URBANA — There’s no giveaway in the name on the Urbana football roster: Sam Weatherhead.
The uniform number is pretty innocuous: 80.
The pink cleats might raise some eyebrows, though.
The dark hair hanging out the back of the helmet also causes a double-take.
It’s not until the players are leaving McKinley Field, helmet in hands, that the true picture becomes clear.
Sam Weatherhead was given the name Samantha at birth. She will be one of the few females to have earned a varsity letter in football in Champaign-Urbana history.
This wasn’t a move done for publicity. Nor was it about taking a stand for girl power.
It came to fruition because Urbana’s fourth-year football coach, Nathan Watson, was looking to shore up what was a team weakness in previous seasons.
He needed a consistent place-kicker.
The coach still can’t get a 2010 loss to Central out of his mind. The Tigers scored the tying touchdown in the final 21/2 minutes on a run by then-sophomore quarterback Cameron Mammen, but the extra-point kick sailed wide left. In overtime, Central won 12-6.
Watson had Weatherhead in health class when she was a freshman but never considered it a prelude of what would happen prior to her graduation.
He talked to Randy Blackman about the possibility of sharing a kicker from the boys’ soccer team, and senior Miguel Fierro expressed interest.
“We talked logistically about how to make it work,” Watson said. “We knew both of our teams would be pretty good. It didn’t make sense for me to take his captain.
“It would be like me allowing Cameron to run cross-country on Saturday mornings.”
A new challenge
As one door was closed, another was opened.
“I asked if he had a (soccer) girl who could kick,” Watson said.
Weatherhead’s name was mentioned. Watson remembered her from class, knew her personality and thought she’d be a good fit with the team. The coach asked her to attend a one-person tryout last October.
“She made 14 of 15 kicks,” Watson recalled.
That earned her an invitation to join what is one of the school’s most successful football teams in four decades.
“It was a big decision,” Weatherhead said. “I’d never done anything like that.”
Words of encouragement
Weatherhead’s friends had two reactions. Some expressed both feelings.
“They said I was crazy,” she said. “They also said it would be fun.”
The first two people she asked, her parents, were ones whose opinions she valued. “They said, ‘Go for it,’ ” Weatherhead said.
Mom Karen Metz had the expected parental concern.
“We were nervous about her getting hurt,” Metz said, “but thought it was a really cool thing. With her soccer background, we knew she had a strong leg.”
For years, soccer has been Weatherhead’s sport of choice. She has played everywhere. Offense. Defense. Goalkeeper. She liked all the positions, but one aspect stood out.
“Defensively, it was fun when I got to boot the ball,” she said.
That led to the belief she could contribute in football as a kicker.
Reality has given her a different perspective.
“The steps are different, the shape of the ball is different, where I need to kick is different,” Weatherhead said. “A football is more finicky.”
When the extra-point team enters the field, Nick Campbell is the usual long snapper. Dusty Lard is the holder.
Lard is the return man on punts and Watson likes him handling the football.
“He’s pretty sure-handed,” Watson said.
Campbell is a junior whom Watson holds in high regard.
“He’ll be a big part of the team next year,” Watson said.
Lard makes sure the snap isn’t made until Weatherhead is in position.
“We go when she is ready,” he said.
“Dusty looks at me, and I nod my head,” Weatherhead said.
Her best game was against Springfield Lanphier, when she made 4 of 5 conversion attempts. In last week’s regular season finale against Danville, she was 2 for 2.
‘Coming on strong’
For the year, Weatherhead has converted 10 extra points. Watson isn’t concerned what her accuracy rate is for her first season of kicking.
“That’s such a deceptive stat,” he said. “It’s like the quarterback who throws it right on the money but the receiver drops it. It goes down as a quarterback incompletion.
“I can’t think of one she has missed. It was we didn’t block for her, or the snap or the hold. Early on, I was worried, but she is coming on strong. Saturday, we will trust her if we need her.”
Weatherhead is as confident in her teammates as they are in her.
“I don’t worry about a snap being wild,” she said. “I trust both of them. Nothing goes through my mind except the ball going through the uprights.”
Urbana (8-1) will try to extend its eight-game winning streak tonight (7 o’clock) in a first-round Class 5A playoff game against visiting East Peoria (7-2). For the winner, it will be the first postseason triumph.
That’s not extra pressure, Lard said.
“It feeds us and builds energy,” Lard said. “We want to be that team.”
Weatherhead is pleased to be in position to help in that historic venture.
“I’m glad they chose to ask me,” she said. “The team has been great to me and it has been a blast, experiencing things I’d never get to otherwise.”
The entire football program is within reach of an experience that is unprecedented in the lifetime of any current athlete and many of the parents. Urbana last won nine consecutive football games in the same season 48 years ago.
That could change this evening.
According to available information, Urbana’s Sam Weatherhead will be the fourth Champaign-Urbana girl to earn a varsity letter in football. Here’s the club:
NAME SCHOOL POS. YEAR COMMENT
Stephanie Bozada St. Thomas More PK 2004 Scored 16 points as a junior, 13 as a senior
Keona Hornbuckle Centennial OL 1999 Played football all four years
Sam Weatherhead Urbana PK 2012 First-year kicker has 10 conversions
Jasmine White Urbana OL 2010 Starter until sidelined by an ankle injury