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Her best foot forward: Gregg making history at CCHS

©2013 NPT PHOTO BY CHRIS TAYLOR
Published: 12:42 AM, 09/21/2013 Last updated: 1:19 AM, 09/21/2013
 

Author: Seth Butler
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

Cocke County High School senior Mckenzie Gregg isn't your ordinary teenager. In fact, doing the extraordinary has almost become ordinary for Gregg.

So it's no surprise she finds herself donning a high school football uniform her senior year.

Gregg, a highly sought after college soccer recruit, has done so this fall and made her mark on the Fighting Cocks football season and etched her name into school history in the process. She handles all place kicking duties for the football team and by making her first extra point of the season on September 6, she became the first female to score points for the Fighting Cocks.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind for Gregg, who added football to an already busy schedule filled with education and soccer. Even with the opportunity to make history or grab attention by being a female football player, the newest CCHS gridiron star suits up every Friday to help her own school try to win a game.

"Of course, it's special (to make history), everybody dreams of doing something different that nobody else has done before," Gregg said. "But I'm just blessed to do it, it's not about the glory to myself.

"I'm just there to help the team, not for my own self-esteem," Gregg said.

Earning her way onto the football roster has been two years in the making for Gregg, and almost didn't come to fruition. Gregg, a Newport-native, spent her first two years of high school playing soccer for Berean Christian in Knoxville, before transferring to CCHS for her junior season. She attempted to kick for the football team last fall, but was ruled ineligible under the TSSAA transfer rule.

Football then almost became an afterthought, as she focused more on her soccer career as the recruiting game increased in intensity.

That all changed just weeks prior to the 2013 season starting.

"I was playing soccer all summer, then I came to school, I have Mrs. (Nancy) Brawley for second block and (assistant) coach (Seth) Jones was in there and he kind of looked at me and went, 'Are you the girl kicker that tried to play last year?'," Gregg said.

After confirming that she was and was interested, the waiting game began. With a coaching change last fall, things were different. Gregg said she waited nearly a week between the initial contact with the coaching staff before being invited to try out.

"As a family, we talked about it for the longest time if I needed to do this," Gregg said. "We prayed about it and I said, 'God, if you want me to do this, give me a sign' because they hadn't talked to me about (kicking) in a week.

"The next day, coach Slover came in my class and asked when I was coming to practice, so I said that was my sign," Gregg said.

Gregg joined the team officially during the opening game week on August 19.

Since her youngest days, Gregg has been involved in athletics. She started playing soccer at the age of four and competitively at seven, along with her older sister Mikayla - a sophomore standout at Carson-Newman.

Currently, Gregg plays for the Knoxville Soccer Academy - which will attend the national championships at IMG Academy in Florida in December. She's also played for a semi-pro team in Knoxville and has a handful of NCAA Division I schools offering her scholarships.

Gregg currently has offers from Tennessee-Chattanooga, Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech.

Despite the obvious differences in the shape of the ball, Gregg says there's no difference in her kicking style.

"Usually kickers tend to kick with their toe, but I've been brought up that if you kick with your toe, you have no idea where (the ball) is going," Gregg said. "So I just use the same technique as I do with a soccer ball, I just lean backwards instead of forward. If you lean forward, it's just like an onside kick and it just goes into the ground.

"It's pretty much the same kind of style," Gregg said.

While the kicking style may be the same, the other differences are glaring. While she has played on soccer teams with guys before, the lines are hardly blurred in football.

"At first, I thought the guys would not like a girl on the team, so I thought I have to prove myself to them to show I can do this and promise that I'd help them and be like a sister to them," Gregg said.

"They've all been so awesome to me, they've taken me under their wing."

With the competitive nature of the sport, Gregg has fit right in with the team.

"She's as competitive as anyone else on the team," Cocke County coach Caleb Slover said. "I think she fits in so well with our guys, because they're getting to the point where they're getting so competitive, she just adds to it.

"She's fun to be around, she does a good job for us and I couldn't ask anymore than she's doing right now, except I wish she had won homecoming queen last week," Slover said.

The adrenaline of the sport, associated with the crowd and the environment, have also taken some acclimation for the veteran athlete.

"As soon as I run on the field, under those lights, oh my goodness - no girl could ever imagine that," Gregg said. "The feelings I have are truly indescribable and could never be duplicated. I can't put into words what I feel for this team and the feelings I have before stepping on that field."

Still, she has had to battle nerves, especially in the team's season opener at Gatlinburg-Pittman. Not knowing what to expect, Gregg only saw action on two plays - a field-goal attempt and the second half kickoff - but she had to get the nerves out of her system.

