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Pictures of the past: Shelly Garner Buffington made history playing in a boys' world
Shelly Buffington holds a picture of her and legendary Gainesville coach Bobby Gruhn taken on picture day in 1985 - photo by Tom Reed

The voice of Gainesville coach Bobby Gruhn carried down the sidelines following his team’s third score against Madison County.

"Garner, it’s your turn," he said.

Feeling as though the field had turned into a lake of molasses, the 5-foot, 6-inch placekicker waded through it to take the extra point.

With a mind void of thought and a heart pounding, Garner set to take the kick.

Going through the motions taught since practice began in the spring, Garner’s extra point cleared the goal posts and the Madison County field house that sat just beyond the end zone.

The holder, quarterback Jeff Bell, grabbed Garner in an embrace as the rest of the team ran onto the field like a thundering herd to celebrate.

The point meant nothing to the outcome of the game; the Red Elephants were ahead 21-7, but it solidified Garner’s place in history.

It was Oct. 25, 1985, and with the kick Shelly (Garner) Buffington had just become the first female player to score in a Georgia High School Association football game.

Developing a passion

A self-described tomboy, Buffington began her athletic career playing tennis.

While practicing in Roswell, she was visited at the tennis courts by a young lady fresh from playing soccer on the fields that were just behind the courts.

Michelle Teeters watched for a moment and then asked the 7-year-old Buffington if she had ever played soccer.

The dialogue culminated with Buffington joining Teeters’ team and, in turn, finding her athletic calling.

"The minute I started playing soccer, I was hooked," Buffington said. "I loved being part of a team moreso than playing an individual sport, and (soccer) was something that came naturally to me."

Until the age of 10, Buffington honed her skills at right wing on an all-girls YMCA team in Roswell.

Then she and her family moved to Gainesville, setting Buffington up for success in a boys athletic world.

‘Where are the girls?’

Buffington’s proficiency as a girl among boys began the day soccer tryouts started for the Gainesville Parks and Recreation league in 1979.

"I went to do the tryouts and I’m looking around thinking, ‘Where are the girls,’" Buffington said.

Soccer was just beginning in Gainesville, so players were hard to come by, regardless of gender.

"It was a shock to me," Buffington said. "I came running back to my mother saying, ‘Mama, there’s no girls.’

"She, in turn, said, ‘Well, honey, we just bought you a brand new pair of shoes so you need to go try at least.’"

Buffington found while playing in the novice program that she had years of experience compared to the boys she was playing with and against.

That experience led to confidence in the young girl.

"Ken Crenshaw was my first coach, and he was great," Buffington said. "I moved up with the team and played with the same guys, and we did tournaments and other things."

Her youth soccer experiences acclimated Buffington to being the minority and the boys to her presence.

Buffington’s comfort level with that role would serve to make the next part of her life a little less awkward.

She was about to enter Gainesville High, which also didn’t have a girls soccer program.

First game to first goal

As a freshman and sophomore, Buffington played a little junior varsity and a little varsity on the boys soccer team, starting off and on in the two-year span.

Soccer still hadn’t quite caught on in the area, so the guys she played with were the same who she had become accustomed to in the youth league.

"It was a young and inexperienced program that was growing," Buffington said. "We had great players but also had folks out there who wanted to stay in shape for other sports, or did it because it looked fun."

The lack of bodies wasn’t the reason Buffington got playing time. She was good at right wing and became a full-time starter her junior year.

That was also the season she scored her first goal.

"Goal scoring was not my thing," Buffington said. "I was a set-up person, able to pass it in or chip it in. Corner kicks were my thing."

Until the Lakeview game her junior year when someone slid into her in the box.

"I got a penalty kick from it, and coach (Gene) Beckstein said, ‘You earned it, you take it.’ I remember thinking that if I didn’t score this I’ll never hear the end of it."

She scored off the penalty kick, a pressure-packed moment that was a foreshadowing of events to come.

Social connections

The boys were used to her being around and being as good as they were.

The girls she went to school with knew that soccer was simply what she did; a part of her.

"My being accustomed to being in that arena, no one felt any differently towards me," Buffington said. "I never felt uncomfortable.

"Soccer was synonymous with Shelly."

Her junior year Buffington dated a soccer teammate at Gainesville who also kicked for the football team.

"The football coaches would give me a hard time, betting that because I could play soccer, I could be the placekicker too," Buffington said.

