Playing football was the first time I felt like an athlete.
I remember growing up watching football games with my dad, brother, male cousins, and uncles (always cheering for the Patriots, despite coming from a family of Jets fans). I learned the rules, asked my dad questions, and watched the plays closely. I always cared much more about the game strategy than learning the players’ names.
My dad was the first one to teach me how to throw a spiral. He would take my younger brother and me to our local park, and we would play catch for hours. My brother would always comment on how I could throw a better spiral much farther than he could.
Around Thanksgiving every year, we had a family football game out in the backyard. It was all fun and games, especially since we were full of turkey and stuffing, but there was a part of me that always got so much joy from running around my male cousins and uncles, diving for that really long ball, sprinting to tag my cousin before he could score, or catching an interception and scoring at the other end.
In middle school, we would do month long units on a different sport. I always loved the football unit and have a distinct memory of a drill that we used to do. There were two lines on either side of our gym teacher. On the whistle, the first person in each line would take off sprinting down the grass field. The teacher would throw the ball as high and far as he could and the two students would have to sprint and often jump to win possession and then score, without being touched, at the other end. I always beat the boy in the other line. Sprinting faster than him, snagging the ball out of the air, and then outrunning him to the end. I remember hearing the boys whisper about me as I proudly returned to the line.
When I changed schools and entered high school, I knew that I wanted to join a sports team and considered going out for the football team. Being a 5 foot, 100 pound girl, I knew that, even if I tried as hard as I could, I realistically probably wouldn’t get that much playing time. So I switched to soccer. But my love of football remained, if only to be revived at family Thanksgiving games.
During college I found the rugby team and knew immediately that this was the place for me. It combined all my favorite aspects of football, but was more dynamic and creative. I fell in love with the sport and dove, sometimes quite literally, head first into my team for all four years of college.
I think this raw love of the football came from playing, and playing well, a male dominated sport. Showing up men and boys made me feel athletic and gave me pride in my abilities. I certainly have had the same feeling from playing soccer, and even more so in rugby, but football gave me my first taste of proving that girls are just as good as boys in sports.
We started our football unit with the girls a few weeks ago, and I have been reliving many of my early sports feelings by watching them pick it up so quickly. On the first day of learning how to catch and pass, a few of the girls were throwing perfect spirals. We have had the chance to play a few games in class, with Alika and I always playing stationary QBs, and I can’t stop smiling watching them get excited about playing. They have some of the best hands that I have seen in the game. There are a few exceptional athletes who will snag the ball out of the air, pull a spin move, and then outrun the other girls to score a touchdown. It’s seriously incredible to watch. When we kick field goals after scoring, we use the top of the goals as the standard metric. Your team gets points if you can successfully kick it over the top bar. On her first touchdown, one of our girls kicked it not only over the cross bar, but out of the court and almost into the yard of a house across the street. Watching her jump up and down after with her team made me so happy. I pretty much spend the whole class smiling and laughing while watching them crush it on the court.
While watching the girls learn football so quickly makes me excited, I think the thing that really makes me proud is seeing them get so surprised, happy, and genuinely passionate about a play that they make. When they make a great catch, have a nice run, or get the field goal, the smile that lights up on their face is enough to sustain me for the rest of the week.
It automatically brings me back to my younger self, a self that knew she could play with the boys, beat them, and accomplish anything she set her mind to.