"I was about to throw up, my face was pale," Gregg said. "I mean literally every single second, I was praying, especially as they got closer to the end zone, my leg was shaking.

"I kept telling myself that I've kicked since I was four - it's just a football," Gregg said.

Having a strong support system helps the CCHS senior calm her nerves. From her teammates and coaches, to her parents Rusty and Leann, and the fans in the stands - she says help keep her grounded on game nights.

"All the guys patting you on the helmet telling you to come on and the coaches telling me that I've got this and all the comfort from family and friends and fans - the nerves go right away," Gregg said.

Even with all the positive support, Gregg said she has had to face doubters throughout the season.

"There's always going to be those people that will say you don't need to be out there or girls can't play football," Gregg said. "It's kind of like, it's not to prove something, but it's just if I am blessed to be able to do something - I'm going to do it to the best of my ability, no matter what.

"It's not for anybody, it's for myself," Gregg said. "When everybody asks why I am doing it, I tell them that if I can do it, I'm going to do it for the glory of God, not me."

Despite not wanting to draw attention to herself for kicking for the football team, Gregg knows that people will want to see her fail, just because she's a girl playing the sport.

"This past Monday, the freshmen boys were telling me the Northview freshmen were making fun of me and talking about me during their game," Gregg said. "I told them, 'Do you think I care? I'm not here for them.'

"People are wanting to see me fail," Gregg said. "That's OK. I know I'm going to at some point, but it's part of the journey."

Gregg's journey to this point involves a number of different hats and many roles she plays during the day. One of the top academic students at CCHS, she takes a pair of classes there, while also being involved in the dual-enrollment program through Walters State Community College. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she takes afternoon chemistry and composition at the college.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, Gregg replaces her college work for football practice. Every day, except for Fridays, Gregg travels to Knoxville for soccer practice from 7-9:30 p.m. Homework, of course, comes either on the drive home or when she arrives back in Newport.

So when does she sleep?

"Barely?...Never?," Gregg said. "I'd rather have it that way than anyway else, I always like to stay busy."

She also had her hands full with a busy schedule last Friday night - which was homecoming at Cocke County High School. Gregg was elected by the senior class to be one of the eight contestants for homecoming queen. Not a problem for the other seven contestants, but a major one for someone else who might have other duties just minutes after the crowning of a new queen.

"It was stressful," Gregg said. "All day thinking of having to do this and this and this, but I just had to put it on my shoulders and take it one step at a time."

Gregg spent the required pre game time with the team after school, before changing into her homecoming dress for the official school photographs. Then it was a rush back to the stadium to get into her football gear and warm-up. All that prior to the homecoming ceremony, which she participated in clad in her red number seven football jersey.

"After warm ups, all the other homecoming girls said they were about to be sick over homecoming," Gregg said. "I told them it would be OK and that they all looked gorgeous, as I was out there in my football stuff sweating."

Once the game starts, Gregg is in her element. She's made good on 5-of-6 PATs this year and handled all kickoff duties for the team. Despite a strategy which has the kickoffs angled toward the sideline or on the ground, the possibility is there that the opponents could break a tackle.

What if Gregg finds herself as the last line of defense to prevent a touchdown.

"I'm always prepared," Gregg said. "The coaches said there's no sense in the boys letting them get through, so it shouldn't be a problem, but if it its, I have to take the angle, jump on their back and grab them by the throat and go with it."

Being rough comes with the sport of soccer. While some consider the sport a finesse game, there's a reason it's labeled as football in other countries.

"(Contact sport) is the definition of soccer," Gregg said. "You look up soccer, it's a contact sport, soccer is pretty rough around the edges."

Life at home as the middle child can also get rough, as well.

"I've got a little brother, Drew, who always plays football," Gregg said. "I always mess around with my dad and stuff, and Mikayla - you know how siblings are."

The whole whirlwind experience which has taken off over the past month for Gregg, while stressful, has been a blessing to the Cocke County High School senior.

"I am so blessed beyond measure," Gregg said. "It's been a great opportunity to play with such an amazing, supporting and loving environment; having a whole separate family at school that has my back, along with the community support."

The past month has also helped her grow in her faith.

"You have to stay strong in your faith," Gregg said. "The scripture I stand on is, 'A man is what he thinks he is.'

"People have laughed in my face and behind my back on everything I have done, said or dream of from soccer to football," Gregg said. "But that drives me - it does not break me. They do not know what my future holds and neither do I, but I will work my way in a direction I need to go with heart, passion and force. You always have to try something new, because you never know - you'll regret it if you don't try."

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