Gasping for air in a silent panic, I look upward scared for my life. Players huddle all around, murmuring words I can’t discern. After what seems like an eternity, I am gently ushered off the field by Coach Burns. I realize the air was knocked out of me from an opponent’s forearm to my throat, slamming me to the ground. From the stands, I see my father’s steady blue eyes, coupled with worry and encouragement. His look is all the assurance I need to keep going and shake it off.
I have no idea what in the world I was thinking when I joined the boys seventh grade tackle football team at Nisqually Middle. Somehow my experience playing co-ed intramural flag football in fifth and sixth grade led me down the adolescent path of no return. I was the only girl on the team creating a big “to do” for all involved. Dad, in his supportive way, said, “You can do anything you set your mind to. If you want to play football, have at it!” Mom, on the other hand, wondered why I wanted to play, was shocked dad was giving the okay, and quietly resisted. The school administrators, Mr. Bykerk and Mrs. Hendrickson, held a special meeting with my parents “to discuss my safety.” I was mortified when they brought up an even more personal topic, “how I was going to protect my chest?” They assumed it was an equal rights issue. That wasn’t my agenda at all! I just enjoyed the sport, thought I had some skills, and simply wanted to play ball. How was I to know the decision would create turmoil on many levels?
Someone, I don’t recall who, came up with the plan that I could be the kicker. I’d be part of the team, but avoid any real contact. Mom liked the idea, since this seemed like the only way for me to avoid getting hurt. That weekend dad and I went to the field at Timberline HIgh to practice punting and placekicking. I couldn’t figure out how to kick the ball at the correct trajectory nor any reasonable distance. Dad would say, “You give 100%, so will I. You give 5%, so will I.” The implication being I wasn’t trying very hard. In reality, I couldn’t kick the football to save my life!
Practice and tryouts started the following week. I remember the endless drills of wind sprints, jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, drop downs, and the like. What was I doing?! I thought I was going to die. Immediately, I desperately wanted to quit. Dad said, “You started it, you finish it.” Dammit, I knew there was no way out. It was as if my decision set in motion a row of dominos, one bumping into the next; unable to be stopped, out of control. I’d have to suck it up and stick it out, no matter what was in store.
Towards the end of the week final tryouts and cuts were made. Due to my lack of kicking skills, it was obvious the “safe” position of kicker wasn’t going to be mine. If I were a boy, I probably would’ve been cut. Basically, the coach had to keep me, which at the time, I was completely unaware of.
Since I was just as tall and big as the boys, I wound up being assigned the position of offensive right tackle. Granted, I had no clue what that meant or what I was supposed to do. Here I was, an ignorant, passive spectator now required to be an active participant. Really, I was oblivious! I had no idea what the function of the positions were, nor how to execute plays. I distinctly remember Sauceda, the running back, yelling, “Make a hole and get out of the way!!” I finally got the message when he literally ran over the top of me, his cleats digging into the back of my calves leaving a trail of square indentations.
I was officially part of the team, number 38, offensive line. Ironically, I didn’t know the line of scrimmage I was supposed to hold, drew another line in my life. A line of separation. Being the only girl on an all boy team created a divide that couldn’t be explained. The girls treated me differently, because I was now one of the guys. While I was putting on shoulder pads and cleats, they would be dressing down into shorts and t-shirt for volleyball. Degrading comments such as “where’s your cup?” often permeated the locker room. Their cold words had the stench of a skunk, which lingered with me even though the source eventually went out of sight. To the boys, I was like a sister. At the start, they hesitantly welcomed me. In the end, protected me like their own. I was officially a member of their circle.
This intangible division continued into high school, as the only girl on the golf team freshman and sophomore year. I felt like there was something different about how I interacted with my peers; a disconnection I couldn’t explain. I now realize the words and actions of my peers weren’t directed at me personally, rather towards the unique situation.
Looking back, I believe playing football paved a specific path for me. I’m able to travel with a quiet internal strength and persevere. The lines of scrimmage are either held strong or broken through. In this unpredictable game called life, I’ve learned how to play and determine my own victories.