Football | Monday, August 20, 2007
Alumni Spotlight: Liz Heaston '99 Gets Kicks in more than One Sport
It started in early September when she ﬁrst stepped into the Coaching Football and Soccer classroom. It culminated in mid October when she kicked her ﬁrst extra point for Willamette University’s football team. Now, 10 years later, she still hasn’t seen the end of it.
She is Elizabeth Heaston Thompson -- the first woman to play and score in a college football game. In 1997, she was a 20-year-old junior from Richland, Wash., who had no idea what to expect when she ﬁrst walked into football coach Dan Hawkins’ class that September. She never in her wildest dreams imagined the gender barrier-breaker she would soon become.
Starting kicker Gordon Thomson was the catalyst. He injured his hip ﬂexor. The backup kicker was a freshman with limited experience, and the men’s soccer players weren’t available because their games were scheduled at the same time as the football games. What was a coach to do?
The answer: the 5-foot-5-inch, 135-pound soccer star sitting right in front of him. Heaston thought Hawkins was joking when he ﬁrst asked her. He wasn’t, and he had no reason to.
Heaston was an NAIA Honorable Mention All-America selection in soccer in 1996 and 1997. She led the team to four conference titles and a 75-11-6 (.848) record from 1995 to 1998. During her senior year, the team reached the NCAA Division III semiﬁnals.
“Liz was one of four players who I have coached over the last 15 years who [signiﬁcantly] helped us continue our success here at Willamette,” women’s soccer coach Jim Tursi said.
The star of the soccer team was soon stopping by the football field to kick field goals. On October 18, 1997, with three weeks of practice under her belt, Hawkins was ready to put her into a conference game against Linfield College. One problem: She had to get to the game first.
Heaston had a soccer match against Linfield at noon at Willamette’s Sparks Field. The football game was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. After the last second ticked off the clock, she rushed off the soccer field into her family van, changing en route while her father drove her to Willamette’s football field. The van pulled up to the edge of field. She hopped out and joined her teammates on the sidelines.
Television crews and reporters lined the track. An over-capacity crowd of 3,600 packed the 2,400-seat McCulloch Stadium. Two of her sorority sisters propped up a sign that read “Sorority girl scores with the team.”
A few minutes later, just short of halftime, Heaston kicked her first extra point. The crowd went wild. Her teammates patted her helmet. She started jogging off the field. Then suddenly everyone started frantically yelling. What was the matter?
A flag lay on the field. Could it be? Could her record-setting moment be naught? The ref announced the penalty: It was against Linfield. Heaston’s place in history was secure. She added one more extra point to her bio in the fourth quarter to secure Willamette’s 27-0 victory.
One week later, #39 played in her second football game. She went 0 for 2 on extra points in a 41-27 victory over Southern Oregon. The Bearcat football team ended the season 13-1 and went undefeated until losing in the NAIA National Championship game to Findlay (Ohio), 14-7. The women’s soccer team also had an outstanding season, finishing 18-3-1 after qualifying for the NAIA Regional Tournament.
Heaston’s feats garnered her an appearance on the Today Show and a call from David Letterman. She was the one who kicked the ball through the goal posts, but she thanked her teammates and the coaching staff for getting her there.
“Everyone was very supportive,” she said. “Having a coaching staff invite you to come out and play is a lot easier. You’re not trying to break through other people’s prejudices. The support was there from the top down.”
What did Heaston learn from her whirlwind semester?
“Don’t be afraid to try anything, especially for women, young girls. Anything is possible,” she said. “You can do whatever you want to do. You just have to try.”
Heaston went on to graduate school to get her doctorate in optometry at Pacific University, where she met her husband, Trent Thompson. She resides in Richland, Wash., with her husband and baby, Isabella. She moonlights as an assistant women’s soccer coach at Richland High School and plays soccer in a non-competitive women’s league.
Now 10 years after her historic accomplishments, she rekindles her football glory days with a steady stream of interviews and finds that her experiences make great party anecdotes. She was someone special on two very special teams. And she was an inspiration to young women to pursue dreams and seek opportunities beyond the normal boundaries they faced.