Haley Van Voorhis becomes first female non-kicker in NCAA football game

WINCHESTER, Va. — With less than a minute left in the first quarter and Shenandoah University already leading by 26 points, safety Haley Van Voorhis made considerable college football history on a wet and windy Saturday afternoon about 30 miles from her hometown.

When the 5-foot-6, 145-pound junior from The Plains, Va., stepped onto the field on third and long to rush the Juniata quarterback, she became the first woman who was not a kicker or a punter to play in an NCAA football game.

“It’s an amazing thing,” Van Voorhis said after the game. “I just wanted to get out and do my thing. I want to show other people this is what women can do, to show what I can do. It’s a big moment. I made the impossible possible, and I’m excited about that.”

From 2021: She’s aiming to play Division III football this fall — at defensive back

Van Voorhis had waited for more than two years for the opportunity, and when it came, she didn’t disappoint. She entered the game in a special defensive package, and it was her role to push up to the line and blitz the quarterback. She got through and managed to hit Juniata quarterback Calvin German an instant after he had released the ball on what became an incomplete pass.

It happened on a day when an ESPN camera crew was also in attendance in case Van Voorhis got into the Division III game that saw Shenandoah rout Juniata, 48-7, in mostly dreadful conditions, thanks to the outer reaches of Tropical Storm Ophelia.

Up in the stands at Shentel Stadium, university president Tracy Fitzsimmons sat among several hundred waterlogged spectators. Still, she was both soaked and smiling broadly at halftime, clearly thrilled to see Van Voorhis enter the game minutes earlier.

“It’s an extraordinary accomplishment for women everywhere,” said Fitzsimmons, the school’s first female president since it was founded in 1875. “I am so happy for Haley because she’s earned this. We always say we’re a place for opportunity at Shenandoah, and we proved it again today.”

Van Voorhis has been playing against the boys since she joined a coed flag football team in fifth grade. She was the only girl on that team, and she has continued playing a game she has loved from the first day she stepped between the lines.

She also was the first girl to play high school football at Christchurch, a boarding school located about an hour east of Richmond on the shores of the Rappahannock River, where she saw considerable action at wide receiver and defensive back and was named team captain her senior year.

Her high school coach, Edward Homer, once described her as “a badass. She’s not afraid of anything.”

Several Division III schools recruited her, and when Shenandoah offered her a roster spot and a chance to compete for a position, Van Voorhis was all in. Over her first two years, she practiced daily, played in scrimmages and junior varsity games, and over the summer played with the D.C. Divas in a women’s pro league. She was not compensated so she could keep her college eligibility.

Her head coach at Shenandoah, Scott Yoder, has been impressed with Van Voorhis and said he has no qualms about playing her.

“Haley’s been a great teammate,” Yoder said. “She’s quiet and goes about her business. The guys respect her because she shows up and does the work on the field and in the weight room. She’s been a very positive member of our team. She’s very good mentally and understands her role. I have confidence in her that she knows her job and can execute it.”

He also indicated Van Voorhis has a chance to see more playing time in the future and that “her role will grow, definitely.”

Van Voorhis only got into Saturday’s game for one play, but that was thrilling enough for her parents, Chandler and Heidi, who also were in attendance.

“We’re just so happy for her,” her father said. “We know how much she’s put into it and how much it means to her. She’s worked so hard to accomplish her dream. They had told her to be ready to play, but that’s all. She was born ready.”

And what would his daughter’s message be to other young women who also might want to play football?

“I would just say, don’t listen to people who say don’t do it,” Haley Van Voorhis said. “Don’t be scared. Just go at it with everything you can.”

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