One football coach in particular ran with the bet.

"I had her in homeroom and we got to discussing it one day," former Gainesville assistant coach Sonny Williams said. "I liked her, coach Gruhn liked her, and we just thought it was a good idea. She had athletic ability and the fortitude to do it."

Williams received backing in his plan from fellow Gainesville assistant Don Golden.

Buffington not only had Williams and Golden for class during spring semester of 1985, but Gruhn, too. And the promise that she could get out of his driver’s education class to practice field goals was reason enough for Buffington to try.

"The kicker, no pun intended, was coach Williams saying he’d get me out of coach Gruhn’s class," Buffington said. "He told me to bring my cleats and that we were going to kick some footballs.

"I didn’t know until later that coach Gruhn was looking out the back of the Annex watching that first day."

"She’ll say what she wants about it I’m sure," Williams said. "But she was hitting field goals from 30 yards out that first day."

Spring football practice started, and with Buffington in the midst of soccer season, Williams suggested she come out to football practice and kick around some after her soccer work was finished.

"Honestly, I was just doing it thinking, ‘Oh, you know, if I go home I’ve got to do homework.’ So, I hung out and kicked around."

"None of us thought it was a negative thing," said former Gainesville teammate and current head football coach at Lakeview Academy Matthew Gruhn. "She was a neat girl who fit in, and nobody thought it was different."

A spring game against Southeast Whitfield marked the end of spring practice. It also marked the end of Buffington’s simply "kicking around."

For the tie

A confluence of events is how it started.

Gainesville’s starting kicker Randy Murray was gone to a Key Club Convention, so Buffington was called upon for the spring game.

"Coach Williams took me into the equipment room," Buffington said. "He had everything laid out. I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’"

According to Buffington, the team needed somebody who could kick a football, so Williams handed her a helmet.

"I took the helmet home so my parents wouldn’t think I was lying to them," Buffington said.

Upon seeing the helmet and hearing the story, her father said that football wasn’t like soccer in that people would hit her hard.

Her mother, the same person who pushed her to play with the boys upon arrival in Gainesville, told her to go for it.

"Well, I was a little bit frightened," said Buffington’s mother Pat Garner. "But I got over it and thought about and said, ‘Go for it.’

"You can get hurt in any sport so I just decided to support her, as everyone did."

Go for it she did, and with Southeast Whitfield leading 7-6, Buffington was sent in to tie the score in her first attempt in a game situation.

"I was shaking so badly," Buffington said. "But the snap was great, the hold was great and it just sailed right on over. I stood there afterwards, though, not knowing what to do next."

"Shelly stuffed her hair up under her helmet," Garner said, "and ran out on the field. I had my fingers crossed praying she would do well and she did. People were cheering, and then she took her helmet off and that hair fell and there were gasps.

"Not too many people knew she was playing."

Because it was only the spring game, the reaction was muted except for where Buffington was concerned.

"I honest to goodness went home that night and said, ‘No more,’" Buffington said. "It was too nerve-wracking, and I was scared to death."

The coaches, however, had other plans.

"It wasn’t, ‘Oh, let’s sign up the first girl and be first,’" Williams said. "It wasn’t about that at all. We genuinely thought she could help."

And with that, the girl known for her prowess on the boys soccer teams was now going to be the first girl to suit up for a Hall County football team.

"It wasn’t a publicity stunt," said former Gainesville teammate and current University of Georgia Athletics Director Damon Evans. "She could kick, and could do it a lot better than most of us could."

"I knew the other coaches accepted me," Buffington said, "but I decided to continue playing because I realized that coach Gruhn was going to accept me and that the team accepted me."

A brotherhood, with one sister

They played football together, that goes without saying. But the Gainesville High team of 1985 also did everything else together, and Buffington cherished that.

"I’ve never seen a team quite like that one and still haven’t," she said. "We ate together every week at Western Sizzlin’ and went to the movies together. There were no cliques, no groups."

Even though that atmosphere fostered Buffington’s acceptance, there were times she stuck out.

"We were seeing the ‘Rocky’ where Apollo dies," she said, "and here I am amongst all these guys and Apollo dies and I’m bawling my eyes out. The guys kept looking at me saying, ‘It’s only a movie.’"

Her newfound brothers encouraged her, believed in her, protected her and treated her as though she had been there all along.

"I thought the experience of playing with Shelly was a great experience," Evans said. "I admired her. She saw something she wanted to be a part of and did it."

