Mary Morlan Isom isn’t oblivious to the pressure she’s facing while trying out for an all-male squad.
“Mo,” as most people call her, was a goalkeeper for LSU’s women’s soccer team from 2008 to 2011. She holds school records in career wins (43), shutouts (30) and saves (235).
But Isom says soccer is done in her life. Professional soccer opportunities are limited for women, and the Under-23 U.S. Women’s National Team, for which she has tried out twice, has not invited her to train since 2010.
So Isom is reaching for a new goal — on the gridiron.
Isom, who is also LSU’s reigning homecoming queen, has been trying out this week for a spot on LSU’s football team as a placekicker. If she makes it, she would be the first woman football player in school history.
However, Isom said she knows not everyone is keen on the idea of women playing a historically male sport.
“There are definitely people with varied opinions about it,” she said. “Whether those individuals like it or not, I’m still chugging along and pursuing this goal.”
As for family and friends, including the football team, they’re behind her 100 percent.
Isom said Wednesday that the football players, many of whom she already knew because the soccer and football teams use the same facilities, were supportive of her ever since she approached the team with the idea in January 2011.
Isom even joked that she’s “just one of the guys.”
“Those upperclassmen have been by my side for three, four years now,” she said.
Isom said she first thought about the audition after praying about her future in January 2011.
Isom used up her four years of NCAA soccer eligibility this past fall and is enrolled in graduate school after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication in December.
The NCAA allows students-athletes five years to play four seasons of one college sport. If a student-athlete exhausts the first four years, he or she can use a fifth year to play another sport, LSU Sports Information Director Michael Bonnette said.
Isom said she resisted the idea at first because of the scrutiny that would come with being a woman football player.
But after further prayer, Isom said she decided to go after it.
Isom said she spoke to LSU football coach Les Miles in January 2011 about joining the team and has since worked extensively with special teams coach Thomas McGaughey and other kickers.
Isom worked out Tuesday and will work out again Thursday in what is an ongoing process. She faces tough competition for a roster spot, considering LSU returns Drew Alleman, who made 16 of 18 field goals last season.
Isom said she believes she needs to perform “exemplary” because of the circumstances surrounding her tryout.
“When you do take a female onto a male squad, you are taking on more than a regular walk-on,” she said. “There’s pressure there to show them that I am a valuable asset, that it’s not about gender, it’s about what you bring to the field.”
Miles said at a Tuesday news conference that he does not have a timetable for making a decision on which kickers may join the squad, if any would at all.
“I would have much less reservations, you know, with (Isom) than I would with any number of other people who frankly didn’t know what they were getting into,” he said.
Isom’s leg strength should translate well to college football, LSU women’s soccer coach Brian Lee said.
Lee said the transition from soccer to football is difficult but it has been done before.
“When she sets her mind to something, she really goes after it,” Lee said of Isom. “We’re all excited for her and anxious to see how it turns out.”
This is not the first time Isom has faced adversity.
Isom said she battled bulimia in high school. Her father, John Isom, committed suicide in January 2009. And she was involved in a violent traffic accident in November 2009 that left her with a broken neck, broken ribs, damaged lungs, a damaged liver and brain contusions.
Isom, though, said those past troubles have fueled her desire to keep pressing forward.
Another part of her inspiration is her father, who played football at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee.
“Every time I step out there to kick, my dad is certainly out there in my heart and my mind,” she said.
Soccer seems to be at a standstill in Isom’s life. Eight months after the car accident, in 2010, the Under-23 U.S. Women’s National Team called Isom back for training camp.
She has not been called since.
“I really believe that those doors have closed, and I’m OK with that,” Isom said.
Isom would not be the first woman to play college football. Katie Hnida made an appearance as a kicker for New Mexico in 2002.
But for Mo’s mother, Heidi Isom, her daughter’s tryout is not about gender.
Heidi Isom said she used to substitute teach at her daughter’s elementary school, where she would see her play football with the boys during recess.
Heidi Isom also pointed out that Mo practiced against boys while playing for youth soccer teams in her teens.
“She might have the potential to make a contribution as a specialist, and I don’t think gender should play into that,” Heidi Isom said.
Mo Isom does not know what her chances of making the team are. She said she’s just grateful for the opportunity.
“This is a crazy endeavor. This is a big challenge,” Isom said. “I may make it, I may not. But at the end of the day, I gave it everything I had to make it. And I’ve learned amazing lessons along the way.”
Advocate sportswriter Sheldon Mickles contributed to this report.