Playing While Female: What It's Like to Play High School Football
Football is often thought of as a man's game. But as the Ladies League says, 45% of fans are women. And I can go one step further. I actually played the game.
The first time I stepped onto the football field to kick a field goal for Pomona High School (in Arvada, Colorado) was the scariest moment of my life. My hands were sweaty, my legs were shaking, and I could barely even hold my own tee. Five thousand fans filled the stadium, all expecting me to make the extra point. When the ball was snapped, I suddenly forgot about everything and just kicked it. The ball went straight through the uprights and I watched as the referees put their hands in the air to signal the kick was good. To this day, nothing has given me more of a rush than the 30 seconds it takes to kick a field goal or extra point.
Being a kicker was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. When you agree to be the kicker for a team, you unknowingly agree to a mass of anxiety every time you step on the field. If you mess up, there is no real way to “make up for it” because you’re expected to make every kick. As any football fan knows, special teams often win or lose games. As a kicker you have one job, and each time you step on the field you walk on knowing the game could come down to you. Unlike every other position, your mistakes are highlighted on the scoreboard. As if that wasn't enough pressure on its own, people made sure to pay attention to me, the only girl on the field. Any missed kick is bad, but if a girl misses, there is so much more attention drawn to it.
I was pretty lucky in the experience I had playing football. The team, coaching staff, and community were all so supportive of me. It helped that I was good, and they could count on me to make the kick. My senior year I made 9 out 10 field goals and 47 of 48 extra points. My 74 points was the third highest total on the team.
The one time I did receive noticeable backlash it was from other females. It is always so disappointing when girls attack instead of support each other. There were plenty of girls who would undermine and take jabs at the fact that I'm playing on an all boys team. "She just wants to be around all the boys". Really? I'm dealing with the most anxiety I've ever felt for the attention of high school boys? It's comical, almost.
Why is it comical? For one, boys stink. Bad. They really don't wash their practice gear, and the result makes you want to gag. Second, they are there to compete, just like me. They work their tails off day in and day out to achieve something, and during practice and games I was just another member of the team. The cool thing about sports teams is when done right, you become a family in the process. My team referred to each other as "the brotherhood of the big black" and I was a brother like the rest of them. Same team, same goal.
I was lucky enough to be on a team that treated me like such, I'm sure some girls didn't have the same experience. The boys were kind, respectful, and had my back. The coaches joked with me like any other player, and didn’t baby me at all. If I missed, I was screamed at and told to “kick the f***ing ball” like anyone else. I can’t say I’ve ever been yelled at like that on my other teams, but I didn’t mind it so much. I could take it.
One question people always asked was “Do you get ready in the locker room with them” seemingly suggesting I’m just openly changing in front of 50 boys and watching them change in front of me. That question still makes me laugh. Hell no I did not stay in the locker room to watch boys change. Sure, there were some boys with nice six packs and good arms, but in general it’s a lot of scrawny high school boys or large linemen. Not exactly eye candy. I would go get ready in the stadium’s women’s bathroom at the top of the stands, and give the boys time to get fully dressed. That doesn’t mean I didn’t see a fair share of boys shirtless, but for the most part it was linemen putting Vaseline on their body in an effort to protect themselves from the cold. Once again, not exactly eye candy.
The most uncomfortable part of the whole thing for me was probably my own uniform. Before playing high school football, I never really considered the size difference between male and female shoulders until trying on a typical high school boy’s shoulder pads. It was ridiculous to say the least. As a kicker I didn’t want big bulky pads preventing my movement, so when one of my coaches offered his 10-year-old son’s old pads I gladly accepted. No more uncanny shoulders, but the part I didn’t consider was that the front is designed for an eight year old with no chest, not a girl with actual boobs. They covered maybe half my chest, and were so tight. After two years of playing like that I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if it stunted my growth.
The pants were also awkward. Football pants are made for males, and I as a female I am lacking the parts that are supposed to fill the bulge in the crotch region. The best solution I could find was rolling the pants and dealing with some wrinkles. Little things like how to tuck my hair inside my helmet, how high to put my pants over my hips, how much of my knee pads to trim off, and putting a decal on a helmet are all things that a female soccer player doesn't really deal with.
More than dealing with the nuances of the dress codes however is dealing with the pressure. The pressure of one small moment; this is pressure that basketball players have when they are at the line in the final seconds. It's the pressure of lining up during an overtime penalty kick in soccer. It's the pressure of any sport when the game hangs on the line. Athletic fields and courts are littered with the dreams of those that couldn't handle the pressure of the big moment. These are the moments that make or break careers. I found out that in a big football game, nearly every kick has that feel. Fortunately, I was up to the task.
Again, I only missed one field goal as a senior. And that one miss highlights why kicking – even if you are good – doesn't always go your way. The miss occurred in November. As is often the case, the wind was blowing in Colorado. Plus it was freezing. In the last few seconds of the first half I was asked to kick a 42-yard field goal. The kick was perfect and seemed destined to split the uprights. Then the wind picked up and suddenly what seemed like another 3 points was transformed into my only missed field goal of the year.
Despite this one miss – and all of the pressure and anxiety and awkwardness of kicking field goals – the entire experience was well worth it. There were so many great things about being a high school kicker. I loved seeing the other team’s faces when they saw me step on the field, and hearing them say to each other “Dude, that’s a girl!” I loved the feeling after I made a field goal and kicked 100% for the game. Before being asked to be the kicker, I never imagined I could perform in a stadium packed with that many fans, but I used to do it every Friday night under the lights. As a girl who played 5A high school football (the top high school division in Colorado), people doubted my ability to kick against the boys all the time, yet at the conclusion of the season I ended up ranked as one of the top five kickers in the state of Colorado. And I received 1st Team All-Conference in the best league in the state, proving that girls can be successful even in a field dominated by men.
Of course, the most rewarding part of it all though was talking to or hearing about other young girls that want to follow my lead and venture on to their own gridiron dressed in pads.
You can follow the author of this article on Twitter at @allllythimsen.