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51 reasons it’s time to stop treating women and girls in football like sideshows

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Girls have been playing football for years. Let’s celebrate that.

Deering High School football player Liz Drelich stares straight ahead on the bench with her teammates.

Surprise: Girls play football.

As participation by boys continues to slip, the number of girls playing high school football has doubled in the past decade. Specifically, 2,404 of them have hit the gridiron nationally at last count — a tally that is probably less precise than it looks, but still substantial.

There is an interesting story in that, but it’s not the one we keep telling. Even in 2019, girls who play football — thousands of them — are singled out and treated as exceptional with feel-good features centered around words like “first” and “only”. Those words, and the increasingly specific descriptions to which they are attached, are a way to make newsworthy something that just fundamentally isn’t: girls playing football.

We (members of the press) have been telling the same story for literally over 100 years. From 1911:

From the Santa Ana Register, 1911

From 1935:

From the Associated Press, 1935

Some of the words have changed, but the tone is more or less the same: “Would you believe it? A girl is playing football!” It’s a tone that looks like a celebration, but upon closer consideration is actually quite patronizing — to think that a girl playing football is newsworthy, you have to operate from the assumption girls don’t or even can’t play football. As these 51 players and their thousands of forebears prove, they do and they can.

What they also show is why telling these stories and spotlighting these players is so seductive. If we keep insisting they’re breaking barriers, we’ll keep getting to feel good about how progressive we are. It is inspiring to hear them speak, to hear them say over and over that girls can do anything boys can do — but a big part of why it still means so much to hear them say that is because we insist on always framing their participation as transgressive. As a result, it stays that way.

Kiaira Smith, freshman; Bristol, Pennsylvania

Smith is a running back, linebacker and kicker for Bristol High School’s varsity football team. “I can catch, I can kick and I’m good at tackling,” she said in an interview with Philadelphia’s WPVI. “I want to be different,” Smith added. “I want to be the first female to get into the NFL.”

Baylee Fry, senior; Richmond, Indiana

The Centerville High School starting kicker, Fry also plays on the varsity soccer team — and placed fifth at the last state wrestling meet. “When I need a crunch kick, I’m not worried about it,” her coach Kyle Padgett told the Richmond Palladium-Item. “Whatever she sets her mind to, she’s good at. I’m just glad she picked football.”

Phoebe Neher, junior; Richmond, Indiana

Neher, a wide receiver and cornerback, is following a family tradition by suiting up: her older sister Sophie was Centerville’s kicker, and is remembered for winning homecoming queen the same night she went 5-for-5 on extra points. According to her coach, Phoebe has become one of the team’s leaders. “She is one of the most driven people I have ever taught or coached,” Padgett said to the Palladium-Item.

Elena Alvarado, freshman; Albany, Louisiana

Alvarado plays offensive and defensive line on the Albany High School varsity team.

Olivia Davis, junior; Springfield, Louisiana

Davis is a kicker for the Springfield High Bulldogs.

Lila Roberts, sophomore; Belchertown, Massachusetts

Roberts is a running back and middle linebacker for the Belchertown High Orioles, and has been playing football for years. As she explained to the Amherst Bulletin, she prefers playing defense because she likes to hit. “She’s one of us, she’s part of the group,” Orioles captain Hunter Klingensmith told WWLP. “If you didn’t know she was a girl off the field, you wouldn’t even know. She’s a phenomenal player and a great athlete.” Not that anyone’s let her forget: “I think it’s ridiculous, but every time the coaches say ‘boys’ they add ‘and girl’ at the end,” Roberts told the station. (Roberts clearly has great taste: she’s a fan of Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, despite living in Patriots territory.)

Kandis Orns, senior; Battle Creek, Michigan

Orns was scouted from the varsity soccer squad to fill Battle Creek Central football’s kicker position (she also plays basketball). “Girls are constantly proving that they can do whatever they put their mind to,” Orns told Fox Sports Detroit. “A girl can lift just as much as a boy, a girl can be on a football team and do just as good as the boys. A girl can do anything a boy can do, and a boy can do anything a girl can do.”

Sandra McComb, freshman; Salt Lake City, Utah

“When I play defense, I have been able to sack the quarterback a couple times,” McComb, who plays offensive and defensive line on the Logan High School freshman team, said in an interview with “That’s my favorite thing.”

Issy Pita, junior; Eagle Lake, Florida

Pita is a kicker for the Lake Region High Thunder. This season she’s wearing No. 22 to honor Sophie Delott, who played running back and safety for nearby Seminole High School before she was killed by a suspected drunk driver earlier this year.

