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Cavers take lead from female head coach

09/25/2014, 7:38pm PDT
By Chris Jenkins

San Diego High's football varsity the first in county to be led by woman head coach


Knengi Martin, about to make her debut as the first female varsity football head coach in the county, leads San Diego High against University City on Friday night.

Well, ain’t this a real slobberknocker?

A 30-year-old woman will be head coach of San Diego High’s varsity football team when the Cavers, who’ve been playing football since 1891, visit University City on Friday night. And if you don’t know what a slobberknocker is, well, ask her. She’s dealt a few of them herself.

“You know,” said Knengi Martin. “The kind of hit where the mouth-guard flies out and you see snot bubbles coming out of the other guy.”

Martin, whose first name is pronounced NEN-jee, laughs at having to explain the violent game’s colorful jargon while also decrying the helmet-first tackles that get kids seriously hurt. For all her intensity and authoritativeness, she smiles as easily as she calls out commands to players in her high-pitched voice or blows her whistle, two things she does on an alternating and nonstop basis for nearly two hours of practice at San Diego High.

Indeed. Football practice.

So when the Cavers line up against the Centurions, there might be as much focus on the sideline as there is on the field. Martin, an assistant coach promoted last week to replace the resigned Doug Packwood, is believed to be the country’s only female football coach in charge of a high school varsity program.

Big deal? Sure. It’s local news that’s quickly gone national. However, even taking over a team that had lost 16 straight before its lone win in three games this season, Martin’s already claimed her first significant victory. That's the way the Cavers are dealing with this monumental change.

“I really don’t think it makes a difference,” said junior quarterback Grant Donovan. “To have the players’ respect, all you have to do is know what you’re talking about. Coach Martin does. She plays the game herself, so she has a lot of football knowledge.

“If you see her highlight tape on YouTube, she’s running people over. If you’re an athlete, it especially means something when you know your coach can lay you out.”

For years now, Martin has been the star linebacker/fullback for the Long Beach Quake and the San Diego Surge of the Women’s Football Alliance, not to mention a two-time All-World defender on a U.S. national team that dominated the rest of the globe for the championships of women’s football in 2010 in Sweden and 2013 in Finland.

Put it this way. When she was a little girl growing up in Palo Alto, Martin spent eight years on skates, but she wasn’t twirling around the ice or wearing sparkles or showing off for the judges.

“I played ice hockey for eight years,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I was a goon, but I was the most physical player on the team. When I got to be 15 or 16 and got to a level where they didn’t allow contact, I was done. I said, “Forget this.” ”

That it’s the Cavers program she’s taken over – and she and her staff of three assistants handle both the varsity and JV – is in itself a statement. As its name suggests, San Diego High is the original, the school of so many of the city’s elder’s elders.

But just as the downtown skyline grows more modern and tall, encroaching so close that it appears ready to engulf the Cavers campus on Park Blvd., San Diego High finds itself the center of progressing times. No matter how much Martin tries to remain impervious while the sense of history and the unusual buzzes all around her.

“I didn’t do this to be the first; I did this to be a coach,” said Martin. “I had a personal goal to become a varsity head coach in San Diego by the time I was 40, and I beat that by quite a bit. Now that I am, I’m excited and grateful for the opportunity. But, really, I just want to coach football and hang out with my team.”

Her team has been a local doormat for most of the past few decades, loser of all nine games last year, winner of just one game over tiny Mountain Empire in its first four games of 2014. As the program was turned over to Martin before a bye last weekend, there were only 35 Cavers on the varsity, 20 on the JV.

Though its renovated football field is now among San Diego’s finest and rests on what’s considered hallowed ground – once known as Balboa Stadium, it housed the Chargers in their American Football League heyday -- SDHS is a school in a part of town where the very best of athletes might be playing for powerhouses in the suburbs. If they’re playing at all.