The attitude of her teammates had filtered straight down from their leader, coach Gruhn.

"He was honest with me," Buffington said, "and that was more important to me than anything. He talked to me like I was a member of the team."

When the 1985 season started, Gruhn told Buffington that he wouldn’t allow her to take the field in certain instances.

"We wouldn’t have hesitated at all to put her in in crucial situations," Williams said, "because we knew she could do it. There were times, though, that playing her wouldn’t have been a good idea."

In Gruhn’s mind, as well as the minds of his other coaches, Buffington’s safety was more important than her kicking ability.

"We were beating everyone pretty handily," Buffington said, "and there would have been little reason for the other team not to try and take a pot shot.

"I found in one way or the other playing with boys. They either just didn’t want to touch you for fear of hurting you or they came in full throttle because they didn’t want to get beat by a girl."

Thus, it wasn’t until the eighth game of the season that Buffington took the field for her history-making kick.

It also wasn’t until that game against Madison County that anything other than stares and whispers caught the attention of the only girl on the field.

"The things the guys on the other side of the line were saying did nothing but make the guys protecting me angry," Buffington said. "Nobody was getting to me. I loved those linemen."

Buffington’s first extra point attempt, which was good, didn’t count because she forgot to put in her mouthpiece.

Having her name called to take the kick was spur of the moment; she hadn’t been forewarned that Oct. 25 would be her night.

"Oh, I freaked," she said. "I guess I was hoping that all season long (Gruhn) would forget about me."

With the attempt now from further out because of the penalty, and adrenaline pumping through her, Buffington made history.

"I kicked the fool out of it," she said. Once it had cleared, she stared in the direction of the goal for a moment. "I was thinking, ‘I didn’t know I could do that.’"

Her holder held her, her team rushed the field in celebration and when she got back to the sidelines her parents were waiting and coach Gruhn was smiling.

"His reaction was enough for me," she said.

"Oh I was jumping up and down, just really excited," Garner said. "The team picked her up and bounced her around, it was wonderful."

"Everybody was so happy," Matthew Gruhn said. "It was neat to see everybody pull for her, our teammate. It wasn’t a moment of distraction or a sideshow moment. It was proof of our great relationships."

While joy was the overiding emotion, Buffington’s mother was also relieved and thankful.

"Madison tried to get to her," Garner said. "Those boys protected her. They stood their ground and, for that, I’ll always be grateful."

The here and now

Buffington hit a couple more extra points during that 1985 season, she also missed one against Monroe.

She decided not to play football her senior season but instead, tried out for cheerleading and made it.

"Only seniors could be cheerleaders back then, so it was a big deal," Buffington said. "I had been told by coach Williams that I only go around once, so I decided to cheer."

She continued playing soccer, however, even in college where she played right wing for the girls club team at Georgia Southern.

"It had been an adjustment going from girls to boys but that was nothing compared to going back to being on an all-girls team," Buffington said.

After college, Buffington took the lessons of acceptance she had learned while being the the odd girl out and first became an outreach coordinator for Girls Inc. of Northeast Georgia, then a special education teacher.

Following the theme that resonated in her life, Buffington broke one more barrier when in 1994 she was named the coach for the first girls soccer team at Gainesville High.

And as full circle as that was, it paled in comparison to her marrying an old high school football teammate, Brian Buffington.

She fostered the girls soccer program at Gainesville for five years, giving it up when her first daughter Taylor was born.

"Those years at Gainesville High and those girls were so much fun," Buffington said. "More than winning I wanted to instill in those that started the program the idea of being a team, and what tradition meant."

She has since had another daughter, Carly. Both of the girls play soccer and Buffington is right there, coaching their rec league teams.

This year, Buffington will begin her first year as a teacher at Chestatee High School and looks forward to touching lives in a different district.

"I’ll tell you something," Evans said. "She’s a good friend of mine and a wonderful individual. She’s the type of role model people should look to, and she will continue to be that."

A role model based in acceptance, perseverance and following a path regardless of the norm.

"The thing I took from my high school days is that anyone can do anything if you simply want to," Buffington said. "I will encourage my children, and I will encourage others because others encouraged me when they didn’t have to.

"I didn’t do what I did because I was out to prove that women could do anything if they put their minds to it," she said. "I had no agenda. I was just out to have fun."

And in doing so, she made history.

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