Molly Martin, sophomore; Davenport, Florida

Martin made the all-state soccer team as a freshman at Ridge Community High, so when the football team needed to supplement their roster of specialists, the sophomore got the call. She made her first extra point, and nine since.

Liz Heistand, junior; Wrightsville, Pennsylvania

The Eastern York High kicker was pressed into service from the soccer team when football coach Josh Campbell noticed her offseason dedication to the weight room. Even though she’s still playing soccer, she hasn’t missed participating in the football team’s two-a-days. “Campbell said I didn’t have to go to it, but I wanted the team to trust me,” Heistand told the York Daily Record. “I didn’t want them to think, ‘Oh no, she hasn’t put in any work.’ Now, they’ve seen me there so much they know I’m part of the team.”

She missed her first attempt, but made the next two. “It wasn’t an experiment, we knew what she could do,” Campbell said to the York Dispatch. “Like everyone else — there’s 22 guys on the football field, typically, and they all make mistakes.”

Alicia Dickerson, freshman; Powhatan, Virginia

“What do you love about football?” Terrance Dixon, a reporter for CBS affiliate WIFR, asked Dickerson. “I can hit people,” replied the JV offensive guard and defensive lineman, who started playing in Pop Warner before becoming Powhatan High School’s second girl player. “Just follow your dreams,” she added by way of encouragement to other girls. “Just go do it, it’s fun.”

Maggie Shafer, sophomore; Noblesville, Indiana

“Typically the girl on your team is the kicker,” Noblesville coach Justin Roden told WTHR. “On the soccer team, kind of there part time. What’s different about Maggie is she’s here everyday. She wants to be treated just like everybody else.”

Shafer is a wide receiver for the Noblesville High junior varsity team, and started playing in middle school. “Proving people wrong takes a lot of time and effort, but ultimately if I can do it, other people can too,” Shafer told the station. “People started telling me I couldn’t do it, and some family members weren’t very positive towards it. I was just kind of like, ‘You know what? I don’t care what you say, I’m going to beat the odds.’”

Her dream is to play for the University of Florida. “My goal is to make it to college,” she said. “If I could make it to the NFL, that would be amazing. But I mean, you never really know!”

Elizabeth Drelich, senior; Portland, Maine

Drelich was already one of Deering High’s most prolific athletes, playing field hockey, basketball and softball. But football had always intrigued her, so she decided to try it out as a senior. Now, having never played before this year, she’s a linebacker for the JV team with a shot to take snaps on varsity. “It felt good to finally be able to hit because it’s something that’s never allowed in girls’ sports,” Drelich told the Portland Press Herald.

”I hope to hopefully inspire other people the same way I’ve been inspired,” she added. “Not just women or young girls, but anybody who maybe wants to step out of their comfort zone, or society’s comfort zone, and try something new.”

Keelyn Peacock, junior; Stillwater, New York

Peacock made the all-state soccer team last season, which also happened to be her first as the kicker for Stillwater High varsity football. She started kicking as a joke, but her talent was immediately obvious to the coaches. “When she said she wanted to kick, who would turn a winner down like Keelyn Peacock?” Stillwater coach Ian Godfrey told News 10. She has faced some criticism on social media, but Peacock brushes it off. “They’re just wasting their time,” she told the station.

Angel Celaya, senior; Visalia, California

Angel Celaya is 4’11 and 120 pounds — a stature that can be an asset in her wrestling career, for which she’s received scholarship offers. But on the Golden West football team, which she was dared to join by a friend as a freshman, it can be a little more of a liability.

“I play football because all my life, I’ve been told that I can’t do things because of my height and my gender,” Celaya told KSEE24. Other kids’ parents have told her she belongs in the kitchen, or on the cheerleading squad.

“I don’t know why, but [being hit on the field] just makes me happy. It shows that they treat me like everyone else,” Celaya said in another interview with the Sun-Gazette. “If they didn’t respect me then they wouldn’t hit me, they wouldn’t push me as hard as they do, or they wouldn’t tell me stuff trying to help me get better.”

“I’ve worked really hard, done a lot of things, and people always have told me I can’t,” the running back said earlier this season, shortly after scoring her first touchdown on the varsity team. “But I can, and I told them I could. Now I proved to myself, too, that I can.”

