COLUMBIA — When Eryn Puett and Andrew Whelihan left the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis last month, they held in their hands proof that all of their hard work had paid off: shiny blue and green NFL footballs emblazoned with the words "Team Champion."
Eryn, 11, and Andrew, 13, both of Columbia, represented the St. Louis Rams at the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick Team Championships on Dec. 15 before the Rams-Saints game.
Competitors punt, pass and kick and are scored according to distance and accuracy. Their final score is the sum of all three categories.
Eryn won the competition in the girls 10-11 age group with a total score of 288 feet 6 inches. She was one of the top four performers nationally in her age group and will advance to the National Finals. She will compete with other Team Champions from across the nation Sunday at the NFL playoff game in Denver.
As she prepared for next week's competition, her dad chose not to let her be interviewed, so she wouldn't be distracted. Eryn is shy around the media.
Andrew competed in the boys 12-13 age group and won the Team Championship with a total score of 342 feet 8 inches. Although he placed sixth nationally, he was 5 feet shy of claiming a spot in the National Finals.
“I hope I can experience (being in the competition) again,” Andrew said.
His father, Tom Whelihan, was just as disappointed as his son.
“My heart was breaking for him,” he said.
Going the distance
Andrew was the last one to kick in his age group at the Team Championship in St. Louis. It was his last opportunity to add to his total distance. When Andrew stepped up to kick the ball, he was 50 feet behind the boy in the lead, who had just added a short kick to his total, giving Andrew a chance to overtake him, he said.
He had one chance left, and he took advantage of it by pushing aside thoughts of defeat and the pain he was experiencing from a hamstring injury. He had suffered the injury while playing baseball one month before the local competitions but had decided to compete anyway, Andrew said.
“It was cool to see him fight through it,” his dad said.
Stepping onto the turf, Andrew said, he asked the people around him to move back, and then he kicked the football down the field — 144 feet 8 inches.
“He crushed it,” his dad said.
His was the longest kick in his age group for the 2013 Team Championships across the country, according to the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick website.
“It was a great experience,” Andrew said. “I finally achieved what I wanted. I felt like I belonged there.”
Not their first competition
Eryn and Andrew are no strangers to the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick program or athletics, for that matter. They've both participated in sports from an early age.
The 2013 competitions marked Eryn’s fourth year as a participant, her third year as a Team Champion, and her third year at the National Finals. She won the National Finals for her age group in 2010.
“She’s a competitive kid who works hard,” said Tammy Puett, Eryn’s mother. “I’m proud of her accomplishments.”
Eryn found out about the NFL program in 2010 from Camren Cross, a supervisor with the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department. Cross is also Eryn’s track and field coach at the Blue Thunder Track Club in Columbia.
Cross told Eryn’s mom that he thought it would be a good idea for her to try out.
“Eryn had a really good arm,” he said.
Eryn’s decision to compete in the local competition in August 2010 was not planned, her mom said. She and her mother knew where it was being held, so they decided to check it out. Eryn didn’t make it past the local competition. After the loss, she was determined to do better, her mom said.
The following year, Eryn and her dad practiced punting, passing and kicking in their front yard. Although Don Puett had never played football, he had some advice for his daughter: “You just take it by the threads and throw it.”
Eryn was already a strong kicker. That came from playing soccer. Together, they learned by trial and error.
Andrew started competing in 2007. His dad heard about the local competitions in Columbia from a friend. Andrew advanced to the Sectional Competitions in Jefferson City four times, and in 2013, he made it to the Team Championships in St. Louis and won.
His father had represented the Washington Redskins in the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick competitions in the 1970s.
“He did better than me. I never made it to a Team Championship,” Tom Whelihan said.
Andrew’s current position as punter-kicker on the West Middle School football team helped him prepare for the competition, he said. His longest kicks have been 35 yards on a field goal kick and 50 yards on a kickoff.
The making of athletes
Eryn's nudge into sports came from her mother who noticed that she was very active.
“She was always running around,” Tammy Puett said.“(So) I put her in a soccer program to burn off some of the energy.”
When Eryn’s mother saw how soccer had helped her daughter, she decided to sign her up for a six-week program at Blue Thunder Track Club.
Eryn has been involved in track and field events for the past six years and has competed and won medals at the National Junior Olympic Championships, according to Blue Thunder Track Club records.
“She’s done more athletically than most people have done in a lifetime,” her dad said.
Eryn plays basketball in the winter, soccer in the spring and fall, and track in the summer.
“She’s just a good all-around athlete,” he said.
Andrew said his football-playing dad was the inspiration behind his desire to play sports. Tom Whelihan was a kicker and punter at MU and went on to play football with Columbia United Football Club after college.
When his sons were old enough, Whelihan said, he created a “get off your butt and move” type of environment that Andrew called the “Fun Zone.”
He built an indoor soccer field and basketball court in the basement, a space to play full-court basketball in front of the house and a multi-sports field in the backyard.
Andrew has played basketball, baseball and football, and he wrestles for the Columbia Wrestling Club. But with all the different sports in his athletic repertoire, his favorite is soccer, he said.
Sports tend to keep Andrew’s schedule pretty tight, but he “takes summers off to recharge his battery,” his dad said.
End goal: Having fun
Andrew said he has dreams of having a professional career in sports — as an analyst or perhaps a sportscaster.
“I want him to have continued success in whatever he does,” said his mom, Kristan Whelihan.
Tom Whelihan said he hopes his son will find a career that he loves and that brings pleasure and joy to others through his actions.
Eryn’s mom said it would be great if she were able to get a scholarship for her athletic abilities, but her parents also want her to focus on her education.
“She’s 11,” Eryn’s mom added. “At the end of the day, we want her to have fun.”
For more information about the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick program, visit www.nflppk.com. For more information about the local competitions in Columbia, contact Columbia Parks and Recreation at 874-7460.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.