35 years after making history, Gainesville woman inspired by female kicker

Shelly Garner Black was the first female to score in a Georgia High School Association football game.

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Shelly Garner Black was the first female to score in a Georgia High School Association football game.

Shelly Garner Black kicked for Gainesville High in 1985

Thirty-five years ago, surrounded by teenage boys, she made history. Now, she’s about to be a grandmother.

But these days, 1985 doesn’t seem that long ago for Shelly Garner Black. She was a junior in high school then, and that fall she became the first female to score in a Georgia High School Association football game. It’s taken a while for history to repeat, this time on a much higher level.

On Dec. 12, Vanderbilt University senior Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score in a Power 5 NCAA game when she kicked an extra point against Tennessee. Garner Black said she has followed Fuller’s quest closely.

“I couldn’t imagine being in the spotlight like that, competing in a SEC game,” said Garner Black, 51. “I’m super proud of her.”

Even though it wasn’t a college game, Garner Black was one of the dozens of young women who set the stage for Fuller. The line traces back to 1939, when Luverne “Toad” Wise of Atmore, Alabama, became the first female to score in an American football game.

In 1981, Tami Maida played quarterback for the junior varsity team at Philomath High in Oregon. They made a movie about her, starring Helen Hunt. One month before Garner Black’s kick, Sheila Gaffney of Toombs Central High School made her football debut, as a fullback.

Title IX, passed in 1972, had made it possible for more girls to compete, though it’s rarely happened in the years since.

A mighty leg

Competing among boys was nothing new to Garner Black. She was always into sports, playing youth soccer from an early age. At 10, her family relocated to Gainesville, where soccer was just catching on. But there was no league for girls.

“I realized I had more experience that most of the boys,” Garner Black said. “It never occurred to me not to play.”

There was no girls team in high school, either. Garner Black, undaunted, tried out for the boys squad and made it. By her junior year she was a starter at right wing.

She had never given football any thought. Football came to her.

“She was in my homeroom,” said Sonny Williams, a Gainesville High assistant football coach at the time. “At the time we needed another kicker, and I knew Shelly was a real competitor.”

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Shelly Garner Black played soccer at Gainesville High School before being convinced to try out for the football team.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Shelly Garner Black played soccer at Gainesville High School before being convinced to try out for the football team.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Shelly Garner Black played soccer at Gainesville High School before being convinced to try out for the football team.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

One day, Williams floated the idea to Garner Black, who didn’t take him seriously at first. But the challenge appealed to her. So did the opportunity to skip her driver’s education class, taught by Gainesville coaching legend Bobby Gruhn, who won 254 games in his 30-year career.

Gruhn, Garner Black remembered, took a little convincing.

“It took him some time,” she said. “He was being protective, a father-like figure. He didn’t want to see me get hurt.”

A crash course on kicking a football followed. Garner Black proved a quick study, and before long she was regularly making 30-yard field goals, Williams said.

Her unofficial tryout came in a spring game against Southeast Whitfield. With GHS trailing 7-6, Garner Black was sent in to kick for the tie.

“I was relaxed,” she said. “The game didn’t count so there wasn’t much pressure.”

She converted the extra point. Garner Black had made the team.

Historical footnote

The 1980s saw many firsts for women in America. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Two years later, astronaut Sally Ride became the first woman sent into space. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro broke the political glass ceiling when she was nominated as Democratic nominee Walter Mondale’s vice president.

Garner Black didn’t see herself as a trailblazer. “I just looked at it as something I was asked to do,” she said.

Ahead of its time, Gruhn’s decision to include Garner Black on the varsity roster met with little controversy from her teammates.

“I never felt unwanted,” she said. “They took me in as one of their own.”

Husband Scott Black played defense for the 1985 Red Elephants. He briefly dated Shelly in high school, remained friends and, three years ago, the couple married.

“Everyone knew Shelly was a real good soccer player,” he said. “We knew she could kick. It was no gimmick, and we embraced her as a football player.”

There were a few naysayers; Garner Black recalled a local newspaper columnist questioning Gruhn’s sanity. But he was in the minority.

Few dared second-guess the coaching luminary, winner of 16 region championships. Old school before it was cool, Gruhn looked every bit the part of high school football coach — Stout. Taciturn. Gruff.

“If anyone had a problem with (Shelly), they weren’t going to say anything,” her husband said. “If Coach Gruhn said she could play, she could play.”

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Shelly Garner Black, with Gainesville High senior football player Ronald Penado, made history in 1985.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Shelly Garner Black, with Gainesville High senior football player Ronald Penado, made history in 1985.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Shelly Garner Black, with Gainesville High senior football player Ronald Penado, made history in 1985.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

It would be several games before Garner Black got into a game. It came late in the season, in a road game in Danielsville against Madison County. The Red Elephants led 20-7 at the time.

“Garner, it’s your turn,” Gruhn bellowed.

She had heard plenty of misogynistic catcalls from the locals throughout the game, but those voices went silent as Garner Black trotted onto the field, blond curls bouncing on her shoulders.

“I remember running onto the field and hearing nothing,” she said. “I had to remind myself to breathe.”

The kick wobbled through the goal posts as her teammates mobbed her.

“It wasn’t pretty, but it counted,” Garner Black said.

She would get into one more game, missing an extra point attempt. A knee injury followed. Garner Black was itching for a new challenge.

A lasting legacy

She chuckles when she explains why she quit football after one year.

“I never lost a player to cheerleading before,” Garner Black recalled Gruhn telling her.

There were moments of regret. Garner Black said she enjoyed cheering but missed the competition.

Still, soccer was her true passion. She would go on to play in college at Georgia Southern, and later returned to her high school as girls soccer coach. Her two daughters, now 22 and 19, also played the sport.

Sarah Fuller’s history-setting kick has brought renewed attention to Garner Black’s record. She said she still gets recognized as “the girl who played football.”

“I look at it as one of my most special memories,” Garner Black said. “Students still ask me about it.”

It’s a story she doesn’t mind repeating.

“I’m about to have my first grandbaby,” she said. “I can’t wait to tell him the story.”