Gracie Rodriguez, sophomore; Hoffman Estates, Illinois

Rodriguez is the latest in a long line of girls from Conant High to take their talents from the pitch to the gridiron. Jen Grubb became the team’s kicker in 1996, before going on to play soccer for Notre Dame. Drew Wentzel started in 2011, and the most recent crossover artist, Jess Smeltzer, graduated earlier this year.

Rodriguez saw Smeltzer kick last season, and immediately joined the freshman team. “I had heard of Jess through soccer and when I went to that football game, I thought it was so cool and awesome that Jess was doing the kicking,” she told the Daily Herald. “I wasn’t playing a fall sport, and I was thinking that I really wanted to be a three-sport athlete because I play basketball, too. So I went home and told my dad that I wanted to kick footballs. I thought I could do it, but I watched some videos first and then he and I went out to a park near my house that has goal posts and we started kicking.”

This year, she’s on varsity. “Seeing those videos of Carli Lloyd, I just thought it was so cool, and it makes me want to be as good,” Rodriguez said of seeing the USWNT star’s viral kicks with the Philadelphia Eagles. “For her to get offers to join the NFL, it made me realize that maybe I could do the same thing. It made me realize how far I could go with this if I really worked at it.”

Raeann Clayton, junior; Rolesville, North Carolina

Clayton is the starting kicker for the dominant Rolesville High Rams (they’re 8-1). “If you can help me win a football game, I don’t care if you’re straight, gay, male or female,” Rolesville coach Martin Samek told the local ABC affiliate. “If you can help me win a football game, I want you on my football team.”

“I just think it’s really important that they know they got beat by a girl,” Clayton told the station. “I just love when they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a girl. I just lost to a team with a girl on it.’”

Kayla Alexander, junior; Pasadena, Maryland

Alexander is yet another soccer convert, whose travel team won’t allow her to simultaneously play for Northeast High. So, she showed up for football tryouts.

“Some people might think I came out more for the media attention, but I didn’t really do that,” Alexander told the Capital Gazette. “I just came to kick and to be part of this team.

“She’s pretty consistent 37 yards and in, so we got a little more bang for our buck than we were expecting,” Northeast coach Brian Baublitz said in an interview with Pressbox Online.

”People think that girls can’t do the same things that guys can do,” Alexander told the site. “... I truly believe that if they have the talent and the will to do it, they can do it.”

Shaela Vogt, freshman; Corryton, Tennessee

Vogt, a right tackle and defensive end for Gibbs High School, is a football lifer — she’s been playing since she was four years old. She spent all summer working out with the team, and by August, another girl had submitted a physical to join the program.

“Girls can do it as well as guys, and if they really want to and put the work in, they can be better than the guys,” Vogt told WATE.

Emma Domka, senior; Becker, Minnesota

Domka has started kicking for the first time this season, after establishing herself as a star on the soccer team. “It doesn’t scare me,” Domka told the St. Cloud Times. “When I was a little kid, I wanted to play tackle football. Now, my senior year, I get to play it. I’m just enjoying it.”

Kaitlyn Reynolds, senior; Orlando, Florida

“My kicker kicks like a girl, and I can’t be more proud of it,” wrote Freedom High coach Robert Mahoney on Twitter just after Reynolds nailed a field goal to give her team its first win of the season in overtime last month. Reynold is pinch-kicking from the soccer team, but her consistency has made her a local sensation.

“I’m a girl so everyone expects you to not be able to do it, and then I do it, and they’re like, ‘Whoa, she can do it,’” Reynolds told Fox 35 Orlando. She was voted captain after the first game of the season.

“Everybody’s welcome at our table, and that means everybody,” Mahoney told the station. “Black, white, male, female, it doesn’t matter to me — if you want to be part of this sport, you can come be part of it.”

“Hopefully it opens up more eyes,” Mahoney continued. “Right now there are a lot of women in the game of football. There are coaches at almost every level, we have a young lady playing safety at a college in Colorado — for more people to see that this game really can be played by anybody, I think it’s important for everybody to know.”

Nicole Konefal, senior; Wallington, New Jersey

The wide receiver and defensive back decided to start playing football as a frustrated cheerleader, watching from the sidelines and wondering why the players she was rooting for couldn’t get it together. She’s played all four years at Wallington High.

Zoia Safdar, senior; Wallington, New Jersey

Safdar also plays wide receiver and defensive back for the Wallington High Panthers, but her true passion is basketball.

