SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A sharpie in her right hand and a black ball cap slung from her left hip, Becca Longo signed autographs down the first-base line Saturday at Salt River Field – ahead of singer Jordin Sparks and a little behind Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu.
The day before, Longo was at Basha High School in Chandler studying social psychology.
“This is just insane,” Longo said. “I’m so blessed to be here.”
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for the 18-year-old.
Longo is believed to be the first female in the country to sign a letter of intent to play football for an NCAA Division I or II program, a historic achievement that immediately planted the 5-foot-11, 140-pound kicker in the spotlight after she signed earlier this month with Adams State in Colorado.
Last Saturday, she was invited to play in the Larry Fitzgerald Double Play Celebrity Softball Game. A day later, Fitzgerald sent Longo a direct message on Twitter asking if he could announce her participation – the notification reaching Longo while she was on Skype doing an interview with CNN.
These aren’t typical after-school activities for a high school senior, but neither is what Longo did to merit them.
She’s a trailblazer for kicking over another barrier for women in sports, crossing out another “first” off the scorecard.
And for that, she’s earned every bit of the attention she’ll continue to receive once she graduates high school in May and embarks on her college career.
“What she’s able to accomplish I think is unbelievable,” Fitzgerald said, “for any young lady that’s out here in the stands, any young lady that ever believed that you could do something and that other people might say that she can’t. I think she’s a great example of a young person that never allows somebody to set boundaries on her.”
It’s clear Longo has the necessary traits to handle the opportunity, on the field as a competitor and off it as an ambassador.
To start, she has the skills – going 30-for-33 on point-after attempts through eight games last season with the Bears, according to MaxPreps, after she started to play her sophomore year. Longo sent a highlight video to Adams State in December and received a visit that same month. When she toured the campus in February, Longo fell in love with it.
“Everybody was just so warm and welcoming,” said Longo, who will also play basketball.
She’s also relatable, picking up the sport as a way to connect with her older brother. The two would toss the ball around in the backyard, and Longo’s interest in playing peaked once she found out her brother had a girl, Heidi Garrett, on his high school team in California – she holds the national record for a kick by a female at 48 yards.
To top it off, she’s personable, with her charismatic personality hard to miss Saturday as she interacted with fans while scrawling her name on posters.
“I just want them to follow their dreams,” Longo said. “If they want to play football, then I want them to go play football. I don’t want them to be affected by any outside factors. I just want people to do what they love.”
But if she does need a little help navigating an unscripted future, she has backup waiting on the sideline.
Jen Welter, who is believed to be the first female coach in the NFL after her stint as a coaching intern for the Cardinals during training camp and the preseason almost two years ago, has already reached out to Longo. She shared her cell-phone number and let Longo know she had a built-in support system.
“Being the first, it doesn’t mean that you’re by yourself,” Welter said. “It just means it’s a little bit different.”
That has its upsides, too.
Longo’s journey is an inspiration to other current female athletes who could warrant similar consideration and a benefit to young girls who can now grow up knowing it can be done.
And that’s a message worth repeating over and over.
“You now have a position that transcends the sport and can show a lot of people what’s possible,” Welter said, “not only in the game of football but in the game of life, and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Hopefully, one day, it won’t be news when a woman is recruited and awarded a scholarship to play on a men’s team, and we can stop celebrating milestones by qualifiers like gender, race or sexual orientation.
But until that happens, breakthroughs like Longo’s should be embraced and applauded – like she was Saturday as she connected on a ball during the home run derby, dropping the hit into left field while the crowd cheered.
It’s a reaction Longo should get used to hearing.
She deserves it.