It was the summer of 1970. Steve Palinkas had just gotten back from serving in the Army in Germany and thought he’d pursue his dream of playing professional football. Kicker tryouts for Orlando’s “minor league” team, the Orlando Panthers, didn’t go well. Then he immediately realized what he was missing.
“I told them, let me do it again, let me bring my holder because when I practice, I always use my wife Pat,” he tells TIME.
He made the team—but that wasn’t all. The coach signed Pat, too, and she was the one who would go on to have the better-known career in the sport.
On Aug. 15, 1970, she became forever known as the first woman to play in a professional football game, when she held the ball for him during his extra point attempt at an exhibition game against the Bridgeport Jets. “My name Pat also means ‘point after touchdown,’ and that’s what I was trying to make with my husband,” she says.
“The locker room will never be the same,” LIFE magazine declared in a Aug. 28, 1970, spread featuring a picture of the 27-year-old “122-pound blonde” being knocked down by the “235-pound Jet linebacker” Wally Florence — quoted as saying, “I tried to break her neck. She’s out here prancing around making folly with a man’s game.”
“I still look at that and go, ‘ouch!'” she says. She also noted a very specific reason for the mishap: she had been so nervous that someone had recommended she take a tranquilizer, something she’d never done before. “I go out there, and the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Are you ready honey?’ Someone said, ‘You’ll never hear these words in football again,'” she recalls. “Unfortunately, the ball was thrown to me from the center, and I bobbled the ball, and [Wally] just came in and smashed me. But I got up and I stretched a little bit and I was fine. Then every conversion after that was successful. I blame it on the tranquilizer. Maybe that’s why I was so loose.”
The Panthers would end up winning the game 26-7, and Pat was invited to appear on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News, The Merv Griffin Show, What’s My Line?, To Tell the Truth and a local radio talk show, where she’d call in and give NFL predictions. “We also interviewed with Howard Cosell,” Steve recalls, “That was the first year that Monday Night Football came out and all these people were afraid that women weren’t going to watch Monday Night Football.”
The couple wouldn’t play the sport for much longer. Steve only played two more games before injuring his thigh, and Pat would only play a few more before deciding “it wasn’t as much fun holding the ball for someone else.” He’d go on to be a salesman, and she an elementary-school teacher. But she has fond memories of her private locker room — a.k.a. a closet — and teammates who gave her “a lot of taps on the butt.”
Nowadays, the retired couple roots for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and plays football in the front yard of their Clearwater, Fla., home with their daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons, ages 10 and 6. Every now and then, still, she’ll get fan mail—and letters from female athletes asking for words of advice.
Her advice? “Don’t be afraid of anything.”
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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at email@example.com