Female football players for Jackson State and Shaw kick their way into history
India Pulphus and Leilani Armenta both acknowledge the impact of their efforts on the field and say they have earned the right to their positions
In September, Pulphus became the first woman in Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association history to score in a football game, and during Jackson State’s win Saturday over the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Armenta became the first female kicker to score in a Division I HBCU football game.
Pulphus, a Cleveland native, is a member of Shaw’s football and track and field teams. The former soccer player first began kicking for her high school’s football program. Though she didn’t initially think she would continue kicking in college, a few members of Shaw’s football team urged her to try out for their coach after one kicker had to have surgery and another kicker’s eligibility for the upcoming season was in question. She has been with the team since March.
After starting the season missing three extra points, Pulphus has been a big help to Shaw’s football program. She successfully kicked her first PAT during Shaw’s conference matchup against Virginia State University on Sept. 30.
“The first ones, it was like I actually let out a sigh of relief. I’ve never done that before,” Pulphus said. “I don’t show that much emotion. That’s just me but, like, on the inside I was really relieved that I made it.”
In the four games she has kicked in so far this season, she has made eight of 10 extra point attempts. She started the season four for four before missing her first PAT against Winston-Salem State University on Oct. 14.
After her first miss, coach Adrian Jones encouraged Pulphus, wanting to make sure she remains confident whether she makes kicks or not.
“They’re the most supportive team I feel like I’ve been on in a long time. It’s like a big group of brothers that I have,” Pulphus said. “They said if anybody tries to touch me, they all [will] jump in and defend me.”
Jones said his male players look at Pulphis “as a little sister.”
“She’s been part of the family. … She looks up to those guys,” he said. “They put pressure on her. They treat her the same way they treat anybody else on the football team.”
Shaw running back Sidney Gibbs has been a great supporter – and even a “hater” at times – for Pulphus. During practice, Gibbs intentionally screams and shouts to try to distract Pulphus to prepare her for game day situations.
“He’s definitely up there on people that tease me. Like, during practice and stuff, I can always hear him haggling me,” Pulphus said. “He’s getting me ready for anything that can happen in the game. He’s my biggest hater until I get on the field for a kick in a game.
“When I made my kick he was one of the first people to congratulate me on the field, and when I missed it he was also one of the first people to tell me to keep my head up.”
Her parents support her kicking for the team, and she isn’t afraid of getting hurt.
“I’m not necessarily scared to get tackled because if anything, like, on the field goes wrong, I did sign up for football. This is a tackling sport,” Pulphus said. “But with my position … it’s so rare for me to get tackled, so I’m not too worried.”
Jones said he knows Pulphus has the strength needed to play collegiate football.
“She’s a tough cookie. I jokingly say that she’s tougher than some of my football players,” Jones said. “She has a tough mentality. You can tell she was raised to be a strong young woman. I don’t ever worry about her. I know those guys are gonna protect her.”
Pulphus didn’t know where she stood in history but knew she would be at least one of the few female kickers in collegiate football to score a point because female kickers are rare in the sport. It makes her feel good when young girls approach her, and she knows some people look up to her.
“[Shaw announcer] Daimeon Banks, his daughter plays soccer and when she saw India kick the first kick she was so gung-ho about being a football player now,” Jones said. “So I’m pretty sure [India] is inspiring some girls that said, ‘Hey, I think I might want to play football.’ ”
Negative comments don’t faze her, and as the season progresses her goal is to become more consistent with her kicks.
“I do deserve to be here,” Pulphus said. “If we weren’t making [extra points] before and now we are because I’m the one kicking them, I do have a place here.
“That’s a good feeling knowing that I’m the one that they choose to kick the PAT because they feel like they can trust me.”
Like Pulphus, Armenta was a kicker during high school, playing for St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura, California.
Armenta joined the Tigers’ program this season after injuries to kickers Matt Noll and Gerardo Baeza. On a week’s notice, Armenta, wearing a knee brace to protect her newly repaired ACL, made her kicking debut against Bethune-Cookman University on Sept. 23, officially taking over kickoff duties for the Tigers.
