Another weekend, another opportunity for Eryn Puett to showcase her set of athletic skills. Over the holiday weekend, it was on the court in St. Louis for a basketball tournament. But the weekend before, she and her parents traveled to Atlanta where the fifth grader from Columbia, Mo. competed in the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick (PPK) National Finals in the Georgia Dome as a representative of the St. Louis Rams.
The process of qualifying for Nationals methodically identifies the top talent from each area. Participants progress from Local to Sectional to Team competitions. In the league-wide competition, the top four scores from all the teams in each gender and age bracket are selected for nationals. Being from Columbia, Puett’s qualifying course led her to represent the Rams.
But she was no stranger to the process or the PPK competition. Last year as a nine-year old, Puett won the Girls 8 to 9 age bracket when the program was held at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. This year, however, her parents appreciated the chance to watch their daughter compete in a more temperate climate – indoors.
“I was so excited when I found out it was going to be in a dome,” Tammy Puett, Eryn’s mother, said. “Last year, we just about froze to death when we went to the game.”
While the temperature was easier to adjust to, the competition proved more challenging. As a ten-year old, Eryn competed against girls who were more than a year her senior. Despite the disadvantage, her father was impressed with her showing.
“Considering her age, she hung in there,” Don Puett said. “Some of these kids were about to turn 12 and she just turned 10 in July. So she hung tough with all of them and I was really proud of her.”
If Eryn was intimidated, she did not show it during the competition. Her experience from the previous year helped calm her nerves so she could focus on the task at hand.
“This year was a lot harder because I was the young one of the group and last year I was the old one of the group,” Eryn said. “But I was more nervous last year because it was my first time being at Nationals.”
Driving her was the goal of finishing above fourth place in her age group. Never mind the fact that these were the top four performers of her age in the country; Eryn’s competitive nature motivated her to finish ahead of her immediate competition.
“She viewed fourth as last, but I kept trying to tell her that that was fourth in the nation,” Tammy said. “That’s not this competition. It was for the entire country in her age group.”
Leading up to the competition, Eryn and Don would practice each segment of the PPK program. After-school practice sessions at a local high school saw Eryn kick field goals, punt balls and toss passes with her father. When it came time for Nationals, a little wrench was thrown into their preparation plans.
“They did it a little differently this year,” Don said. “In all the competitions up to Nationals, they usually have the parents warming up the kids out on the field. This year, they had their own people out there and kept the parents in the stands. So I couldn’t give her any last minute advice.”
Not that the changeup flustered Eryn.
“I think he was more upset (about not being on the field) than Eryn was,” Tammy said. “He was in the stands worrying ‘I didn’t get to tell her this,’ or ‘I didn’t get to tell her that.’ But she knew what to do.”
During the competition, participants were set up at the 20-yard line of the Georgia Dome, with a line taped down the center of the field to gauge accuracy. Scores were based on the distance and accuracy of the punts, passes and kicks. If a player shanks an attempt, the distance from the center line is deducted from the distance.
As a natural soccer player, Eryn’s favorite parts were the punting and kicking. She nailed both of those with distances of 79’9” and 87’6” respectively. It was the pass that proved to be her undoing, a minor blemish on an otherwise strong performance. Overall, her score of 239.5 feet was good enough to place her third overall in the Girls 10 to 11 age bracket.
“They could have done the competition the next day and we probably would have seen completely different scores,” Tammy said. “I think they were just nervous. When they were out there playing around afterward, Eryn threw that ball further than I had ever seen her throw it before.”
Chalk it up to youthful innocence.
“At halftime, I bet she threw that ball 35 yards,” Don said. “When they announced her name (at halftime), she launched it, and my only response was ‘wow.’”
Appreciative of Eryn’s efforts to represent the Rams, the team took care of her leading up to the event. She received a Rams care package that included a bag filled with a variety of items such as t-shirts, a hat, a miniature helmet,
She was also a local celebrity at school. The PPK caused her to forgo school on the Friday prior to the Divisional Playoff weekend and the Monday following, a fact Eryn was more than happy to oblige. Upon returning to class, other students were eager to hear about her adventures.
“When she got back to school on Tuesday, there was a big picture of her from the competition on the board in her classroom,” Tammy said. “And they did a little article about her in the school newspaper, too.”
With the PPK activities behind her, Eryn has finally had time to unwind and focus on other priorities, such as basketball. And her indoor soccer league. And preparing for track in the spring. But make no mistake, Eryn’s competitive passion for the Punt, Pass & Kick competition is not waning in the least.
“I’m looking forward to going back next year and winning again.”