Scrolling through the rosters of the Division III (DIII) football teams last season, there is something different about Willamette’s lineup. Placed at the top of the list, because of the number one on the back of her jersey, is Kaylyn Stirton (‘19), the only woman in the nation who played on a DIII football team in the 2018 season.
While Stirton originally came to campus to play on the soccer team, she ended up making history as a placekicker on the football team. She is the first woman from Willamette to make a successful field goal, and one of the few in DIII history, as reported by Willamette’s Assistant Athletics Director Robert McKinney. She is also “first place on Willamette’s all-time list for women’s scoring on the football team with seven points,” also reported by McKinney.
Football has always been an active part of Stirton’s life, as growing up she watched it with her father while cheering on opposing teams. However, she never thought about playing it until she found herself in the vicinity of a goalpost one day and decided to give kicking a try. On her first kick, the ball went straight through the center, and her interest was sparked.
Her senior year of high school, she decided to go out for the team, a task that proved not be as simple or straightforward as the try-out process was for male athletes.
Recounting her first attempt to get on the team, Stirton commented, “I told the coach, ‘I am just another student here who loves football, and I have always wanted to play, and if you can just give me the chance, I hope I can prove to you I deserve to be on the team just as much as any of the guys out here.’”
Even though the coach said no, she showed up to the open spring trainings every day at 4 a.m. and kept showing up, even when the coach questioned her presence. Finally, her persistence and raw talent earned her a place on the team and a first pick of her number.
Recognizing how differently she had been treated because of her gender and how that could continue, she recounted saying to her coach, “you treat me like any other player… I don’t want to be singled out, you run me like you run them, you talk to me like you talk to them, however you want to do it. Because this is your team, you run it how you want and I just want to be a part of it.’”
Stirton gave the approximately 3,000 people in Cottonwood, CA something special to watch. They started to build traditions around her presence on the team. “On our scoreboard, every time I went for kick off, it would say Kay Can Kick,” recalled Stirton.
At first, being on a football team was just another sport to add to her long list and a way to use her athleticism. She started to realize her presence on the team meant more by the reactions of younger girls interested in the sport.
“I actually had a professor come up to me who wanted to have my picture signed for a little girl who is on a football team, and just kind of needed some encouragement to pursue something she loved… to be able to help little girls do what they want to do and pursue their dreams, I love it.” She said.
Stirton also remembers a game where it was a young girl’s birthday wish to go and watch her play. After the game, they took pictures together. This interaction showed Stirton that she doing something more impactful than just being another athlete out on the field doing what she loved. To these girls, she was a role model that they could connect with, look up to and see that their dreams to play in this male-dominated sport could be possible.
Stirton found a comfortable and welcoming home in the Willamette football team. The team and coaches became a second family to her. “With the coaches, it was really awesome to have more dad-like figures so support you and encourage you,” she said.
One of her coaches, Nicholas Sciacqua, worked closely with her in the 2018 season. “Attitude wise, she is a fighter for sure. That is one of the things when you think of Kay, that’s what everyone would say,” Sciacqua said.
On coaching Stirton, Sciacqua explained, “The thing we focused on more was the mental side of it. Just being confident in herself while kicking… A lot of it became me trying to find ways to help her mentally focus on small objectives and getting that down rather than the full picture and getting overwhelmed.”
‘Fighter’ seems to explain Stirton in her whole journey with football, from her success in getting on her high school’s team to returning to the field after her fourth hip surgery.
Her perseverance and positive attitude through it all impacted the rest of the team. “You could always hear her screaming on the sidelines and trying to encourage us no matter what the circumstances were in a game,” Sciacqua said.
While Stirton has finished her time on the Willamette football team, her spirit has left an impact on the people she worked with and her performance a mark on the record books.