Kohli Carruth, sophomore; Lincolnton, Georgia

Carly Carruth, sophomore; Lincolnton, Georgia

Gianna Anderson, sophomore; Lincolnton, Georgia

All three girls, who also compete in soccer and softball, are kickers for the Lincoln County High Red Devils.

Sophia Cunningham, junior; Basking Ridge, New Jersey

”I’ve always wanted to play football since I was in fifth grade,” Cunningham told “But since I was a girl I was never allowed to until Coach Tracy finally gave me a chance.” Now, the running back and defensive back is playing with the Ridge High JV squad, and has even convinced a friend to join the football team at nearby Morristown High.

Claire Gaston, senior; Middletown, New Jersey

Gaston is another soccer convert, kicking for the Mater Dei Prep football team. “I was excited because she’s a girl, they always say girls can’t do this, girls can’t do that,” her teammate Isaiah Noguera told the Asbury Park Press. “She really came out here and proved people wrong that she could do it.”

Angelina Schilling, senior; Deptford Township, New Jersey

Schilling couldn’t play soccer for her high school because it would have conflicted with the requirements for her club team. Instead, she joined the Deptford High football team — and in her very first game, she made five extra points and a field goal. “I was like, I know I can do this, and I know I can do it better than some guys,” Schilling told Chasing News.

Olivia Thompson, freshman; Louisville, Kentucky

Thompson, who plays on the offensive line for the Ballard High Bruins, started playing in middle school. There, as she explained to the Courier-Journal, she was bullied and excluded. “If I could go back in time, I would definitely tell them that just because I’m a female, they shouldn’t treat me any differently than they treat the other guys,” Thompson told the paper.

But she stuck with it, and has found a considerably warmer welcome with her high school team. “My goal for this season is to get as many plays I can get in as possible. I want to block the defense. I want to get the tackles. I want to get the pancakes,” Thompson told the paper. “If I don’t succeed, then there’s another game the next week.”

Isabel Kaiser, senior; Louisville, Kentucky

Kaiser is a long snapper at Kentucky Country Day. “It always looked like a really fun game, and since it’s my senior year, I finally had the courage to go out and try to play on the football team,” Kaiser told the Courier-Journal.

Shaelin Warner, senior; Shepherdsville, Kentucky

Warner is a kicker for the Bullitt Central High Cougars, which has another girl, Alyson Boman, on its freshman team.

Emily Amaya, junior; Louisville, Kentucky

”I know I’m tough,” Amaya, a wide receiver and defensive back for the Atherton High Rebels, told WLKY. “I get hit by full-grown guys all the time, and I get back up. I know I’m tough, or else I wouldn’t be playing this game.” She joined the team after seeing a girl on the team during her freshman year, and after spending a season on the JV squad, is hoping to catch a TD this year.

“I do want to play in college, if I get the opportunity,” she told the Courier-Journal. “I’m not going to expect much of field time, but it’d be cool to be part of a college team in an advanced level.”

Taylor Thompson, freshman; Indianapolis, Indiana

Thompson is a kicker for the freshman team at Ben Davis High. “I feel like if I mess up, they’re going to be mad — but they all tell me that they mess up in games so I can, too,” she told WISH TV.

Emily Tassara, freshman; Williamsburg, Virginia

“I’d been asking my parents if I could play football since the third grade,” Tassara, who is a running back, cornerback and kicker for Bruton High School, told the Virginia Gazette. “Last year, they finally caved, and I tried out for the team at Queens Lake ... it was like a dream come true.”

“I like to run, but I also enjoy the physicality of the sport,” she added. “I really enjoy getting to tackle people. I smile every time I hit the field — practice, scrimmage, it doesn’t matter.”

Isabelle Caulford, freshman; Williamsburg, Virginia

Caulford started playing in middle school, when a coach desperate for players quipped to the student body that he was looking for anyone willing to play — “even girls.” She took him up on it, and has continued on the JV team at Lafayette High School as a quarterback, cornerback and safety.

McKenna Gervais, senior; Hortonville, Wisconsin

Gervais is another soccer player-turned-pinch kicker for the Hortonville High School Polar Bears. “It’s made my high school experience much more fun,” she told the Waupaca County News. “I feel like I’ve gained confidence in myself.”

Sofia Molina, sophomore; Cooper City, Florida

Molina, a kicker, got a fair amount of attention for being Cooper City High’s first female player — but she was pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. “Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it,” she told WPLG. “You can do it, it doesn’t matter if it’s a girls’ or a boys’ sport — anyone can do anything.”

