The first time Cayleigh Kunnmann wore her Bay Shore High School football jersey to school, she was asked if it was her boyfriend’s.
“It was a little awkward,” she said, laughing. “It’s like, ‘No, it’s mine.’ ”
The Marauders wear their uniform tops on Fridays, and the No. 36 indeed belongs to Kunnmann.
But if there was any confusion remaining, it was obliterated on Saturday afternoon, when Kunnmann, a varsity linebacker, trotted onto the field in the fourth quarter of Bay Shore’s 34-0 win at Central Islip. Hair knotted up and tucked under her helmet, she took her place on the field, played four downs and took a booming hit.
“I was kinda blindsided, but it’s all right . . . I’m used to getting hit.
“It’s a huge adrenaline rush,” she said. “It’s so much fun and it’s not as scary as you think. . . . It’s cool to be out there with my teammates and get to experience that because a lot of people don’t.”
She didn’t look that worse for wear after the hit, and when she came back to the sideline she was greeted by the hoots and hollers of her teammates. “She’s a special, special girl,” coach Craig Blatter said.
Kunnmann is one of three girls playing on Long Island varsity football teams. There’s Hannah Martin, who kicked an extra point in Patchogue-Medford’s 42-13 loss Saturday to Sachem East, and Megan Benzing, a backup placekicker for Mepham, who traded in her pom-poms for a football helmet.
Where Kunnmann does distinguish herself, though, is that she plays a contact position. According to Newsday records, she is only the second girl to do so in a Long Island varsity football game. The first was Melissa Cortes, who played the line for Longwood in 2001.
Kunnmann joined her middle school team in eighth grade — walking in the steps of her brother, Patrick, who was two-time All-Division and graduated in 2001. At the time, she said, she weighed 240 pounds, “so I had nothing to worry about.” She began to weight train and lift heavy — her dead lift is 455 pounds, said her dad, Rick — and is now 5-9, 165 pounds, all muscle.
“In the end, it’s obviously scary for me for the same reasons it would be scary for any other guy,” she said. “Anyone that’s back in that position, they know that sometimes there’s going to be a 300-pound lineman coming at you and that’s scary, but it happens. That’s football.”
Added Rick: “I’m very proud of these girls, because it takes a lot of guts to do that. You need to have heart. That’s exactly what it takes, is guts, because you’ve got to be special to want to play football.”
Decided she would rather play than cheer
Hannah Martin said she is known for starting things and not finishing them. But football is different.
She had quit soccer — a striker, she was good enough that she even worked with a trainer to improve her kicking — and had grown weary of cross country.
Megan Benzing left something, too: She was a cheerleader on the junior varsity before she decided it might be a little bit more fun to be on the other side of things. She still plays soccer with her travel team.
Martin, a junior, has 11 extra points and four field goals. Her longest was 34 yards, and it came on a windy, rainy night at Walt Whitman High School, a 34-13 loss.
Benzing, a junior, has converted both her extra-point attempts this year. She plays behind Kevin McCleneghan but hopes to get more opportunities.
“In ninth grade, I was a cheerleader on JV and I would watch all the JV games . . . and all my life I’ve played soccer, so I figured, let me try to play the game instead of just cheering,” she said. “Even though I love cheer, I’d rather play the game.”
Martin’s road to the Patchogue-Medford football team began in the schoolyard, when she was kicking with a group of guys during gym class. Her teacher took note, said she had ability, and told her to try out for the team. When she told the story to her family later that night, “they were all just laughing — ‘Oh, no way. No way,’ ” she said.
But something stuck in Martin’s mind, and before she knew it, she was telling her parents about her new plan.
“So my dad said if you really want to do it, you have to put 100 percent in. If you’re going to do it, you have to give it all your work and all your time. There’s no ifs or buts — if you start it, you’re going to finish this.”
She spoke to Raiders coach Gary Marangi and worked tirelessly, joining the junior varsity her sophomore year. Martin played her first varsity game on Sept. 10 against Brentwood, and in the third quarter, nursing a seven-point lead, Patchogue-Medford needed a field goal.
“I had never kicked a field goal on JV,” she said, running through her thought process at the time: “Like, ‘What’s happening? OK. Stay calm!’ ”
“It was 31 yards. I put my block down, I set up from the right hash [mark], and I said, ‘OK. I got this.’ I took my steps and the whistle blew. I look up and it’s in. It’s going in! It went in! I turn and I’m looking at the sideline and I see my coach going crazy. I ran over and he gave me a big hug. I see my dad and he was just so excited up in the stands — he was so excited — and it made me so happy. . . . It is the best feeling you can ever have.”
Taking hits and getting back up
Though Kunnmann’s extensive weight training and lower-body strength helps her stack up with her fellow second-string linebackers, the rigors of her position are admittedly brutal.
The intricacies certainly weren’t lost on John Murphy, who coached Cortes — a player whom he now views as a trailblazer. “No one knew how to deal with it, really,” he said. “She started as a running back [before moving to the line] and she was getting killed in scrimmages but she didn’t care. She was as tough as they come. . . . The toughest person on the team.”
In the end, Cortes became a lineman, played in varsity games, earned the respect of her teammates and won Longwood’s coveted Bulldog Award, given to the most hard-nosed player on the team, Murphy said. The girls playing now seem to have a similar spirit.
Kunnmann has been hit plenty in practice; she’s sometimes a running back there, too.
Martin recalled a memorable hit. “The snap was wide and my holder couldn’t get it down,” she said. “I went to go block for him and I got hit by one of the outside guys. It wasn’t that bad. I got back up. Anything to help the team.”
Benzing, too, has been knocked to the turf: “For JV, it was a scrimmage. The first time I went in, they tackled me . . . I didn’t realize I was actually tackled until I was getting up.”
“I was just focusing on if I actually got [the kick] in, which I did.”
It’s all part of the game, Kunnmann said. Other than the locker rooms — the girls don’t change with the boys — it’s the same experience and the same game, no matter the gender.
None of the three have any intention of stopping, though Kunnmann and Martin did agree that yes, summer two-a-days are a special sort of hell.
“It’s tough,” Kunnmann said, “but it’s worth it.”