CHAMPAIGN — Janet Rayfield was 11 years old when Title IX of the Education Amendments became the law of the land in 1972.
She was still one year away from playing soccer for the first time. Seven years away from becoming a member of the first varsity women's soccer team at the University of North Carolina. And 18 years away from entering the college coaching profession.
The preteen from Dallas certainly could not then have known, but her future already was being set in motion by Title IX — legislation outlawing gender discrimination in any education program or activity that received federal funds.
Now, 40 years later, the 11th-year University of Illinois women's soccer coach fully recognizes how Title IX played a prominent role in shaping her life — educationally, athletically and professionally — with its door-opening opportunities.
"The time I remember Title IX really was at the collegiate level," Rayfield said. "That was a big buzz in terms of opportunities for women and being treated equally and having facilities.
"My soccer career probably would have ended after high school if it weren't for Title IX and the growth of women's soccer as a sport. It really propelled me in certain directions in my life that have brought me to where I am now."
Most certainly, where she is now must be regarded as a good place. Rayfield is the reigning Big Ten Conference and Great Lakes Region Coach of the Year in her sport after guiding the 2011 Illini to a school-record 17 victories and the program's second conference tournament title.
Next month, she'll resume a long-standing connection with USA Soccer by serving as an assistant coach for the American team entered in the Under-20 Women's World Cup in Japan.
Like Rayfield's own journey, Title IX needed time to build its momentum. Most widely known for its impact on women's athletics, the legislation did not immediately transform the high school and college sports landscape. When Rayfield started her college soccer career in 1979, there were fewer than 20 varsity women's programs in the nation. In 2011, 317 NCAA schools had Division I women's soccer teams.
Rayfield likens the impact of Title IX to an initial ripple that through the decades grew into wave after ever-strengthening wave, ultimately carrying girls' and women's athletics into the mainstream of American sports.
"I happened to catch the wave at the right time," she said. "Soccer was the (nation's) fastest growing sport and the fastest growing collegiate sport because of Title IX."
Rayfield attended religious-based private schools while growing up, including Ursuline Academy of Dallas. The all-girls high school offered a few sports, including volleyball, which Rayfield played for three seasons.
"Between (lack of) height and lack of vertical jump, that was not going to be my sport," she said.
Soccer was different. The Texas native and her siblings, encouraged by their father, embraced the sport. And even though neither Ursuline nor Dallas public schools offered the sport, club programs had sprung up by then — fueled by an influx of soccer-loving international skilled workers drawn to the burgeoning high-tech industries in Dallas.
Like the passage of Title IX, it was one of those fortunate confluences of opportunity at just the right time in Rayfield's life.
"I think if I had grown up in another part of the country, I don't know if soccer is something I would have done," she said.
Even so, Rayfield's connection to the sport — and the direction it would take her later in life — might have ended if not for Title IX. After graduating from Ursuline in 1979, she was accepted to Regis College, a small Roman Catholic school in Denver. With no women's soccer team there, Rayfield was resigned to trying out for the volleyball team.
Then a chance meeting between her club coach and Anson Dorrance, who had been charged with starting a varsity women's soccer program at North Carolina, changed everything. After looking into Rayfield's soccer background, Dorrance offered her the opportunity to be part of the inaugural Tar Heels team.
"This is something I'll regret if I don't give it a shot," she decided.
There were no scholarships. That wouldn't come until the second year, when Rayfield received room and board. With so few other colleges fielding varsity teams, the first Tar Heel schedule consisted almost solely of club teams. UNC's only two losses that season came against an opponent with the intriguing name of the McLean Grasshoppers.
"We would scrimmage those youth club teams and then try to get the best players from those teams to join us the next year," Rayfield said.
What the fledgling program did have, however, was facilities. With a men's soccer team already in place, the women shared practice and game fields with their male counterparts. The teams even sometimes traveled together for road games.
The Tar Heels also had Dorrance, who would build the women's soccer program into a powerhouse. Now approaching his 34th season, he has guided the UNC women to 21 national titles (20 in the NCAA) and an overall record of 728-44-26.