“We’re rebooting,” said Martin. “Coach Packwood started something I’m trying to continue. When Coach Packwood first came here, players would just show up for games, show up that one day a week. Because of the culture here, coaches would still put them on the field in games.

“We’ve tried to change that the last few years. There’s got to be accountability. I’m trying to get them to understand that. We have three guys who won’t be starting (Friday) for that reason. As much as I want those three guys to start, there’s a point to be made.”

As for the point of whether being head coach of a varsity boys football team is woman’s work, Martin prefers to not dwell on the gender aspects of her debut at University City. Her own competitive side flared up a bit, though, when Martin was asked about the report that she was actually the second female in a week's time to be named to such a position.

According to high-school sports authority MaxPreps.com, Pickett County (Tenn.) High selected softball coach Brittney Griner to take over when the football head coach resigned after four games. The story noted, however, that the actual X’s and O’s were still being done completely by male assistants.

“She’s more of an administrator,” said Martin, referring to the 25-year-old Griner. “There’s a difference between doing the paperwork and actually knowing football and understanding football. In one of the articles I read, one of the coaches said she does paperwork and doesn’t actually coach the team.

“No disrespect to her. Hats off to her. She’s allowing kids to go on playing football. But coaches coach. I’m a coach. I’m very proud to be a coach.”

From 300-plus miles away in Northern California, you could almost feel the grin coming through the other end of the phone from Deb Goldeen upon mention of Martin’s flashes. Goldeen and her husband, Erik Guffeldt, were guardians who helped raise Martin and came to be regarded by her as “appointed parents.”

“That’s Knengi,” said Goldeen. “Everything's a competition to her. Her favorite thing to do when she was growing up was tackle me and wrestle me. She was about 14 years old when she was finally able to pin me to the floor. She said that was the greatest day of her life.”

A water-polo and basketball player at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Martin didn’t really get into football until she attended a community college in San Luis Obispo that had a women’s recreational team, and that was that. It might as well have been Career Day.

For more than a decade, the 5-foot-10 Martin has been one of the most ferocious players in women’s football, but she’s also served as president of the Surge. She took up coaching at the Pee Wee football level, but her prowess at instruction eventually landed her on the football staff of Mission Prep High in SLO.

She started there in 2010 as jayvee coach, but a different kind, in more ways than one. Like the day she came out to the practice field in full gear, helmet and pads, challenging all players to try to bring her down in drills.

“If you can tackle me,” she said, “you can tackle anybody.”

None did, according to Chad Henry.

“Thing is, there was never a problem about her being a woman,” said Henry, who’s been Mission Prep’s head coach since Martin’s first year there. “All the notoriety about her being a female JV coach, she didn’t care about that.

“She never made an issue out of it. Never said “Oh I’m a girl this” or “I’m a girl that.” Whatever needed to be done – lining fields or breaking down films, whatever little aspect – she jumped in and did it. Because of her infectious personality and knowledge, it was never a problem with the kids.”

Ah, but parents. Surely there were parents who raised a stink, or at least raised their eyebrows.

“I know a lot of people were nervous about her, a woman football coach, a lesbian, at a Catholic school,” said Henry. “But the kids and the kids’ folks loved her. It was a sad day when she left, a very sad day.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve been struggling to replace her since she left. Even at this point, I do not have anyone I’m as happy with as I was with her.”

Martin said she’s received some congratulatory, good-luck calls from other coaches around San Diego, some of whom likely will be highly motivated to beat her and her Cavers when the time comes. To her own amusement, she talks about how her looks and total-gridder countenance have left opponents confused.

“In all honesty, I don’t know if most coaches know who or what I am,” she said, playfully. Standing back a step, she added, “Look at me. Look at this. I’m not a girly-girl. We played Granite Hills first game, and after we’d just shaken hands at the end of the game, one of our coaches said one of their coaches said, “I thought you had a woman coach. Where was she?”

“That stuff doesn’t bother me. As long as my team and coaches are behind me, that’s all that matters. These are the guys I’m going to battle with.”

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