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Original Issue

Where NFL Dreams Begin

I had a stage dad without the stage. Instead, there was always a field or a track involved whenever he'd get that look in his eyes as he hatched an idea for sure fame that today wouldn't rate a page in the Balloon Boy parenting guide ... though it would be close. He liked to put me in a position of potential glory for me/him by saying, "Hey, did I tell you that I entered you in ..." a three-legged dash (even though I was in an ankle cast), a tennis tournament (after I had one lesson from a drivers-ed teacher) and a neighborhood soapbox derby (during which I lurched into a plastic holiday reindeer in a neighbor's yard). I was conditioned for calamity but not for history when my dad told me, "I've registered you for Punt, Pass & Kick," as he was cleaning a fish on our back deck.

It was 1977. Most women didn't have their own credit cards, and yet I was supposed to go Billie Jean King on a band of sixth-grade boys? I was 11. I didn't even own a bra to burn. "You'll be the only girl," my dad said as motivation when, in fact, I would have rather worn a clown's nose to school than compete against a classmate like Mack McDuffy—coolest boy in the county. A week later I was standing next to him on a YMCA field in Tallahassee, Fla., with a row of footballs on the grass and a tape measure stretched out in the distance. Accuracy in the Punt, Pass & Kick skills competition is as important as distance, the organizers told us as we signed in.

We began with a warmup toss. Mack threw a spiral as tight and straight as a stripe on a skunk. I nearly threw up. Then the organizers made an announcement that filled us with visions of Mean Joe Greene dancing in our heads: The winners would advance to the next round, with an opportunity to compete during halftime of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game. These were the dreadful expansion Bucs, back when coach John McKay was asked about his team's execution and replied, "I'm in favor of it." But who cared? The thought of feeling an NFL field under our Keds with 60,000 fans in the stands was pretty intoxicating. So I ignored the awkwardness of the occasion and punted, passed and kicked against eight boys in an effort that didn't send me to the NFL but made my dad proud. Mack finished first and went on to be a high school quarterback. I finished fifth and went on to cover quarterbacks as a sportswriter.

PPK: It changes lives and forms identities. I think about the event every year around this time when the names of local-round winners pop up in newspapers and blogs. "This gives me a chance to play football without having to deal with any of the contact of playing football," a wise Margaret Kennelly, all of 13, told the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle in October, after she advanced to compete at Ralph Wilson Stadium during a Bills game. The older PPK alumni count the memory of the competition as a keeper. As former Colts running back Joe Washington, 56, recently said in a Baltimore Sun story, "In fourth grade I won a local Punt, Pass & Kick contest. First prize was a Colts jacket. I wore that thing forever and a day. I even wore it to bed. Still have it, too."

There is an enduring quality about PPK that has outlasted pet rocks and dotcom bubbles. It's a staple of nostalgia, along with skipping stones on a lake and catching a frog in a shoe box. It is shtick-free. Not a hysterical commentator on site. It's all about the basics. In the 1970s I practiced for the event by debating an important PPK strategy: kick straight on or try that crazy soccer style that was probably just a trend? (I went with the straight on.) The dream of a perfect, end-over-end kick is also free. There has not been an entry fee for PPK since the program began in 1961, a fact that has helped it become arguably the most successful grassroots program in pro sports. It's accessible to almost everyone and has evolved with the times. At first girls were allowed, just not welcomed. In 1995 Kendra Wecker changed all that. Wecker, who went on to play in the WNBA after hoops success at Kansas State, delivered the NFL a marketing gift it continues to cash in on: At age 12, competing against the boys, Wecker became the first girl to advance to the national finals, setting up a Battle of the Sexes revival that played out on NBC during halftime of an AFC playoff game.

"When you live in a small town," recalls Wecker's mother, Pam, of Marysville, Kans., "you play every sport." Kendra was a natural. She threw a 45-yard pass under pressure, but because of a wayward punt she finished second. A year later, after the Wecker media frenzy, the NFL launched a girls' division that now boasts around a million competitors a year. Women constitute at least 43% of the NFL fan base, according to polls, making Sunday tripleheaders must-see TV for a lot of gals.

Pro basketball has taken note of the NFL's branding machine. This year the NBA and the WNBA unveiled Dribble, Dish & Swish, which sounds a lot like a college drinking game but is actually a skills competition for girls and boys. The winners will advance to compete in Dallas at the NBA's All-Star Jam Session in February, when they can rub elbows with LeBron and feel the spotlight like a pro. PPK has used this lure for decades to reel in young fans who stick around for life and to court starry-eyed parents like my dad who want to know only one thing: How do you enter?

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There is an enduring quality to Punt, Pass & Kick. It is shtick-free, all about the basics and arguably the most successful grassroots program in pro sports.