Brynna Nixon, junior; Fife, Washington

Nixon was inspired to start playing football after watching her first Seahawks game in second grade; almost 10 years later, she threw a touchdown pass in a playoff game as the backup QB at Fife High School. “Like every game, people are like, ‘Oh my God, it’s a girl,’” she told Q13 FOX. “I just see myself as a high school kid playing football and doing a sport that I love and have fun doing.”

Emma Kessler, sophomore; Effingham, Illinois

Though she wanted to play offensive line because she liked the movie The Blind Side, Kessler realized she just wasn’t quite big enough. So instead she’s playing defensive line for the Effingham High Hearts.

“I still don’t want to mess up, but I don’t get really nervous anymore,” she told the ET Sports Report. “Being faster and stronger would help a lot. But I try hard and I try to never take a rep off. I’m determined to do my best on every play. And with our coaches, I get the same shot as everyone else.”

Sydney Alloco, senior; Hilton, New York

“There are going to be people who don’t want to hit me because I’m a girl, or who will want to hit me because I’m a girl,” Alloco, a kicker for Hilton High, told WROC. “But I have trust in my teammates ... and if I get hit, I get hit. It’s football.”

Samantha Segura-Veliz, senior; Wildomar, California

“There was a time when a young girl came up to me after a game and said she wanted to be a football player like me. I was really moved by that. It made all the stress I’d gone through worth it just for that one moment,” Segura-Veliz, an offensive guard and defensive end at Elsinore High, told the Press-Enterprise shortly after she’d been crowned homecoming queen. She’d joined the team not just because she loves the game, but also because she wanted to prove that there’s no reason girls can’t play.

“Never listen to people that say you’re not capable of playing sports or doing something different in life because of your gender,” she said. “I would have never played football if I listened to everyone who doubted me.”

Claudia Muessig, senior; Paw Paw, Michigan

Before she started kicking for the Paw Paw High team, Muessig was on the sidelines as a cheerleader. But she’s also captain of the soccer team, and as such was pressed into service when their former star specialist moved out of state — since, she’s made 31 of 34 extra points and a 24-yard field goal.

Brooke Musgrove, senior; Florence, Mississippi

Musgrove just finished three seasons as the kicker at McLaurin High School.

“I’ll be quite honest with you I had not coached a girl in football before,” her coach, Sid Wheatley, told WJTV. “So it was a different experience. But the thing that I noticed right off the bat is that she was doing everything the guys were — we’re talking about flipping tires, bench press, squatting, everything like that — so she immediately gained my respect with the work she put in.”

Jah’veya Davis, sophomore; Grand Forks, North Dakota

Davis plays on the offensive and defensive lines for the JV team at Red River High School. “My older brother played football, and I used to be a cheerleader,” she told the Grand Forks Herald. “But I always thought it would be cool to play. It looked fun. And I wanted to see what it was like to wear a uniform.’’

Over her two seasons playing, Davis has already seen some changes in how she’s been treated by her peers. “Last year, at first it was like, ‘Oh, no, it’s a girl,’ like they needed to back off,’’ she said. “I didn’t want that. Now I think it’s harder hitting. And I like it when I’m just another lineman out there. I like to hit. They’ll hit me; I’ve been hit pretty hard sometimes.’’

Marcella DePaul, junior; Berkley, Michigan

Janay Lakey, junior; Ecorse, Michigan

Azia Isaac, senior; Detroit, Michigan

Depaul is a free safety and receiver, Lakey is on the offensive line and Isaac is a running back — all play for different schools, and were featured in a Detroit News article about the growing number of girls playing football in Michigan.

“As a girl, I get targeted,” Isaac said. “But to me, that’s beneficial to our team — because they’re too focused on me and not what’s going on in the game, so it leads to us having bigger plays. They say inappropriate stuff sometimes.”

Bela Beltran, senior; Corpus Christi, Texas

Beltran is also in band and on the soccer team, but that didn’t keep her from becoming part of the Veterans Memorial High kicking corps.

Aurora Fuhs, junior; Ames, Iowa

Fuhs, a receiver for the Ames High Little Cyclones, has a more unlikely football conversion story: she started in marching band, and just really enjoyed watching the games.

“I was like, ‘Dang, I want to be on the field and play — I want to get a touchdown,’” she told the Ames Tribune. “I want to play for the team, not cheer on the team.”

Sometimes opposing teams, or even her classmates give her guff. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do (play football). If you have something to say, say it,’” she said. “But it doesn’t really bother me because they’re just people in the stands watching, and I’m on the field playing.”