Rayfield was one of three recruited players on that first team, the rest of the roster filled in by members of the campus club team that had lobbied hard for varsity status.
"She was not just a great player for me; she was a wonderful leader," Dorrance said. "She was my first recruit and helped me build what ended up being an extraordinary program."
Dorrance's recruiting efforts kicked into full gear and produced his first sizeable freshman class in Year 3. Rayfield — as team captain — was thrust into the middle of potentially uncomfortable roster transition as former club players were relegated to the bench, displaced by more talented recruits.
"Janet managed that transition," Dorrance said. "She had to have her feet in both camps as my captain."
Rayfield did far more than keep the peace for the start-up program. In four years, she racked up 93 goals — still the No. 2 total in Tar Heels history — and 223 career points.
"Her first job as my top recruit was to lead by example," Dorrance said. "She was a great goal scorer and extremely smart tactically and very coachable."
With the talent surrounding Rayfield greatly upgraded by her junior year, the Tar Heels emerged as a national force. In 1981, UNC went 23-0 and won the first national championship tournament ever staged in women's collegiate soccer — an event sponsored by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).
"It was a huge step between my sophomore and junior year in terms of the credibility of the program," Rayfield said. "We won the first national tournament my junior year, and women's soccer really took on an official collegiate sports role in the fall of 1981."
One year later, the NCAA staged its first women's soccer national tournament. Again, the Tar Heels took home a first-place trophy.
UNC women's soccer had brand recognition, and 1981 Nike National Player of the Year Rayfield was as closely identified with that success as anyone in the program.
"Without playing college soccer at Carolina and Anson and those national championships, my soccer career doesn't even take off in the direction that it's taken off," she said.
Armed with a degree in mathematical sciences upon graduating in the spring of 1983, Rayfield returned to Dallas. Her soccer background — there's that Title IX influence again — helped her land a job as a software engineer.
When contacted by a local youth soccer club about coaching an under-12 team, Rayfield explained that what she really needed was a full-time job. The caller happened to be employed in the high-tech industry and helped her land interviews with two companies. Both offered, and she went to work for E-Systems.
Rayfield also accepted that offer from Texas Spirit Soccer Club, where she coached for about seven years. The software work remained satisfying, but the pull of her favorite sport grew stronger with each passing year.
"I liked the job, but there were other things out there that I really had a passion for," Rayfield said.
Around that time, her mother died, prompting Rayfield to further re-examine her career path.
"Life can be short," she thought, "and I probably should look to see if those things are out there."
In 1990, Rayfield made a fateful move, enrolling in graduate school at Arkansas and joining Marcia McDermott's women's soccer staff as a graduate assistant. Coaching has been her vocation ever since, including a total of 16 seasons as a collegiate head coach at Arkansas and Illinois.
From the moment Rayfield was reunited with college soccer in Fayetteville, Ark., it was apparent to her that Title IX was continuing to do its intended mission. More schools were adding women's soccer programs. Budgets were continuing to increase. And women who were on the front lines as players back in the '70s were now on the practice fields, coaching new generations of athletes.
"You saw those blossoming of opportunities that I was able to take advantage of, very similar to what had happen in '79," Rayfield said. "People were looking for female coaches."
But Title IX's impact shouldn't be measured only by athletic and coaching opportunities it has provided to girls and women over four decades, Rayfield says. Her view is that whatever career direction the daughters of Title IX ended up taking, they were better prepared to meet the challenges and the competition in their chosen field because of their backgrounds in athletics.
"It's not just the Mias (Hamm) and the Brandis (Chastain)," Rayfield said, citing two of women's soccer's most recognizable and successful athletes. "There are a lot of other women drawing on their experience as an athlete to survive in a competitive world.
"I think Title IX has helped women in the world at large because it's given them the same experiences in leadership and success and failure that all their male counterparts have had for so long. It gave them a skill set to be successful in the business world and the other worlds beyond."