Charlee Harris prepares to send another football through the uprights on Bald Eagle Area’s grass practice field, taking three steps back and two to the left, before the rest of her teammates join her.
They set the ball inside the 5-yard line as she lines up to kick in a live situation for the first time since she joined the team this summer. “All of the Lights” — a hip-hop song punctuated by trumpets early on — blares from speakers sitting near the sideline. Harris waits, hands on her hips, ahead of her first attempt, and the Eagles turn down the music.
Her first kick sails wide, but she bounces back to knock her next try through the uprights.
“There you go,” BEA coach Jesse Nagle says. “Perfect, Charlee.”
Here, 10 days before the team’s season opener at Troy, Harris is already in line to be the team’s starting kicker. The senior, the only girl on the Eagles’ roster and the only known female football player in the county, earned her roster spot during a tryout in the third week of July. She’s also the goalie on the girls’ soccer team, and she’s putting in 12-hour days during the preseason to show her commitment to football.
On that practice field, a week ago, Harris wears a gold helmet and white No. 38 practice jersey while she kicks with the bottom of her braided, blonde ponytail resting on her left shoulder. On Friday night, when she runs onto the field for the Eagles’ season opener at Troy, she’ll be wearing her No. 1 game jersey as the team’s starting kicker.
“I’ll probably be really nervous just to be out there, everyone, eyes on me,” Harris said. “But I think it’ll be great to have my football team supporting me.”
Harris thought about kicking for the football team the past few years and finally followed through in her senior season. Soccer teammates Morgan Chambers and Emma Murgas pushed her to go for it, and football players Kyle Gates and Cale Burkett offered encouragement.
She became close friends with Gates and Burkett over the past year after sharing the same classes. Gates was also her escort when she represented the school as Miss BEA, riding in a pickup truck during parades this summer and hearing little girls shout, “Oh my God, there’s a princess.” Harris said she tries to be a role model as Miss BEA — and hopes to set an example for little girls on Friday nights, too.
That’s definitely part of why I decided to play. It’s a male-dominated sport, obviously, but it’s also I want to show people it doesn’t matter what you look like or your gender or what you do — that you can go out and do anything anyone else can.
Charlee Harris, BEA kicker
“That’s definitely part of why I decided to play,” Harris said. “It’s a male-dominated sport, obviously, but it’s also I want to show people it doesn’t matter what you look like or your gender or what you do — that you can go out and do anything anyone else can.”
Burkett saw how far she could kick a soccer ball during Lady Eagles’ games and figured that ability would translate to the football field. “Her goal kicks, I’ve seen her kick 40 yards,” said BEA girls’ soccer coach Jared Moore, who thinks she has the talent to play goalie in college. So, after Harris texted Burkett about going out for the football team, they met at the Eagles’ Alumni Stadium to practice. Burkett brought two footballs, played YouTube videos on his iPhone, explaining kicking mechanics and serving as the holder on the turf field.
They started with extra points and moved back.
“She did really well,” Burkett said. “So I texted Coach Nagle about it.”
Burkett knew the team could use another kicker to ease the pressure on last year’s starter Blake Roberts, a standout running back and defensive back. Burkett told his coach that Harris could help.
Nagle talked with Harris on the phone to set up a tryout.
“I’m like, ‘Holy crap, this is happening. This is really happening,’” Harris said.
Before Harris kicked in front of the coaches for the first time, Nagle made it clear she needed to earn her spot — if she wasn’t as good as the Eagles’ other kickers, the coach told her, she wouldn’t be on the team.
Coaches from BEA and State College watched — the Eagles and Little Lions had a 7-on-7 session that night — as Harris kicked extra points with Nagle holding for her.
“As soon as she started kicking some, we kind of looked around like, ‘Is this really happening? Is this truly happening to us right now?’” Nagle said. “We were all pretty excited and at the same time shocked, to be honest with you, that she was that good in just coming out for the first couple times.”
