COLUMBIA — There is a national football champion in Columbia: a 9-year-old girl who has never played an organized game of football.
With a little help from Missouri quarterback James Franklin, Eryn Puett won the 8-and-9-year-old girls division of the NFL Punt, Pass and Kick national competition over the weekend in Baltimore, Md.
Eryn was the No. 1 seed in the national competition and finished with an overall score of 225.
Scoring is based on distance and accuracy. A tape measure is drawn down the field in a straight line. The ball is measured by how far it is off the line, and then that distance is subtracted from the distance the ball was punted, passed or kicked from the end zone. The participants final score is the total of the three events.
Each NFL franchise holds a team competition in the regular season, where participants advance to after winning local and regional competitions held in each state. After winning the Columbia competition and regional competition in Jefferson City, Eryn advanced to the team level.
At the Rams' team competition in St. Louis, she made an 84-foot, 5-inch punt, had a 77-foot, 6-inch pass, and a 51-foot, 2-inch kick. The NFL has not made Eryn's official national distances available.
In each age group, the top four scorers among the 32 team competitions advanced to the national championship.
Before the national competition, Franklin met with Eryn at the Rock Bridge High School football field. Franklin worked with Eryn on a Sunday before a team meeting in preparation for this season's Independence Bowl.
Eryn's throws and kicks were long enough, but scoring is based on distance and accuracy. Franklin gave her tips on how to improve her accuracy, like not stutter stepping when she kicked off the tee.
Franklin, who attends East Side Church of Christ with the Puetts, was one of several coaches and players Eryn's father, Don Puett, who has never played organized football, called on for advice.
It's a game that Eryn clearly wants to play, but one her mother, Tammy Puett, is not comfortable with for her daughter. Whenever the youth football leagues in Columbia come up in conversation, Eryn's face lights up.
"Can I play in it?" she asks.
Her mother looks away, avoiding the question she's had to say no to more than once. On Thanksgiving, Eryn jumped at the chance to play backyard football, running out the backdoor to join her cousins, who are all older than her and all boys.
On Sunday, Eryn was honored on national TV at an on-field award presentation between the third and fourth quarter of the NFL divisional playoff game between the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens.
"I actually wasn't that nervous," Eryn said. "The only part that scared me were the fireworks that went off after the national anthem."
The national competition took place the day before in the Ravens' training facility. Her family panicked during the 45 minutes Eryn had to warm up. She had practiced throwing a football slightly larger than the one in this competition and had been kicking off a tee about half the size of the one available.
Now Eryn was shanking her kicks to the left and right.
"I can't kick off this tee," she told her father.
They scrambled and found a soccer tee for Eryn to use, which worked well enough for her to become the national champion.
Eryn's athletic background is well suited to the punt, pass and kick competition. Kicking and throwing are nothing new to her.
She started playing soccer at age 5, and her father recalled that as a goalkeeper, Eryn had to kick that ball softly, because if she didn't her punts would go all the way down the field to the other goalie.
Her throwing strength comes from her training in the shot put. Last summer, Eryn won the national championship in the shot put at the AAU Junior Olympics.
Eryn became involved in the Punt, Pass and Kick competition through her track coach at Blue Thunder Track Club, Cameron Cross, who is in charge of the Columbia football competition. It was Eryn's second year competing in the event.
Last year, Eryn placed second in the Columbia competition. On the way home, her second-place ribbon flew out of the window, but Eryn didn't care.
"I was getting first next time," Eryn said.