Erin Smith was coaching two young soccer players at an indoor facility near her South Jersey home last Sunday night, and that meant she was missing the Eagles game and, more specifically, couldn’t keep up with her boyfriend, linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill. Work is work, though, and Smith had to take care of hers before she could turn her attention to his.
“Kamu is mostly on special teams, so I know when to watch and when it’s OK not to watch, if you know what I mean,” Smith said.
That’s true for most games, but Sunday’s against the Cowboys turned out to be a little different. Smith took a small break between drill sessions and picked up her phone for a quick look, and the screen was jumping.
“I had, like, 40 text messages all of a sudden. One of them said, ‘Kamu’s about to kick,’ ” Smith said. “And there was another text where someone sent me a screen shot of a tweet that said he missed the net when he was practicing. I told the two girls I was working with, ‘I’m sorry. I have to watch this.’ ”
Smith found a television and, sure enough, Grugier-Hill was lining up to kick off for the Eagles as an emergency replacement for kicker Jake Elliott, who had suffered a concussion.
“I thought, ‘Oh, God. This is going to end badly. It’s going to break his poor little heart,’ ” Smith said.
Smith knows something about striking a ball soccer-style. She was a standout at Shawnee High School in Medford Township, Burlington County, then a four-year defender for Rutgers. As a senior, Smith was first-team all-Big Ten and was invited to camp with U.S. Soccer’s U-23 women’s national team.
More recently, the 22-year-old was drafted in January by the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League, but she opted to finish her degree this year and will go to camp next season with Sky Blue FC, the NWSL franchise based in Piscataway. In the interim, Smith is a private coach for elite age-group players and, apparently, the occasional kicking instructor for Kamu Grugier-Hill.
“I take all of the credit,” she said.
Sure, now she does. But not until that first kickoff sailed down the field and she could breathe again. In all, Grugier-Hill kicked off four times, one of which went all the way over the goal line for a touchback.
“I saw the first kick and it was amazing, and then it was like he was doing them all farther and farther,” Smith said. “I had no idea he was even an option. We tell each other everything, but he’s very humble and he wouldn’t want to come home and brag about that, or wouldn’t want to think about anybody getting hurt.”
The explanation is even simpler. When Grugier-Hill became the emergency kicker after an October injury to Chris Maragos, he practiced once for special teams coach Dave Fipp, then didn’t think much more about it.
“Honestly, it was like, what are the chances? There’s no way Jake will ever get hurt. When it did happen, I was probably just as surprised as her,” said Grugier-Hill, who played soccer in his hometown of Honolulu from age 4 to 14. “I tried to tell myself not to just rip it, because with a soccer ball, if you rip it as hard as you can, it’s going to go wherever. I wanted an easy stroke, kind of like a golf swing.”
Whether it was his background as a soccer player, or the recent workouts with Smith and her clients on local fields during the offseason, something must have paid off. Once he got onto the field, his kickoffs were textbook.
“Oh, yeah. She taught me quite a bit,” Grugier-Hill said, playing along. “She did say the form was really good and that it was sort of surprising. I was like, ‘Well, thanks.’ ”
“I saw a picture of him kicking,” Smith said, “and his toe was perfectly pointed and his leg was perfectly straight. I just tell people I taught him all that.”
This Sunday, with Elliott cleared to return through the league’s concussion protocol, Grugier-Hill will probably have a more predictable afternoon. He leads the special teams in tackles and has made himself a valuable part of those teams since joining the Eagles for the 2016 season. And now, everyone knows he can do even more if necessary.
As for the credit, well, success is never an orphan.