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Phillip Tutor: She kicked for JSU, and did it well

Ashley Martin

Ashley Martin, center, is shown back in the day with a couple of her Jacksonville State University football teammates.

Ashley Cockrell calls it “one of my favorite dinner-party tricks,” which sounds a trifle naughty but that’s not the case. Innocent as it is, it involves a football and a bit of wine and a reminder that it’s not wise to poke the bear.

Inevitably, Cockrell says, the wine will work its magic and a guest will commit the fatal mistake of betting she can’t still kick a football. Trash talk over dessert. That’s when Cockrell orders her guests to the front yard.

Game on, suckers.  

“My son knows the drill,” she says. “He goes and gets the football, and he has to hold it, and my husband is embarrassed and is like, ‘Oh, my gosh, why do y’all do this?’”

Why? Because Cockrell, a former soccer standout at Jacksonville State, is one of only a handful of women who have played and scored in a college football game. A Cockrell-kicked football and her cleats are in the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. Don’t minimize her street cred. 

Long before Sarah Fuller kicked and scored this fall for Vanderbilt, Cockrell — then Ashley Martin — became the first woman to play and score in an NCAA Division I game when she kicked four extra points for JSU’s 2001 team, including three in its season-opener against Cumberland University.

Before that night, only one woman had kicked and scored at a four-year university: Liz Heaston of NAIA Willamette (Ore.) University in 1997. Others have followed: New Mexico kicker Katie Hnida, the first to score in a DI Football Bowl Series game (in 2003), and Kent State’s April Goss (in 2015). 

Fuller is the first woman to kick and score for one of the FBS’ Power 5 conference teams that occupy the game’s loftiest spaces. But Cockrell’s place is nonetheless secure, though it was all a blur.

“I’m not even sure I realized the magnitude of what that was,” says Cockrell, now a 40-year-old mom of three who is dean of students at Hillcrest Elementary in Lake Wales, Fla. “I’m not even sure I knew that was historic.”

And yet it was, which is why Cockrell is embedded in Gamecock lore.

Remember how it transpired. JSU’s football coaches in 2001 had a roster lacking in kicking depth, and they viewed Cockrell — who had kicked for her high school team in Georgia — as a possible option. The chore was convincing her and her soccer coach that they weren’t orchestrating a publicity stunt, that they were sincere.

Cockrell knew how athletes thought, how they protected their teammates and were wary of locker-room outsiders. She told JSU football coach Jack Crowe, “It’s not so much if I’m interested, but is this something the guys would be OK with, because that could be very destructive. It has to be their idea. It’s a huge gamble. It could go either way.”

Crowe spoke to his captains and seniors. Thumbs up, all around.

In August, the football and soccer teams each held twice-a-day workouts, and Cockrell practiced four times a day in the Alabama heat. Football in the morning. Then soccer. Then more soccer. And then football at night. Only when JSU trainers “put their foot down” did she jettison that craziness.

She was issued jersey No. 89. Gender separated her from her teammates, a difference unmistakable, but that’s where it ended. The one exception was road trips, where she didn’t have a roommate. “I felt just as much a part of that team as anyone else,” she said. “It wasn’t a thing, it just wasn’t.”

Except it was a thing. In New York City she appeared on “Regis and Kelly,” “Late Night With David Letterman” and “Good Morning America.” Cockrell and her mom shopped in Manhattan and caught a play by sneaking away from the Alabama State Trooper assigned to shepherd their trip. In Jacksonville someone sold T-shirts commemorating her accomplishment.  

Her first football game, the night she kicked three extra points, took place on a Thursday. She joined her soccer teammates two days later for a game in Cape Girardeau, Mo., a portent of how the fall would go. Three months later her intertwined seasons were complete. She’d led JSU’s soccer team in scoring. She’d kicked four extra points for the football team.

It’s not those kicks she remembers. 

She cries when she watches video of herself, in jersey No. 89, just another player in Gamecock red.

“I cry every time. It’s ridiculous,” she says. “It was so special, I’m going to cry right now talking about it. I wished there was a way to make people understand that part of it.”

She cries because there was so much that ushered her to that moment.

She cries for the people and parents and coaches and teammates, perhaps, even, for the doubters and haters who said she couldn’t.  

She cries because she thinks of “a lot of mommas” who taught their sons to respect teammates as people, not as differences in gender.

And yes, she’s inspired by Sarah Fuller, the latest of these remarkable women. But up on a shelf in Cockrell’s home is her JSU football helmet, which she puts on “when the kids are bad” and she needs to get their attention.

It’s there for a reason.

“I don’t see myself as a colleague of those girls that played football,” she said. “I see myself as a colleague of the boys who were on that team and the men who allowed me that opportunity to be on that team.”

 

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.