North Carolina girl goes viral after starting at safety for varsity HS football team

·5 min read

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Inside her varsity football program, Brooklyn Harker’s first career start at free safety earlier this month was nothing more than a well-deserved opportunity for a hard-working player.

Outside of Chapel Hill High School, though, it was a viral sensation that earned thousands of social media impressions and shout-outs from U.S. Rep. David Price and NFL safety Tre Boston, among others.

For Caleb Kelley, Chapel Hill’s starting senior quarterback, that contrast played out in amusing fashion as he scrolled through Instagram two days after the Tigers trounced Carrboro, 55-6, in their home opener.

“It took us by surprise,” he said. “To us, she’s just a teammate, so we didn’t think anything of it. But then I’m going through my feed and I see her on Bleacher Report? I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, no way.’”

The sports media giant had picked up a post from Harker’s mother, Jennifer, and shared it with some 16.5 million Instagram followers and 10 million Twitter followers. A week later, Harker, 16, was still trying to wrap her head around a newfound fame she described as “crazy” and “very overwhelming.”

“But I’m also very, very grateful for such a great team and such great coaches,” she said after a 35-21 win over Person High School last Friday that moved the Tigers to 4-0 this season. “It’s been amazing.”

“Brooklyn is a football player,” Chapel Hill coach Issac Marsh said. “Like I’ve said a thousand times, she also just happens to be a girl. She knows the game, and she’s executing at her positions.”

Junior Brooklyn Harker (14), the only girl on the Chapel Hill High School varsity football team, started at free safety for the Tigers in a Sept. 10, 2021, game against Carrboro. Harker, a 16-year-old who also plays wide receiver, had two tackles as the Tigers won, 55-6.
Junior Brooklyn Harker (14), the only girl on the Chapel Hill High School varsity football team, started at free safety for the Tigers in a Sept. 10, 2021, game against Carrboro. Harker, a 16-year-old who also plays wide receiver, had two tackles as the Tigers won, 55-6.

Harker, a junior whose family moved from West Virginia to North Carolina earlier this year, primarily plays safety and wide receiver for the Tigers. She’s also a backup kicker, a frequent contributor on the kickoff return and kickoff coverage teams and a member of Chapel Hill’s onside kick recovery unit.

Marsh and his staff “pick the moments to play Brooklyn where she’ll have success,” as they do with any player on the roster, the longtime coach said. Against Carrboro, a nearby school that was winless last spring and is 1-4 this fall, Marsh saw Harker as a logical fit to replace his injured starter at free safety.

Harker delivered with two tackles in a blowout win while taking a few offensive snaps against the Jaguars. Against Person, a stronger 3-A opponent, she played around six kickoff return/kickoff coverage snaps and subbed in for two defensive plays – the second of which was a man coverage rep in the slot.

“Anywhere they put me is my favorite position,” Harker said.

Harker, also a soccer player and a fencer, has been playing tackle football since third grade and said her experience has been surprisingly smooth. The worst she’s gotten at Chapel Hill so far is the occasional confused looked from an opponent. Only one small heckling incident, from eighth grade, came to mind.

“There was a little bit of teasing: ‘You just got tackled by a girl,’” Harker said. “I didn’t really think anything of it. It was more like, ‘Hey, that’s kind of cool. They’re teasing their own teammates.’”

She added with a laugh: “I felt more powerful than I did anything else.”

But that mental fortitude, she admitted, had been put to the test recently. Although Price, the Democratic congressman who represents Orange County, and Boston, the former UNC and Carolina Panthers safety, were among hundreds of virtual well-wishers, not every comment was positive.

Such is social media in 2021. Harker tried to avoid the negative reactions and jokes cracked at her expenses as much as she could, but she credited her teammates for chipping in with extra support.

“They’ve been supporting me with all the hate and all of that,” Harker said. “It’s been great. They’re just telling me to not let that stuff get to my head, because I know my abilities and they know my abilities.”

Or, as Kelley described it: “We told her those people don’t matter.”

Never one for the spotlight, Harker has enjoyed the more egalitarian benefits of her virality. For one, more students and teachers are talking about Chapel Hill’s football program, which didn’t field a varsity team in 2018 and went 1-10 in 2019 but is now in position for a second straight 3-A playoff appearance.

More attention on the field also means more chances for graduating seniors to get noticed by college recruiters. That 2022 group includes two of Harker’s closer friends on the team: quarterback Kelley, who has interest from Division I FCS schools such as Elon and N.C. Central, and running back Elijah Ayankoya.

And, of course, there’s a motivational factor. Parents across the nation flooded Harker’s Twitter replies not only to applaud her but share stories of their own football-playing daughters: a 7-year-old running back in Ohio; a 10-year-old defender in Georgia. And Harker, 16, had a message for those young onlookers.

“If you want to do it, go for it,” she said. “No matter what people say.”

This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: North Carolina girl starts at safety on varsity football team, goes viral