Knengi Martin’s football résumé is impressive:
Nine years of professional playing experience. A key member of the dominant U.S. national team that easily won the world championship in July. Experience as a youth football coach. Clearly, Martin seemed the perfect candidate to be Mission Prep’s next junior varsity coach.Yet the hiring turned a few heads for one simple reason: Martin is a woman.
“I’ve always loved football, and that’s the reason I want to continue coaching,” Martin, 26, said. “I want to spread that love. Great coaches inspired me to keep playing and get better. I want to do that for others.”
Martin joins a select few women who are coaching boys in the high school ranks. In March, Natalie Randolph became the first known female coach of a high school varsity team when she took the reins at Coolidge High in Washington, D.C.
Like Randolph, Martin said she isn’t trying to break barriers — she’s just continuing to enjoy her passion.
“I’m not here to say, ‘I’m a female coach, so look at me,’ ” Martin said. “You love the sport, I love the sport, so let’s go make it better.”
Mission Prep varsity coach Brady Lock was told of Martin’s desire to get into high school coaching by an assistant who worked with her in San Luis Obispo county youth football.
“She came over, and we talked, and I liked her immediately,” Lock said. “She coached some of our kids (in youth leagues). They knew her, their parents knew her. It was a good fit.”
Still, Lock knew that there could be a possible backlash from the hiring.
“It always comes to mind when you think about the stereotyping of a coach,” Lock said. “But I’ve always kept an open mind with all the coaches I’ve hired through the years. I look for the ability to coach first.”
Mission Prep athletic director John Krossa echoed the sentiment.
“Brady handles the hiring of his own coaching staff,” Krossa said. “(Martin) has been great, and if Brady likes her coaching, then that’s enough for me.”
An early interest
Martin’s mother didn’t like to watch sports on television as Martin was growing up in Palo Alto. So it was not until Martin was in high school that she watched her first Super Bowl — and immediately fell for football.
Martin played one year of youth league football and was a member of the freshman team at Gunn High of Palo Alto before putting the sport on the back burner.
“I came from a smaller liberal arts private school,” Martin said. “Trying to transition into three hours of homework and three hours of football practice was too much.
“Unfortunately, football was the easiest thing to give up.”
After moving to San Luis Obispo in 2002 to attend Cuesta College, Martin found out about a women’s recreational team and immediately rekindled her love of the game.
A league of their own
The Independent Women’s Football League doesn’t have quite the same name recognition as the National Football League.
Retired IWFL pioneer Brittany Curran was around when the league was in its infancy nearly 10 years ago.
“The level of play from when we first started to now is hugely different,” Curran said. “A lot of concepts were new to us. But now it’s become like a chess game. You’ve got coaches planning four or five plays in advance instead of running the one play that works over and over.”
IWFL players were routinely forced to spend thousands of dollars a season to play in the league’s early days, Curran said.
“We’d play in mostly empty stadiums in front of just friends and family,” Curran said. “When I told people I was a women’s professional football player, most people didn’t even know it existed.”
Curran, who was featured in Sports Illustrated at 16 as the youngest professional football player, said many players such as Martin are trying to make the jump into the coaching ranks.
“Anybody who plays at the highest level of women’s professional football deserves a chance to show what they can do,” Curran said. “Women are getting more respect on and off the field for their abilities.”
While strides have been made and the IWFL now has 41 teams nationwide in three levels of competition, for players such as Martin, sacrifices go above and beyond the time and money commitments.
Martin has played the past two seasons with the Long Beach-based California Quake, forcing her to spend half of the year in Southern California.
“It can be tough,” Martin said. “I’ve had a few people in my life tell me that football isn’t the thing to do or that it’s not going to work out.”
Martin went to Cuesta for “two or three semesters but didn’t really get anywhere.” Martin said she couldn’t quite figure out what she wanted to do.
She has since obtained a personal training certification after taking a class at Cuesta and eventually wants to return to school to complete work on a degree in sports fitness.
‘I love to smash’
While Martin plays fullback on offense, she said defensive end is her preferred position.
“I’m a defensive player,” Martin said. “I love to smash. I like being on the defensive side of the ball where I can react to what’s going on.”
That doesn’t mean Martin doesn’t enjoy the fullback position.
“I play fullback in the same manner (that I play on defense),” Martin said. “Anyone that watches film on me, one thing they notice is that I’m definitely not a finesse back. My goal is to destroy anyone that gets in my way.”
Mission Prep freshman Forrest Pottmeyer knows firsthand how difficult it is to tackle Martin.
As one of the players familiar with Martin through youth football, Pottmeyer got a few chances along with some teammates to tackle her in full-contact drills.
Asked how difficult Martin was to tackle, Pottmeyer paused, then said: “Extremely hard.”
‘Doesn’t get any better’
Martin’s aggressive style earned the attention of coaches from around the women’s league, and her name was brought up among those who could play for the U.S. national team when it traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, for the first-ever women’s world championships.
When the IWFL posted on its website that it was seeking women to play for the country, Martin was one of the first to apply.
Without the funds to get all 300 players in one spot for tryouts, national team coaches scoured more than three years of film on players such as Martin before naming her as one of the 45 athletes to make the final roster.
“Getting to represent my country and knowing that I was picked as one of the best players in the league — it doesn’t get any better,” Martin said.
The Americans walloped all opponents, including a 66-0 win over Canada in the gold-medal game.
Martin said she enjoyed the experience so much that she has plans to try out for the 2013 team.
Not long after her return to the U.S., Martin landed the job at Mission Prep and began preparing for life as a high school coach.
Singletary and Dungy
Her coaching style, she says, is a little bit of fiery San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary mixed with the calm demeanor of former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy.
“She can be loud and mean when she wants to be,” Mission Prep sophomore Lucas O’Brien said. “Most of the time she’s pretty calm unless we’re moving too slow.”
Martin does have one big pet peeve, however.
“I’m not a big fan of flashy players who can run their mouth and tell me what they can do,” Martin said. “Show me what you can do.”
Still, there are little things Martin thinks about that male coaches don’t even consider, such as when it is appropriate for her to enter the locker room before and after games.
“We put together a schedule saying, ‘I’m going to be coming in at this time, so you guys need to be ready,’ ” Martin said. “I wouldn’t say that kind of stuff is tough to deal with, but it is a minor annoyance (for me).”
O’Brien was among the majority of players who questioned Martin’s ability before getting to know his future coach.
“I was a little skeptical in the beginning because I’d never really heard of girls playing football,” O’Brien said. “Then she turned out to be a good coach. She led us to win the (San Luis Obispo Youth Football League) Super Bowl.
“I was excited when I heard she’d be coaching us this year because I know how good a coach she is.”
Added Pottmeyer: “She definitely stresses conditioning. I think she does a good job of getting us ready.”
After dealing with the initial concerns of several players and some parents and ironing out the complexities of being a woman in what many consider a man’s game, Martin said she keeps at it for one reason.
“It’s about football and my love of the game,” she said. “I love the sport, and I love teaching it. I want to see it excel in any way I can.”