They cruise down the dusty, open road, the teacher and the pupil, the making of history only months away.
What a pair they are as they roll through the 115-degree heat outside Phoenix on Highway 202, the intense desert sunlight bouncing off the black Mercedes sedan. Together they gaze into the barren landscape dotted with saguaro cacti and mesquite trees, and both see the same vision: a future in which a woman playing Division II football on scholarship is no longer a mirage.
"You are like my second father, and you're a huge reason I'm doing this," says Becca Longo, the pupil, riding shotgun. "You've made this happen."
"What separates you from everyone else is that you stuck with it, even in the hard times," says Alex Zendejas, the teacher and a member of football's most famous kicking family. "You have all the potential in the world. Keep at it, and who knows? Maybe you'll be the first female playing on Sundays."
Close your eyes and imagine that: a woman kicking in the NFL. This is how far the dream now stretches for Longo, 18, who in April became the first female to earn a football scholarship to a Division I or Division II school when she signed with D-II Adams State in Alamosa, Colorado.
About a dozen women have played college football at various levels. In 1997 Liz Heaston became the first female to score in a college football game when she kicked an extra point for Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, then an NAIA school. But it's safe to say that no female kicker has ever possessed the pure ability of the 5'11,'' 145-pound Longo, who has kicked a 50-yard field goal in practice and routinely splits the uprights from 45.
"If you can play football and you have determination, I don't care what your gender is," says Timm Rosenbach, a former NFL quarterback and the head coach at Adams State. "And Becca can play, simple as that. She's got accuracy and she's got a powerful leg, which will only get stronger. We brought her to Adams State for a reason: to compete for a job and help us win football games."
Longo's college career will begin in mid-July when she moves into her dorm room in Alamosa and starts working out with the Grizzlies. It will mark the culmination of an unlikely journey into history, one that began at Queen Creek High in Queen Creek, Arizona.
The kicker is the loneliest player. The female kicker, well, she's as isolated on a football team as a wildflower in the desert.
Here was Longo on a late-summer afternoon in 2014. Kickoff in the season-opening junior varsity game between Queen Creek and Poston Butte High was an hour away.
A sophomore, Longo had put on her pads—she only recently had learned how to do this—and pulled on her No. 28 jersey with her teammates at Queen Creek before boarding the bus to Poston Butte. After arriving there for the first game of her high school career, she sat on a bench and tightened the laces on the soccer cleat on her right foot.
She visualized her kicking process—her approach, her plant foot, her swing-through. And even though the crowd was small, she could hear a hum of expectation. Longo thought she was going to throw up.
She walked out into the warm late-afternoon sun. After only a few steps, a cluster of young girls approached her, asking for pictures, autographs and hugs. Up in the bleachers, dozens of fans pointed at her. "There she is!" one yelled. "That's the girl trying to play football!"
Longo warmed up, drilling extra points and several field goals between 25 and 35 yards. Her father, Bob, who was pacing in the stands, recorded every practice kick with a video camera. He, too, felt the pressure of expectations and felt like he was going to vomit.
Becca, who would handle extra points and field goals for Queen Creek, then retreated to the locker room for a final moment of reflection before kickoff.
The game began. On Queen Creek's second play from scrimmage, a running back busted a 60-yard touchdown run. Longo ran onto the field, her heart thumping. Then she remembered what her personal coach, Zendejas, taught her, his words echoing in her head: Kick like you train. Win the mental battle.
Longo stood next to her holder. She took three steps back, two steps over to her left and bent forward. The ball was snapped. The hold was true. Her legs trembling, Longo took one small step forward—"a stab step" she calls it—then two more and swung her right foot back like a golf club.
She struck the ball perfectly, sending it sailing end over end into the red-orange sky. It floated between the posts. And so began the kicking career of Longo, a woman unlike anyone in the history of football.
• READ MORE: Welcome to the NFL's League of Last Chances
She was a wild child.
When Becca was 18 months old, she slept in a crib in her own upstairs room next to her parents' bedroom. Her mother, Andrea, used reading glasses in the evening, and every night she placed them on her bed stand. Then one morning Andrea discovered that her glasses had been transported downstairs. Same thing happened the next morning. "What's going on?" Andrea asked her husband.
They finally caught the glasses thief red-handed: little Becca. She had climbed out of her crib, snatched the glasses from the table, carried them down the stairs and surreptitiously returned to her crib. "I've got a solution," said Bob, an engineer at Boeing.
That night, using a lace from an old boot, Bob gently tied one of his daughter's legs to the side of the crib. "It was like a handcuff," Bob says now. Yet two nights later, the glasses once again were magically moved in the middle of the night; Becca had slipped out of her shackle.
"That's when we really knew that Becca was a determined little girl," Bob says. "She's a pistol."
When Becca was five, her older brother, Bobby, played defensive end at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California. Bobby was Becca's hero—she mimicked all he did—and the two often played catch in the backyard. Becca never missed one of his games.
