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What Playing Football as a Girl Taught Me

I am an 18 year old aspiring writer attending University of California, Santa Barbara.

This story starts in a sea of Nike hats and bulky shoulders. The gym emanates a sticky atmosphere of sweat and testosterone. A man with a large, manicured beard hands out papers to everyone in the room. Everyone, that is, except me.

“Miss…” he looks at me apologetically. “The cheerleading meeting was on Wednesday.”

“Um, I’m actually here for the football meeting,” I say timidly, attempting to put on a brave smile as the swath of teenage boys turn their attention towards me. The bearded man glances at me skeptically and hands me a paper.

Me, circa 2014

Me, circa 2014

“Katherine!” I heard someone call my name after the meeting ended. “Why’d you wear lipstick to a football meeting? It’s a football meeting. Come on,” the boy scoffed at me.

My lips, painted a deep crimson, began to quiver as I fought back tears. I was hardly the quintessential football player. Even female football players were thought of as big and masculine; girls who abhorred the color pink and condemned the thought of ever wearing cosmetics. 5’4, 120 pounds, and glittery eyelids: I definitely wasn’t the kind of person you’d expect to see suited up in a helmet.

“Aw, is that your boyfriend’s jersey?”

“How long have you been a cheerleader?”

“Oh! Well you must be the kicker, then.”

I didn’t mind it at first, but in the three years I played, I grew weary of people constantly assuming that the girl wearing football pads wasn’t a real football player.

What’s the best skill a player can have? ESPN analysts would argue tackling technique or speed, but in my case, it was resilience. I never gave up, not just in the sense that I wouldn’t stop running during conditioning, or skip the last reps lifting weights. I had to retain a certain mental stamina. I spent every team dinner, every bus ride, every trip to the water cooler alone. I was part of the team, but I wasn’t treated that way.

This is not to say that no one supported me. My friends, family, and team all cheered me on and told me how brave I was. Encouragement wasn’t unwelcome, but it felt a little patronizing. How could my coach tell me I was such a good player when he seldom put me in the game? How could my teammates say they believed in me when they refused to tackle me in drills? I didn’t ask for special treatment.

I dreaded going to practice but I hated leaving it.

And so I found my gangly 14 year old self learning a skill far more useful than a crack block. The arduous hours running under the California sun instilled in me a rigorous work ethic I now carry with pride. This disposition is accompanied by the result of the tremendous personal growth expedited by my years in a jersey and shoulder pads. Few people believed I was capable. There were people on my team who wanted me gone, who thought I was a joke, who thought I was incompetent no matter how many passes I caught. To make it through an entire season of this and still want to come back the next year is an accomplishment I still take pride in. I knew a few other girls who played, but none who finished a single season. I’ve learned to pursue my passions fearlessly.

Despite the hardships, I loved every minute of it. My teammates, regardless of their flaws, were well meaning and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I got the chance to play in the Ben Ali Shriners all star game, and fundraise $720 for the Shriners Children’s hospital. I made history as the first girl to play football at my high school. Every second of grueling conditioning, every pang of soreness afterwards, every bruise and scrape, even the sexist remarks—none of this mattered to me, because I was doing something I loved. All while wearing some fabulous lipstick.

© 2018 Katherine McCabe

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