Women In Football: Grade-school girls develop an early love for the game

Yahoo Sports

Football has long been a male-dominated domain, but women are gradually putting their own stamp on the sport. This week, Yahoo Sports will examine the inroads that women have made at every level of the game.

Jennasey Hargis is your average 10-year-old. She likes swimming, going to school and hanging out with her sisters.

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She also loves playing tackle football.

Jennasey started playing tackle football after watching an online video of Sam Gordon, then 9 years old, faking out and speeding past boys on a football field. Gordon became a national sensation when the video hit YouTube in 2012 and over 4 million people, including young girls like Jennasey watched the clip.

[WOMEN IN FOOTBALL SERIES: How far can female kickers go?The challenges that face amateur players  • Making female football history in HawaiiA chat with Natalie Randolph, female football pioneer • Beth Mowins, Gayle Sierens and broadcasting’s biggest hurdle]

Jennasey will play her second season in the Utah Girls Tackle Football League, the organization that was started by Gordon’s family in 2015 after Sam’s fame went viral.

“I enjoy interacting with the girls and hitting the girls, and I like meeting all of them,” Jennasey recently told Yahoo Sports. “I really want to make more touchdowns … I want to keep playing for a long time.”

The league in Utah gives Jennasay the chance. It includes three divisions, one for fifth- and sixth-grade girls (the division that Jennasey plays in), one for seventh- and eighth-grade girls and a high school division. Gordon is now a 14-year-old freshman and will play in the high school division. Even though the two girls have never played each other, Jennasey said Gordon has had a “big” impact on the community. Gordon showed Jennasey that girls could play football, and they could play in a league just for girls.

Now Jennasey hopes to spread that same message.

“I would tell [other girls] to play because if they believe in themselves and they think that they can do it, and I know that they could, then I think they should,” Jennasey said. “I bet they would be good at it, and I bet they would love it.”

Jennasey Hargis carries the ball during a Utah Girls Tackle Football League. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Rush)
Jennasey Hargis carries the ball during a Utah Girls Tackle Football League. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Rush)

The ‘Sam Gordon effect’

From lack of opportunities to social mores to size differences, young girls face a lot of obstacles when it comes to playing football. But girls like Jennasey make up a small but enthusiastic group that is determined to play.

The Pop Warner national office estimates that only between 1/2 to 1 percent of all Pop Warner players are young women. That comes out to approximately 1,125 to 2,250 players.

At the high school level, the National Federation of State High School Associations reports that 1,992 girls across 665 schools play traditional 11 v. 11 football at the high school level. That only accounts for roughly 2 percent of all high school players, but it represents a 24 percent increase from the 1,604 girls who participated in 11-on-11 football in 2011-2012 (before Sam Gordon) and a 155 percent increase from the 779 girls the 1997-98 survey reported.

Brent Gordon, a.k.a. “Sam Gordon’s dad,” insists that women deserve a place in the game, and he’s pushing, as much as possible, for increased opportunities for young female athletes to suit up. Sam Gordon and five teammates are plaintiffs in a recent Title IX lawsuit against three Utah school districts. The group is requesting that girls football be made available at the high school level.

Brent Gordon not only wants Sam to have the opportunity to represent her high school on the gridiron, but future female football players as well.

“[Sam] spoke at a middle school assembly and asked girls if they wanted to play, and it seemed like every girl in the audience raised their hand,” Brent Gordon said. “That’s when it struck me that we really need to provide an opportunity for girls to play against other girls.”

The all-girls league he helped start will head into its third year at a growth rate that has been hard to keep up with. He said the league has had to turn girls away due to the interest in tackle football league in Salt Lake City.

“You can’t do it all at once,” Gordon said. “You’ve got to find field space, getting referees, getting coaches. You can’t go from zero to 1,000. You might be able to do, but we have some self-imposed limits on own league because we think it would be smarter to grow it with some constraints. I think our participation would be even greater if we had unlimited resources.”

Opportunities elsewhere in the country are not as plentiful for young girls who want to play football against other girls. This fall, Indiana will join Utah as a state that features all-girls youth tackle football leagues, but residents of the 48 other states are mostly out of luck at the youth level.

Brent Gordon believes those locations only need to give girls a time and place to play and the interest will naturally follow.

“I’m excited about the future of girls football,” Gordon said. “I believe that once we provide the opportunities, you will see an overnight explosion in girls participation in youth football.”

The challenges of size  

Opportunities and resources aren’t the only challenge facing girls in the game. Size is an issue, with the average high school senior boy weighing 145 pounds and standing 5-foot-9. The average high school girl, meanwhile, weighs 121 pounds and stands 5-foot-4. These numbers don’t account for the difference in sizes among football players specifically, but one college recruiting site estimates that the average Division I college linebacker recruit averages around 220 pounds and stands 6 feet, 2 inches.

These size differences, and the fear of injury, have restricted some girls who want to play positions such as quarterback or running back.

Take Madeleine Northern, for example. A quarterback at Badger High School in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, she played junior varsity football her freshman and sophomore years as she pursued her dream of playing for the Seattle Seahawks.