Becca was sitting in the stands with her parents one game during that 2004 season when the team's kicker, a young woman named Heidi Garrett, blasted a 48-yard field goal through the uprights—still the national record for the longest high school field goal by a female. At an end-of-the-season team party for players and their families, Becca couldn't stop staring at Heidi, her new hero who practically glowed in the dark to little Becca. She had found her role model.
Bob Longo also was intrigued by this female kicker, but for a different reason. He had seen Heidi and her father, Rance, spend countless hours together on different football fields, the father shagging balls and offering love and support to his daughter. To Bob's eye, the two were a picture of joy.
"I always envied them," Bob says. "They had a great father-daughter relationship. I hoped that one day I'd have the same kind of connection with Becca."
Soon they would.
The Zendejas Detailing shop in Phoenix sits in an industrial park near the airport. Most of the expansive square footage in this warehouse-like structure is devoted to cars, but Alex has partitioned a corner for what he considers his true calling: developing young kickers.
The indoor kicking space features 20-foot ceilings and a kicking net with tape plastered on it in the form of a goal post. The longest field goal a student can attempt is only 20 yards, but distance is not Zendejas' primary focus.
"About 80 percent of kicks are extra points, so we begin by teaching proper form and technique," says Zendejas, who has coached seven All-State kickers in Arizona since 2006 and who has had four family members kick in the NFL. "Kicking is like any other position in football in that it requires work and a tremendous amount of practice."
On a recent May afternoon, Longo strolled into the makeshift indoor kicking field, her long brunette hair pulled into a ponytail, her dark eyes flashing. "Let's do this," she says enthusiastically. "Time to get better."
Longo has an athlete's easy, confident gait. She began playing soccer at nine and was a star shooting guard on her high school basketball team. Sports have always come easy to her.
Now, in the sweltering heat of the Zendejas kicking gym, Longo stretches for 10 minutes while listening to the counsel of Zendejas and his son Alex Jr., who kicked for Arizona from 2008 to 2011. She then began to kick as Alex Sr. and Alex Jr. watched intently with their arms folded.
Over 30 minutes, she struck about 40 balls and split the bars on about 90 percent of them. At one point, Longo made 19 straight. The power and lift she generated on her kicks were staggering.
"The first thing I had to teach Becca was that hitting a football is different than striking a soccer ball," says the elder Zendejas. "You aim for the same sweet spot, but the momentum of the leg is different. In soccer you go straight through the ball. In football, you've got to let the leg go as you hit it and let it whip through the ball."
In high school Longo used a 2-inch tee, but in college she'll kick off the ground, which she's now been practicing for six months. "It only took her one week to adjust," says Zendejas, shaking his head in disbelief. "It's rare for a kicker to adjust so fast. But that just shows you that Becca is different—very different."
It all began on an ordinary school day in the spring of 2014. Longo was walking from one class to another at Queen Creek High when she looked out a window and saw several freshman boys on the football field. "I'm going to play football," she casually told a friend.
After class Longo marched out to play with the boys. One challenged her to kick a ball. She lined up, strode forward and—wham!—sent the pigskin rocketing into orbit. The boys (and even Longo herself) were shocked at how far it flew.
That night Longo told her dad she was interested in becoming a kicker.
About a week later, Bob and Andrea drove their daughter to a kicking camp hosted by the Arizona Cardinals at Gilbert Christian High, about 20 minutes from Queen Creek. Becca was raw as she kicked in front of the likes of Nick Lowery, Mike Vanderjagt and Chandler Catanzaro, but she flashed so much potential that a few coaches and former NFL players handed their business cards to Bob, telling him that they could mold his daughter into something special. Bob eventually spoke to Alex Zendejas and asked him if he'd coach his daughter.
"I need to work her out," Zendejas told Bob. "I need to see how badly she wants it."
They met a few days later in a parking lot next to the football field at Queen Creek High. Zendejas eyed Longo as she stepped out of a car. "My first impression was that she was athletic and strong and tall," Zendejas says.
The teacher then quizzed Longo about her goals, wanting to know if she was serious about learning how to kick. "I'm strong-willed; trust me," Longo told Zendejas. "This is something I'm going to stick with."
They walked onto the field as twilight settled over the desert, Zendejas lugging a bag of balls over his shoulder. He had Longo run two laps and led her through a series of stretches. Then he asked her to go through her kicking motion without striking a ball.
After her first imaginary kick, Zendejas remember saying, "Wow, look at that swing. Her leg goes so high and she's got natural flexibility. We may have something here.''
Longo's first attempt was a 30-yard field goal: She swept through it perfectly—she knew instantly the kick was pure—and the ball easily cleaved the uprights. With her father shagging, Longo kicked about 30 footballs that evening and connected on 80 percent of her tries.
The next day Longo walked into the office of Paul Reynolds, the athletic director at Queen Creek High. She sat down in a chair, locked eyes with the A.D., held her chin high, smiled and said: "I want to play football. I want to kick."
"Well," Reynolds replied, a bit in shock, "I guess you should go for it and try out for the team."
And she did. In her first season of kicking on junior varsity, Longo made 30 of 33 point-after attempts and was four-of-four on field goals, with a long of 30 yards.
Day by day, kick by kick, her leg was growing stronger—and so was her confidence.
