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Acting Armadillo

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THE GOALPOST SHADOWS ARE FALLING on the Texas State Armadillos. Manned by a gallimaufry of misfits after getting caught breaking NCAA recruiting rules, the Armadillos have lost eight straight. But, ah, they have a hidden weapon for game nine. Onto the field dashes the slender new placekicker, who takes careful measure, then boots the hall through the uprights: Victory! After a teammate clears the shower room so kicker Lucy Draper can have some privacy, she gently remonstrates: “I’m an Armadillo—just like everyone else.”

The modesty is becoming, but Kathy Ireland, 28, is not just any armadillo. She’s one of the world’s most-sought-after models, whose emerald eyes and svelte 5’10” frame have adorned dozens of magazine covers, most notably SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s 25th annual swimsuit issue, in 1989. Now, thanks to her film role in the football comedy Necessary Roughness, a surprise ground-gainer at the box office this fall, she has also joined another odd team: the MTAs (models turned actresses).

In this, her third film (she played two aliens in 1988’s Alien from L.A. and will appear next year with Teri Garr in Mom and Dad Save the World), Ireland found her role to be, well, necessarily rough. Says she, relaxing in her cozy Montecito, Calif., home: “It didn’t feel like making a movie. It felt like football camp.”

If so, that was because Ireland was determined to play. A soccer coach, the brother of a girlfriend, taught her to kick. Still, on location in Denton, Texas, with Scott (Quantum Leap) Bakula and veteran gridders such as Dick Butkus, she duffed her first attempt. Yet she persevered. “I get really competitive,” she says in her cat’s-purr voice. “It became my mission in life to kick that stupid football.” Eventually, she was lofting 20-yard field goals. “She was an incredible trouper,” says director Stan (Mr. Mom) Dragoti. “Her foot was so swollen they had to ice it down regularly, but she never complained.”

That’s the kind of grit that Ireland brought to her first job—delivering newspapers, at age 11, in her California hometown, Santa Barbara. The second daughter of John and Barbara Ireland (sisters Mary, 31, and Cynthia, 23, are both actresses), Ireland says of the paper route, a job first offered only to boys: “I couldn’t even lift the sacks up. I had to crawl on my belly and stick my head through the strap. Then the bag would slide back and choke me, and I’d fall off my bicycle. But I had to keep the job because I’d made it such a big deal in the first place.”

Considering herself a gangly adolescent geek, Ireland nonetheless enjoyed a blue-sky California youth. In her 17th summer she was lured from the beach to work for the Elite modeling agency in New York City. But the sun worshiper never took to Manhattan. Even when she began to make it big as a cover girl in the early ’80s, Ireland regularly commuted home to the West Coast. There, she fell in love with a beach girl’s beau ideal—a serious young physician who loved to surf. Ignoring the letters that poured in from lovesick SI readers, she married Dr. Greg Olsen, 32, a Santa Barbara emergency-room physician, in 1988. Says Olsen: “I’m the one who got the prize, and I feel lucky.”

For her part, Ireland is smart enough to read her career playbook and make the most of the options. “Even though I complain about modeling,” she says, “I’ve been able to save money and invest it. I can be pickier about roles now.” Sorry, Armadillo fans; Kathy Ireland may have booted her last three-pointer.