But despite her hard work and obvious athleticism — check her out in this USA football video below — Northern said she ran into the physical realities that female players inevitably face when the only option is to play with the boys.

“Last year I started to see the difference in size between me and my teammates,” Northern told Yahoo Sports. “I’m done growing, and I’m never going to be at the level they are at when it comes to speed and agility, that’s just the way it is.  I don’t feel comfortable playing at a varsity level against men who are three times the size of me.”

Northern continues to practice with a private trainer and has her eyes set on playing for a women’s team in Madison called the Blaze or one in Seattle.

Girls have found success, however, as kickers, where contact and size doesn’t play as big of a role.

Katie Hnida and April Goss, the only two female football kickers to ever score in a NCAA Division I college football game, reflect on their high school football days fondly. They remember the bond they had with their teammates and they remember the bright lights on Friday nights. Hnida and Goss aren’t the only two female football players in the country, but they were trailblazers, and, they hope more women continue to enter the game at an even faster rate than they have seen thus far.

“There has only been one woman since who has kicked at this level,” Hnida said. “I kind of expected more.”

Hnida said that her high school teammates adjusted to having her on the team because they “were all learning the ropes together.” The guys were intrigued by her, she said, but they ended up being some of her best friends.

Beginning in 1999, her college experience as a walk-on at the University of Colorado was a nightmare. She says she was raped by one of her teammates and sexually harassed by other Buffaloes on multiple occasions. Hnida ended up transferring to the University of New Mexico after two years in Boulder.

“I was shocked, I expected that it could be a little bit different,” Hnida said of her time at Colorado. “I knew I was going to be walking into a situation that was much more intense, but I didn’t anticipate that. I thought it could be the way it was in high school.”

Hnida made history in 2003, kicking two extra points in a New Mexico win over Texas State. Since her college days, Hnida has been public about her career at Colorado and New Mexico, writing a book and giving talks about her experiences as a survivor of sexual assault.

When Goss started looking at playing football in college almost a decade after Hnida’s graduation, she knew that Hnida’s story and recognized that she too, would be walking into a position rarely held by a woman.

“I had a conversation with [Hnida] before,” Goss said. “The sexual assault at Colorado is what most people remember. So for me, when I went to play college, that came into my mind, it is something that you think about and just going into that knowing that that doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen to me.”

Goss ended up with a supportive coach and teammates from the start and came in for a game her senior year to kick a point and become the second woman in history to score in a Division I college football game. She hopes that college football is more accessible to women.

On the field, on the mat, in the spotlight

Utah Girls Tackle Football League president Crystal Sacco hopes her league will serve as a stepping stone for women who want to follow dreams of playing college football.

“I want to see [girls] in the high schools, but I also want to see them go to college,” Sacco said. “I want them to be working towards something, if it gets to high school and colleges, other states will start.”

More women have been flocking to the sport as opportunities increase, and even if the growth is not at the rate that Hnida would like to see, the numbers show an increase in interest and involvement.

Young women in football don’t need to look far to find an example of other women making progress in a contact sport. Women’s wrestling provides a good road map for the route that female football players may be able to take.

Sally Roberts is the founder of “Wrestle Like A Girl,” a non-profit organization that encourages and creates opportunities for female wrestlers. She said she has seen an increase in support from wrestling coaches and athletes around the country for more women’s wrestling teams.

Women’s wrestling officially filed for emerging sport status with the NCAA in August with 11 schools including Arizona State providing letters of commitment. The filing has the backing of USA Wrestling, the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Committee. (Women’s wrestling was added to the Olympics in 2004 and an American woman named Helen Maroulis won Team USA’s first-ever women’s wrestling gold medal in 2016.)

Could women’s wrestling provide a blueprint for the growth of women’s football? (AP)

Wrestling, as a sport for women, is moving faster than football. A total of 14,587 girls, about 5.6 percent of all high school wrestlers, participated at the high school level in 2016-17, according to the NFHS.

But Roberts is still pushing for more and would like to see support continue to grow for women’s equality across all sectors in sport.

“I think that, as a whole, the culture and the way that women are viewed in sport is changing, and it’s been changing, but it’s going very slowly,” Roberts said. “The way that women are perceived is elastic, it’s getting stretched very slowly. We’ve been able to move forward, but it’s not as quickly as we would like.”

More women will be taking the football field this fall at the youth level, and almost 2,000 high school women will also suit up and prepare for the season. Women’s teams are not a reality yet at the college level, but Hnida and Goss have proved that that door isn’t closed either. With the proper resources and support, the limit of elasticity does not exist, Roberts said.

“When we get girls and women involved in sport, regardless of their win and loss record, everyone benefits from teammates and be part of a team and how to carry your own weight,” Roberts said. “Our whole nation will benefit and that’s what changes girls into women and women into leaders.”

Northern, the high school quarterback who gave up playing with the boys, hopes there will be more opportunities for young girls in the future.

“I can’t even name a league dedicated to young girls wanting to play the sport,” she said. “They are either stuck with the guys or don’t even bother playing because they’re too scared to.  I think it’s sad that women are underestimated when it comes to sports like this. I want there to be options for everybody.”

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