Alex Zendejas Jr. knows the struggle better than most.
In 2009 Zendejas, then a sophomore at Arizona, booted a 32-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Wildcats to a 20-17 victory over archrival Arizona State. The next year in the game known as the Territorial Cup, Zendejas had a chance to win it with 27 seconds left and the score tied at 20. Alas, an Arizona State defender blocked the extra point.
In double overtime, Arizona trailed 30-29 when Zendejas trotted onto the field for another extra-point attempt. He says now that he couldn't shake the earlier miss from his thoughts. "I questioned everything when I shouldn't have questioned anything," he says.
The kick was blocked. The game was lost.
Zendejas was despondent. For days he moved about in a daze, as fellow students heckled him in classes, taunted him in restaurants and even tried to start fights with him.
"I learned a valuable lesson," Zendejas says. "Kicking isn't about all the makes; it's about how you respond to the misses. This is what I tell Becca. She's going to confront difficult times. How she responds will define her. But she's ready. She's ready for anything."
At the end of the practice session inside the Zendejas training facility, Longo hangs on the words of Alex Jr. like a worshiper to clergy. He is her de facto mental coach, and she vows to keep his wisdom fresh in her mind as she begins her college career.
"I've heard people say that I'm just a publicity stunt, that I don't deserve this chance," Longo says. "I don't let that bother me. I just need to stay true to who I am—and stay true to what I've learned and keep improving—and I'll be just fine. I really believe that. I really do."
Longo transferred to Basha High before her junior year for "social reasons," she says. This forced her to sit out that football season.
But she still kicked. One evening in the summer of 2015 at a local park, with her father fetching balls, she drilled a 50-yarder, her career long in practice.
She joined the Basha varsity football team for the 2016 season. In one early-season game a player from Pinnacle High bumped into Longo after an extra point. She promptly pushed him back—an act that further endeared her to her teammates.
"The players embraced Becca from the first day of practice because they saw two things: one, she's good; and two, she's an athlete," says Gerald Todd, the former head coach at Basha.
Last season, Longo connected on 33 of 38 extra-point attempts—"The five misses were all blocks by guys coming around the ends," says Bob Longo—and made her only field-goal attempt from 30 yards. During the season she created a highlight video and sent it to 10 schools, including Adams State.
"I had heard of Becca because of the simple fact that she was a girl playing football, and I recruit the Phoenix area," says Josh Blankenship, the offensive coordinator at Adams State. "I met her at her school and was blown away by her poise, her confidence and her desire. I immediately thought, ‘This is a player we can work with.'"
Bob Longo researched the Adams State coaches as much as the coaching staff dug into the background of his daughter. Bob wanted Becca to play for a coach who could empathize with her unique situation. "I wanted her to be coached by someone who had daughters," Bob says. "Coach Rosenbach has two great daughters. That sold me."
The Longos visited Adams State in February. At Division II schools, coaches are allowed to work out players during their official visits, so on a frigid, wintry afternoon Longo, several Adams State coaches, a snapper and a holder walked into Rex Stadium for what essentially was a tryout.
She made her first kick from 20 yards. Then she backed up five yards for another kick, then five yards for another kick, and so on, moving at the varying distances from the left hash mark to the right. Swinging her leg in the cold for the first time, she made all but two of her attempts.
"She crushed it," says Blankenship. "Our special teams coordinator thought she was extremely consistent and had a surprisingly strong leg. Her only flaw was that she was a little slow on her steps, but that's the most easily correctable thing for a kicker."
After accepting a scholarship, Longo returned to Alamosa in April to watch the Adams State spring game, taking in the action from the sideline. After the final whistle blew, Rosenbach gathered the team at midfield, where he introduced Longo to the players.
"Becca is a football player. That's it," Rosenbach told his squad. "You will treat her like any other teammate and welcome her onto our team."
Just then, in the middle of the field, several players approached Longo and exchanged high-fives with her.
It may have been the sweetest moment of her young football life.
It is early evening, and Longo's last day of high school is only hours away. She is riding shotgun with her dad in his 2016 GMC Terrain, passing the park in Queen Creek where the two spent so many hours together kicking, retrieving and dreaming.
"I'm not sad that high school is over," Becca tells her father. "I'm just happy and excited for the future. Who knows what will happen?"
Bob shares a story about Becca's delivering when it matters most. This past February she was picked out of the crowd at a high school state tournament basketball game to shoot a free throw between quarters. If she drained it, she was told, she could eat free fried chicken once a week for a year at Raising Cane's, a fast-food chain.
What happened? Becca grabbed a basketball and strolled to the free-throw line, that devilish smirk illuminating her face. Displaying textbook form, she arced a shot—it splashed nothing but net. "I don't get nervous," Becca says in the car. "But I can't eat that chicken anymore."
Bob and Andrea purchased an $80,000 RV this spring. They plan to hit the road in the autumn to watch their daughter kick her way into history in stadiums across the country. "Becca has come so far," Bob says from behind the wheel. "But her story is just beginning."
Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including The Mannings, The Storm and the Tide and Carlisle vs. Army. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71.