“Honestly, it reminded me of high school, like how fun it was being with the guys, being able to play,” Armenta said of her initial kickoff. “But the minute I kicked it, I was like, ‘I’m OK. I’m gonna be fine.’
“It was like, ‘Wow, this is the first time a woman has kicked at the collegiate level Division I [at] an HBCU.’ What an honor to do that. It didn’t really hit me until after the game. People started noticing me and hitting me on social media.”
Armenta currently is a member of the women’s soccer team and the football program. While kicking mechanics may differ between the two sports, she has spent countless hours practicing her technique.
“Powerwise, I feel like it’s the same for soccer and football, but the mechanics are very different,” Armenta said. “Like, there’s a lot of timing elements and also keeping your back straight, hips forward landing, so I feel like just learning those little mechanics can help a lot. … It helped me a lot.”
After doing kickoff duties for the team, kicking an extra point was her next goal.
Armenta scored her first point as a kicker for the Tigers on Saturday when she kicked a PAT in the second quarter of Jackson State’s game against Arkansas Pine-Bluff. She finished the game three for three on PAT kicks in Jackson State’s 40-14 victory, earning Southwestern Athletic Conference Specialist of the Week honors for her efforts.
“I am truly honored and blessed with the opportunity to have kicked extra points, and I’m glad I was three of three on my extra-point attempts,” she said. “The coaches and program have been amazing, and I’m happy I get to play and be appreciated by such an amazing group of people. … It is a moment in my life I will never forget and meant so much to me.”
During the SWAC media call Monday, Taylor praised his freshman kicker’s performance.
“Leilani did a great job. She went out there and made three extra points. Special teams was lights out,” Taylor said. “I told her, this is no different than any other position. We’re gonna create competition at every position on our football team. She’s been doing well, and that’s why I had the confidence to put her out there.”
Armenta is excited about her future with the program and said Taylor has created a welcoming environment for her. She plans to stay on the team past this season.
“First day I met Coach Taylor, I knew he genuinely cared about me, the way he treats me [and] respects me, not just as a woman, but as a player,” Armenta said. “I really appreciate [that] he also called my mom and dad, like, when I got to the team.
“He’s a head football coach of a Division I program – he didn’t have to do that. Just to see that he took the time out of his day to, like, talk to my mom and dad, it meant a lot to me.”
Taylor said Armenta had been kicking well in practice, which led to his game-time decision.
“This past week leading up to Pine Bluff and the week before, her leg was getting stronger, [and] she was gaining confidence,” Taylor said. “So I had no issue putting her out there, but that’s going to be up to her. We’re going to bring her back. She’s a part of this football team.”
Armenta is less than a year out from ACL surgery, which sidelined her for most of her senior year of high school. Most ACL injuries sideline athletes for a year, but she was able to work her way back in 10 months. Dealing with the challenges of ACL surgery and physical therapy has helped Armenta deal with the tough criticism she has received on social media for being a football player at an FCS school.
“Ten months ago, I wasn’t walking, I couldn’t move my leg [or] pick up my leg. Like, [hateful comments] really doesn’t faze me,” she said. “I’ve worked so hard to get back to where I was. I remember being one month post-op and telling my mom, ‘I don’t know if I want to play anymore.’
“My motivation is just to keep going through obstacles, whatever’s thrown at me. Everything happens for a reason. … I feel like I’ve earned the right to be here, and I’m gonna continue working hard because I want to see Jackson State succeed.”
Most of the response to Armenta kicking has been positive. She said that after the Bethune-Cookman game, a mother and daughter came up to her, and the mother told Armenta that her daughter wants to play football, too. She also has talked on the phone with young female football players who have reached out to her via social media seeking advice on how to deal with boys on their teams.
“People reach out and show that it does have an impact, and especially on young girls. If I would have seen this when I was younger, I would have been just as inspired,” Armenta said. “I’m glad that I get to have that impact in their life, because I would’ve wanted someone to do the same for me.”