the best tournament in the world. But I didn’t do it alone, the people around me did the work. Everybody on my staff, the volunteers, the tournament chairmen, they came up with the individual ideas that make it what it is today. I was personally dedicated to making this the finest tournament in the world, whatever the big and the small things were that needed to get done to do that. They all were dedicated to the same thing. And they’ve done it.”