By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
ENGLEWOOD — Victor Mellor, Brayden Curry and Robbie Cerami were honestly just messing around.
It was the end of the annual powder-puff football game during Lemon Bay High School’s homecoming week last fall, a game that turns the girls into football players and the football players into coaches and cheerleaders.
Mellor, Curry and Cerami, three of the leaders of the Manta Rays football team, were coaches, and their team was up big with 30 seconds left and 30 yards between it and the goal line. So they decided to see if Summer Rusher, one of the stars of the girls soccer team, could make a field goal from that spot.
“We just wanted to see how far Summer could kick it,” Mellor said. “And she made it. It was kind of like, ‘Holy moly.’”
Jokingly, Mellor told Rusher that she should come out and kick for the football team. Lemon Bay would be losing Jacob Rasnick to graduation, and didn’t have an in-house option to replace him.
But Rusher, already a big football fan, didn’t the suggestion lightly. So after leading the Manta Rays girls soccer team with 15 goals and dishing out 16 assists, she dedicated herself to learning how to kick a football.
Seven months after kicking that Nerf football through the uprights in the powder-puff game, Rusher donned shoulder pads, an orange helmet and a white No. 35 jersey and kicked off Lemon Bay’s May 21 spring game at Cardinal Mooney.
“It was really awesome. Really cool,” Rusher said. “Because you watch the games on Friday night, but you don’t realize how much time and dedication and studying they do. How much effort they put in. You don’t realize that until you’re there.”
Rusher’s journey there was sparked that October night, but it didn’t begin in earnest until the end of the girls soccer season. The junior made her interest in trying out to be the football team’s kicker known, then hit the practice fields with assistant coach Sean Huber.
In some ways, it came to her naturally.
Rusher didn’t know the proper technique needed to kick a football, but she was no stranger to the motion. Her mother, Susan, said she grew up kicking everything she could get her feet on, from soccer balls down to tennis balls.
“She has a live foot,” football coach D.J. Ogilvie said. “I don’t think she’s going to be able to kick it into the end zone anytime soon. But if not, (she’ll) be able to drop it into different spots. She’s very accurate that way.”
Rusher won the team’s kicking competition before spring practice even began in late April, but that’s not to say there wasn’t some skepticism. Ogilvie had never had a girl on his team in 22 years of coaching, and he said some involved with the program asked the question, “What are we having a girl on the team for?”
Ogilvie, though, told them, “I don’t care if it’s a Martian. If a person can help us win, they can play.”
And it didn’t take long for the Manta Rays to come around to the idea.
“When I stepped onto the field and I was with them and I showed them that I could kick the ball, they were more than accepting,” Rusher said. “They accepted me into everything that they did.”
“It was a little new environment to see her on the football field, but she did a great job,” added Curry, who has been friends with Rusher since preschool. “She’s a hard worker, and I know she’s a good soccer player. And whether it’s a girl or a guy, I don’t see a difference as long as you get the job done.”
That has been Rusher’s mentality through the whole process. Yes, it’s unusual for a girl to play football. But her joining the team was not a publicity stunt.
Girls playing football has been legal since Title IX of the Education Amendments Act was passed in 1972, which states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation” in any educational program, including sports. She’s not playing to make a point.
No, Rusher is playing because she legitimately wants to help the football team win. She genuinely loves the sport. When she and her friends went to games at Veterans Stadium on Friday nights, her mother said, Rusher was the one in the front row digesting every play.
In the Manta Rays’ spring game loss to the Cougars, Rusher flashed a little bit of what she could do. She made the extra point after Lemon Bay’s lone score with ease, and though she came up short on a 35-yard field goal attempt late in the game, athletic director Ryan LaVallee said he’s seen her make kicks as long as 40 yards in practice.
“I think she’s going to be an asset for the football team. It’s just not a novelty kind of thing,” LaVallee said. “She can kick where we want it. She can kick field goals and extra points. We’re happy to have her.”
And Rusher understands the larger implications of her playing football, too. There are no records of any other girl playing football in Charlotte County over the past 15 years, and LaVallee, for one, said his young daughters “were both just thrilled to see this girl out there playing football with the boys” at Cardinal Mooney.
“There are some girls out there who are more than capable of also playing football,” Rusher said. “So maybe, hopefully, now, they’re like, ‘That’s kind of cool. I want to do that. I can try.’ And maybe they can get involved and try to find a new sport that they love.”
It’s that attitude that has Mellor and his teammates pretty glad they had Rusher try that powder-puff field goal seven months ago.
“It’s a first for all of us, but we think it’s awesome,” he said. “We fully support her in everything she does. We all think it’s a great thing.”