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Today's Tidbit: The Kicking Women Of 1937
American University in Washington, D.C., has a football history, but not much of one. They fielded teams from 1925 to 1941, dropped the sport due to WWII, and never brought it back. With good reason. They went 24-67-6 during its time with their 1926 record of 4-3-1 marking their only winning season. Two years later, they played and lost four games in four weeks to Gettysburg College 81-0, Catholic University 69-0, St. John's University 63-0, and Gallaudet University 37-7.
Trying to make a go of it in 1937, American hired Gus Welch as its coach. Welch was Carlisle's quarterback during the Thorpe era and made the 1912 Olympic team but did not compete due to illness. Welch then played pro football in Canton for five years before entering coaching. He did pretty well at Washington State but not so much at Randolph-Macon, Haskell, and his two years coaching American.
Besides losing a lot, the American team struggled for attention, with Welch claiming:
The only way for us to get a crowd is to play at the half of a Redskin game.
Morse, Ben, 'Thoroughly Defeated, Hopelessly in Debt and Utterly Ignored," Eagle, December 13, 2021.
So, sometime in mid-October, during Welch's first season leading the American Eagles, word spread of Welch’s plans to use a "coed" as the team's kicker. The young woman supposedly kicked barefoot and was good from 30 yards out. Others called the barefoot kicker a phantom since Welch had not yet held tryouts.
Still, Welch claimed his wonder kicker would appear versus William & Mary, but she didn't. The same was true for the homecoming game against Randolph-Macon. Still, Welch maintained she would soon surprise the many skeptics. As he argued:
I am doing this only to prove my long-contended theory that a girl can be trained to kick accurately, if not more accurately than a boy. Girls have more grace, precision, and rhythm, all of which tend toward accurate kicking, than the average boy.
'Coeds Besiege Coach For Chance To Kick Extra Point,' Evening News (Harrisburg, PA), October 26, 1937.
The first evidence that the scheme might be authentic was a wire service photo showing Welch holding a phantom ball as an unidentified woman wearing a skirt kicked an invisible ball.
Then, just as it appeared Welch was ready to move ahead with the coed kicker, the American University faculty voted against allowing women to participate in football, and the phantom disappeared.
All was not lost, however, since the same day news broke of the faculty vote, another story came out about Mabel Smith, who was practicing place kicking at Tuskegee. Coach Cleve L. Abbott announced he would use Smith on PATs against Alabama State in their annual Thanksgiving game. Unlike the American U. phantom, Smith was real. and she showed up on the field on Thanksgiving Day. However, she was on the field for a pre-game ceremony honoring the Tuskegee women's track team for winning the 1937 AAU Track Championship when Smith placed second in the long jump and the 4 x 100-meter relay team.
Although she placed second in 1937, Smith won the long jump competition at the 1936 AAU meet, setting the American record at 17 feet 9 inches, a record that held until the 1960s. The 1936 meet also served as the qualifier for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Unfortunately, while Jesse Owens won gold on the men's side in Berlin, the Olympics did not include the women's long jump until 1948, so Smith did not go to Berlin.
Mabel Smith also never attempted a PAT during the Alabama State game, as the coach opted to have the team captain and halfback kick both PATs in a 14-0 win.
Still, Smith kicked butt in life, earning graduate degrees at Atlanta University and the University of California before a long career on the faculty of Texas Southern.
Here’s to you, Mabel Smith!
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