Nagle asked State College defensive coordinator Mike Snyder — who also works with the Little Lions’ kickers — if he could give Harris some pointers. Snyder focused on technical aspects with her, including how to take her steps back to get aligned, her plant foot and her follow-through in a 20-minute crash course.
“I gave her a lot of things to think about,” said Snyder, who kicked his senior year at State College and in college at Lock Haven. “Typically we just try to work on maybe one or two of those things at a time, but she got kind of everything at once.”
She smiled, absorbed the information and asked Snyder: “Do you think I can do this?”
“I said, ‘Oh, absolutely,’” Snyder recalled.
Burkett was right — Harris could help the team — and Nagle asked her to come to workouts. The first time Roberts saw her kick, he was skeptical. Soon, he came to the same conclusion as Nagle and Burkett: “She’s really good.”
“Then I started getting a little scared, and then she took my job,” said Roberts, who smiled often as he discussed his new teammate.
Roberts is a two-way starter for the Eagles and sees the value in having Harris on the team. When the team scores a touchdown, he might be out of breath or sore before kicking the extra point. This season, he can take a short break. Plus, Roberts admits Harris has earned the starting job.
“She’s just a lot better than I am right now,” Roberts said.
At the end of the team’s first practice, Burkett said Harris kicked an extra point with her teammates crowded around her screaming.
She drilled it.
Harris arrives at the football team’s practice field with her gold helmet under her right arm.
On Aug. 15, she had just finished soccer practice — which started at 8 a.m. and ran until about 4 p.m. — on a sunny day with temperatures in the low 80s. Now, with her pads on, Harris is ready to train with the football team for about four hours. Nagle simply wants 25 kicks from her every day, but during the preseason, Harris decides to stay until practices end at about 8 p.m.
“It’s definitely just to become more part of the team,” Harris said. “Whatever they do, I think I should do because if we’re going to go do 120-yard sprints, I have to be out there doing it, too — because I might just be the kicker, but I’m part of the team.”
Since joining the team, Nagle said Harris hasn’t missed anything. Once the school year starts, Nagle said she can take her 25 kicks each day before or after soccer practice. She can cycle through her routine in 20 minutes.
“The goal is for her not to miss any soccer because that’s her first sport,” Nagle said.
But during the preseason, Harris wanted to work out with the football team as much as possible like she did Aug. 15. When the soccer team took a lunch break earlier that day, Harris recharged with a turkey sandwich. She drank Vitaminwater and stayed hydrated throughout the day, with water coolers and water bottles filled at both practice fields.
Still, when she arrived home the previous night after a 12-hour day, she sat down on her couch right away to unwind.
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to get back up,” Harris said.
Her dedication wasn’t lost on her football teammates.
“She’s one tough woman,” Burkett said. “She’s really tough, and she’s really committed and bought into this.”
As her teammates practice on one side of the field, Harris kicks by herself from the 10-yard line on the other. She connects on four straight field goals, then walks past the uprights and gathers the four footballs in her arms.
She moves back to the 15-yard line and continues her routine.
Three steps back. Two to the left. Kick.
Her teammates and coaches soon make their way down the field for live kicking. She’ll have the threat of players running at her for the first time, increasing the pressure and simulating a game situation. After the first round of kicks, the Eagles move to the edge of Harris’ range. Harris has proven to be consistent inside 35 yards — Roberts will handle any field goal attempts from 35 yards or longer — and she’s even hit some from that distance that sailed another 5-10 yards past the uprights.
“I think that more and more as she gets comfortable with kicking the same way all the time, then the deeper her range will go,” Nagle said last week. “At first, two weeks ago, she was only consistent at 25. Now she’s at 35.”
During the live kicking at practice that day, she misses her first two 34-yard field goal attempts, then prepares for an attempt from about 30 yards.
The ball is snapped. The holder tees it up. Her right foot connects.
“Nice,” the BEA coaches say.