Lauren Silberman says video games prepped her for NFL combine

March 5, 2013 3:56:49 AM PST
On Sunday for the first time, a woman lived her dream to show what she could do on the gridiron.

All Lauren Silberman wanted to do was make a field goal. Instead, she made history. The 28-year-old former college club soccer player competed for a slot as an NFL kicker alongside men at the league's annual tryouts Sunday, the first woman ever to audition.

"It's always been a lifelong dream," Silberman said. "It shouldn't be just for one gender or another... you should go after your dreams and make it happen."

Her groundbreaking tryout the result of a cell phone video showing her nailing a field goal at a Super Bowl fan event. And while the MIT graduate had never played football, she says playing sports video games gave her a leg up.

"I would use the game and try to just think about what I was doing out on the physical field," Silberman said.

But while Silberman's appearance at the NFL Combine Sunday was much hyped, ultimately, her performance fell short. Her first kickoff attempt traveled only 19 yards. Her second just 13, the result, she says, of an injury.

"The minute I kind of touched the ball, my quad, I could just feel tense up and hurt. It was really painful," Silberman said.

"The story really isn't about making it or not," said Christine Brennan, ABC News sports consultant. "This is a message of saying... 'Girls can compete and try with the boys.'"

"I've had so many young girls reach out to me," Silberman said. "And tell me, 'You're such an inspiration... I'm glad that now they have a visual model of someone in a role that they might not have perceived women can be in. And that to me is great."

While some fans on Twitter praised her for breaking through in a male-dominated sport, others wondered if this was just a publicity stunt. Regardless, the NFL got plenty of attention on a Sunday in March for one of its regional combines - something most media normally ignore.

"I'm just really happy I had this amazing experience," Silberman said. "I might be the first woman trying out for the NFL, but I certainly hope I'm not the last."

With the 36 other kickers - all male - a handful of scouts and more than two dozen media watching in complete silence at the New York Jets' practice facility, Silberman winced as she attempted her first kick.

"I tried staying off it and waited for today," she said. "I didn't even take kicks in warm-ups, and, it's pretty hard to know that you'll be in pain, and I wanted to work through it and I certainly tried to, but I just couldn't do it today."

She grabbed at her right leg, and then struggled for about 20 seconds to place the football on the tee before measuring her steps and trying a second kick. She then asked to see a trainer and left the practice field, and appeared to be favoring her right leg.

"They certainly didn't go as far as they were in practices," Silberman said, "but I tried to work through the pain."

She wouldn't reveal how long her kicks were in the weeks leading up to the tryout.

"It's still hard to exactly say, but I just got better day by day," she said with a smile. "The distance is getting there."

Silberman is a former club soccer player at Wisconsin and ex-graduate student at MIT. While she never kicked a football in a competitive game, the NFL said Silberman qualified for the regional combine because of her athletic background.

"Our job is to evaluate talent and not leave any stone unturned," said Stephen Austin, the NFL's director of regional combines. "We want young, athletic people who have played a sport, typically in college or military or small schools."

The regional combines began in 2011, and include players who weren't among the 333 invited to the main combine in Indianapolis. The NFL is holding these sessions in 10 cities this offseason, with the most impressive players advancing to a super-regional in Dallas in April.

Silberman paid a registration fee - $275 - and just needed to show up Sunday and take her best shot at impressing scouts.

"Until they get here, we don't have any idea of what they're really going to turn out to do and how they're going to perform," Austin said. When asked if he could evaluate Silberman's performance, Austin said: "That evaluation is completely incomplete."

Silberman, who spoke for just 3 minutes after the tryout, insisted she can "do more" and "it's too bad that this happened." She called the scene "surreal," adding that she "did the right thing for my body" by not continuing and anticipates trying to kick again in the future - possibly at another regional combine next year.

"I've always been an athlete, and I've always been a gamer," she said, her eyes tearing up. "When I had the opportunity to be in the NFL, one of the world's most competitive leagues, I absolutely had to take the chance."

Silberman began her big day by waiting outside the facility around noon with all the other kickers, whose names were read off alphabetically as they entered the indoor practice field. Each participant was then given time to warm up before being broken into groups to attempt three kickoffs and then a set of five field goals, the first starting from 35 yards all the way up to 55 yards.

The 5-foot-6 Silberman, with her long brown hair pulled into a ponytail, jogged up and down the sideline during warm-ups, trying to get loose as photographers and camera crews from the likes of E! Entertainment network followed her every move.

By the time her group was called, nearly 3 hours after she arrived, Silberman - wearing a black T-shirt with her player tag No. 68 on the front and back and white socks pulled up to her knees - stretched her legs, did some push-ups and a few sit-ups. She then chatted a bit with Sonny Powell, another former soccer player from Charlotte, as she waited for her turn to kick.

"In talking to some of the other guys out here, I don't think her being a girl had anything to do with it," Powell said. "We're all playing for a job here and everybody's nerves were going crazy."

Silberman's goal was to try a 60-yard field goal. That was squashed just minutes into her tryout.

"You know, the distance wasn't there, but hopefully the scouts will notice my technique," she said. "It's not always length."

Silberman left the complex soon after that.

"I would certainly be very, very excited and happy if I had the opportunity to try again," she said, "but it's not up to me. It's up to the scouts."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.