PUNXSUTAWNEY — If Steelers kicker Jeff Reed should ever be sidelined with an injury, his back-up could be waiting on a football field in Punxsutawney.
Laney Monroe, a nine-year-old third-grader at SS.C.D., has been playing catch with baseballs, soccer balls, basketballs and footballs ever since she was able to get her hands around one, and now has a chance to display her years of practice by taking part in the eight-to-nine-year-old girls’ bracket in the NFL’s Punt, Pass & Kick program.
Her favorite of the three skills? “I’d have to go with passing, because that’s what we’ve been doing since I was little,” she said.
Laney, daughter of Travis and Dana Monroe of Punxsutawney, will be among 40 other youngsters taking part in the Pittsburgh Steelers PPK Team Championship Sunday, Nov. 21, at the Steelers’ training complex in the South Side of Pittsburgh.
She and the other participants will also get to see the Steelers take on the Oakland Raiders and display some of their skills during half-time at Heinz Field.
Established in 1961, the PPK is the NFL’s oldest youth football program for boys and girls from ages six to 15.
In 2009, after learning about the PPK program, Laney took first place in a DuBois competition, but only second in a contest in Indiana.
Her dad, who is the principal at the Longview, Parkview and West End Elementary Schools in Punxsy, said not placing first in 2009 provided a catalyst for 2010: Laney wanted to keep practicing for PPK.
The practice over the last year began to pay off in August, when Laney won a local PPK event in DuBois, which made her eligible to compete in sectional competitions, a gathering of about 15 winners from other local events, at Indiana Area High School in October.
She took first place at the Indiana event as well, which made her ready to compete in the Nov. 21 event, right?
Not so, said her dad, as western Pennsylvania and West Virginia have a total of eight sectional events, and judges choose their top four scores from the eight sectional events.
“It was possible for her to win sectionals and still not get to go to Heinz Field,” Travis said.
So Laney and her family then spent the next few weeks anxiously awaiting word from the NFL as to whether she would be among those competing in the Nov. 21 contest.
Finally, this past Monday, the Monroes received a letter from the NFL stating that she would be able to compete.
“I was very, very excited,” said Laney, whose favorite sport is soccer but has taken part in basketball, baseball and a bit of golf. “I was about to cry because I was so happy.”
Not only has her dad and her four-year-old sister, Briley — who chases the footballs after Laney punts, passes or kicks them — helped her practice, but so has PAHS Athletic Director John Knopick, who punted and kicked for IUP in the mid-1970s.
“I knew that she competed last year, and she did well last year, when she was eight,” Knopick said. “This year, (Travis) had mentioned it to me, that she’s interested in pursuing it again, and I told him, if she wanted a little instruction, I would be willing give her a few minutes.”
Laney said Knopick has shown her how to hold the football correctly, the proper stances and footing for place kicking and just the right spot where she should put her toe on the ball.
“He showed me how to make the ball go farther,” she said.
In the PPK event, each participant is allowed one punt, one pass and one place-kick as part of his or her competition.
Scores are based on both distance and accuracy. For example, if a participant passes the ball 100 feet, but the ball lands 30 feet to the right of the measuring tape, the final score is calculated by deducting 30 from 100, for a final score of 70.
Given the fact that the rules state points can be deducted for errant punts, passes or kicks, Knopick said one of Laney’s strong points is kicking or throwing the ball straight.
“You can kick it far, but if you’re not kicking it straight, they deduct points,” he said. “You don’t have to have a strong leg or arm; you just have to be accurate, and that’s one of her strong points.”
Laney’s also receiving some practice time at school. She has classmates holding the ball and chasing the ball during recess, as well as her own cheering section.
“She’s looking great,” Knopick said. “She’s accomplished what some kids dream of: Participating at Heinz Field, down in what is basically the quarterfinals for a national competition. That’s an accomplishment itself.”
For the record, Jeff Reed isn’t Laney’s favorite Steeler — it’s Hines Ward.
Laney won’t be the only Jefferson County youngster taking part in PPK Nov. 21: She’ll be joined by Blaise Carney of Reynoldsville in the eight-to-nine-year-old boys’ division, and Abby Jo Northey of Brookville in the 10-to-11-year old girls’ division.