When Nijay Brown stands on the sidelines during one of Eastport-South Manor High School's games, she looks like any other football player. When she trots onto the field, clears her head of nerves and nagging doubts, and kicks, it's not her gender that sets her apart, it's her booming right foot.
"The ball jumps off her foot," Sharks coach Paul Mastronardi said. "I've coached college and this kid can play. This isn't about her being a girl. She is an athlete . . . she is the kicker."
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And she is clutch. On Saturday, she kicked the winning 20-yard field goal in overtime to lead ESM (5-1) over Bellport, after hitting the tying extra point with 27 seconds left in regulation. In her second year on the team, Brown, 16 and a junior, nailed a 30-yard field goal in a 22-18 win over Hauppauge, hit a game-tying extra point with a minute left against Sayville, and kicked the winning extra point with 38 seconds left against Amityville.
She is the only girl to ever score anything other than an extra point on the varsity in Suffolk, according to Newsday records.
The crowd loves her, too. When she comes in to kick, people cheer "Ni-Jay" at a fever pitch. Brown is 12-for-16 in extra-point attempts, and is working to improve her accuracy. "My teammates were all happy," Brown said of her success. "It feels good, though sometimes, I do get nervous."
Her father, Warren Brown, said the feeling is mutual. "Seeing her going out there and kick -- every other aspect of the game is a team effort and not that -- and seeing the pressure, and her being a girl on a boys team, there's the fear of failure," he said. "It's nerve-wracking for me."
Unlike colleges and the NFL, a good high school place-kicker is hard to find. Going into this weekend, just 38 field goals were successfully kicked in 135 Suffolk County public school games, and only 19 were of 30 yards or more. The longest was a 48-yarder by Westhampton's Max Pastor.
Before Brown joined the team in the last three games of the 2012 season, "We had people kicking it all over the place," ESM assistant coach Joe Read said. Brown, who also plays varsity soccer and basketball, "was money," he said.
The Sharks made only one extra point in the first five games last year, and opted for the two-point conversion more times than not. In her first game, Oct. 12, 2012, she was 2-for-2 on extra points and later spent the summer working consistently to up her game, Read said.
That didn't mean the move came with universal acceptance, he added. As a soccer player, Brown was considered an interloper by some teammates, he said. "There was, not animosity, but there are a few kids who can kick on the team, and they're not the kicker," Read said. "Not that they're not complaining, but now they like seeing her out there and they're supporting her."
Joining an all-boys team, "I didn't think it was weird, but I think they [the players] did," Brown said. That's dissipated with every kick she's nailed, Brown said, and she now prefers football game day to soccer. "I want to take it all the way [to college]," she said.
That kind of talent was hard to ignore, and, Nicole Massari, then the soccer coach, was the first to think Brown could hack it on the gridiron.
"She came to us and said she had a girl who kicks the ball a mile and we said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, but can she kick a football?' Read said. "We've had guys come out to kick from the boys soccer team and they stink. . . We saw her kicking, and we were like, 'wow.' "
"She's got a boot," said Joe Pesce, a hulking offensive lineman. "And she works just as hard as us." Running back Cole Zeller added: "She just kicks, man. She just kicks. She comes in, and she does her job."
Becky Thorn, Brown's soccer coach, said she's noticed a shift in perception.
"I think at first, some people were against it a little because she took someone's spot on the [football] team," Thorn said. "But now she's just a team member and a fan favorite."
It helps that Brown gives them an unprecedented luxury, Mastronardi said.
"Whatever it takes to win, she's part of it," he said. "Before, we never felt comfortable kicking the football, and now it feels automatic."