Monday, February 5, 2018

My daughter, the football player

PHOTO CREDIT: Allison Hinman Photography
My daughter Julia is a high school senior this year. I’m extremely proud of her accomplishments. She’s a great kid. She’s a wonderful student (with a grade point average of 5.163 in her school’s rigorous International Baccalaureate program). And she’s an athlete, who until this year, played soccer in the spring (her primary sport) and basketball in the winter. 

This year, she added a fall sport, too; she kicked PATs (points after touchdowns) and field goals for the South Iredell Vikings football team. 

Julia after her first high school football scrimmage.
Even if you don’t live in our area, you may have heard about her because she's been getting a lot of media attention, most recently through Refinery29, which has a huge online presence. 
From Wikipedia: Refinery is an American digital media and entertainment company focused on young women. The brand produces editorial and video programming, live events, and social, shareable content delivered across all major platforms, and covers a variety of categories including style, entertainment, health, technology, news, food, politics, careers, and more.… In 2017, Adweek reported that Refinery29 now reaches an audience of over 500 million globally across platforms.
You can see their story and video (embedded in the story) about her here:

Julia had been begging since she was little to play football, and I’d always said no, because I’d seen the news coverage of the NFL concussion studies, and I'd viewed the TV special reports about “student athletes” with permanent disabilities. But this past spring, I started thinking about saying yes. For one thing, she’d grown into a very capable athlete – and a big, strong kid – about 5'9-1/2" and 160 pounds. She plays hard, and she’s very competitive. In soccer, she’s been named All Region and All Conference for the past two years. 

Second, I’m a feminist. I think girls and women should have the same opportunities as men, be paid the same as men for doing the same work, and be respected for their contributions. Lately, it’s been especially apparent that women are not getting the respect we deserve, let alone the opportunities or the pay. You don't have to look very hard in many fields – from politics to business to Hollywood — to see that. 

This spring, some of the guys on the football team started telling her that she should try out. They’d seen her kick on the soccer field, and they thought she was good. At dinner on her seventeenth birthday this spring, she asked again if she could play. 

Julia wanted the opportunity to prove herself, and she wanted to play the game. How could I say no? So I relented, and said yes. I didn't know if anything would come of it. 

This summer, some of her friends on the football team met her on the  field, gave her some tips, then taped her kicking and texted it to the head coach, Scott Miller: 

“Who is that?” he texted them back. And told them to stay there; he was driving over to see. After watching her, he said she had a spot on the team if she could get her parents’ permission. 

She came home and talked with us. My husband, Rob, pointed out that she could just kick PATs and field goals, and the chance of getting tackled, and possibly injured, would be low. (Although Julia would have loved to play a position where she tackled, too.) He talked to the coach on the phone. Coach Miller had served in the army, and he said that some people in the military thought women made better snipers than men; the theory was that woman stayed calmer and kept their heart rates lower in stressful situations. He thought there might be similar argument to be made about trying to kick the pigskin through the uprights with all eyes in the stadium on you, and possibly the outcome of the game on your shoulders. Rob told him we were willing to test his theory. 

And then our grand adventure was on.

Julia waits on the sidelines (lower right, #21).
Footage of her kicking her first field goal here:

I'm proud of my kid. Proud of her for taking risks. Proud of her achievements on and off the field. I’m glad she got to play a game she loved. And honestly, I’m relieved – and rather amazed – that it went so well.

I knew that she’d have some good times and some difficult times playing a guy’s sport with all male players and all male coaches. I worried that she’d have obscene things screamed at her, and detractors who would try to tear her down. But I was pleasantly surprised. She got tremendous support and sportsmanship from her fellow players. Her coaches welcomed her and treated her like all the other players (with a little friendly teasing, perhaps, but nothing more). 

Coming off the field (center, #21)
Head Coach Miller chats with Julia before a game.
Kicking Coach Noel (in navy above and in gold at left below).

Warming up.

There were a few small hurdles (getting keys to girls’ changing rooms, accommodations to make sure she could come into the boys’ locker room for the pre-game talks, and purchase of some shoulder pads that fit her smaller shoulders), but nothing big. The guys on the team were friendly and supportive. 

Julia with Ethan (left) and Haynes (right)…
… and with Tripp, one of her friends who convinced her to play.

Julia’s senior poster hanging on the fence around the stadium.
Coming off the field with a smile.
She started practices in July, and when pre-season began in August, news started leaking out about South Iredell's new “female kicker.” The Charlotte Observer reported about her (read the story here), and the Charlotte CBS affiliate, WBTV, sent a reporter to practice to interview her (see the video here). 

One of the things that surprised us the most was the impact her playing had on the high school girls, and on the young children who came to the games. A lot of young girls (and boys) came up to her after the games to get their photos taken with her, or even get her autograph, and to tell her they admired her. Julia was shocked, and it took a few games for her to figure out just how to respond.  

Before a playoff game. #21 is one of the players listed on the signs.
In the stands, I could hear kids around her cheering for “number 21.” One girl, no more than 8 years old, yelled out, “Kick it like a girl, Julia!” Mothers of the male players embraced me with tears in their eyes, telling me how thrilled they were that she was playing. Some told me how much they had wanted to play when they were kids, and were denied. Some older guys – grandfathers of the male players – were equally excited, and cheered just as hard. Her girlfriends – many of them also athletes – rallied around her, making signs, and cheering when she went on the field to kick. 

One of the most memorable nights was Homecoming, when Julia was named both Offensive Player of the Game and Homecoming Queen (Statesville Record & Landmark story here). After she was crowned, the guys on the team swarmed around her, hugged and high-fived her, and posed for photos.  

Julia surrounded by teammates and friends after being crowned Homecoming Queen
Julia with me and Rob after the game.
Homecoming video here:

Quartz Media wrote a short piece about it; you can read it here

When I posted about it on social media, the story went viral, and I spent about a week fielding media inquiries. She even got a letter from Samantha Rapoport, director of football development for the NFL, and a Carolina Panthers shirt. 

How did she do? In the 2017 season, Julia:
  • scored 46 Points After Touchdown (out of 48 attempted)
  • scored 7 Field Goals (out of 10 attempted)
  • was the third highest scorer on the team, with 67 points
Looking at records from SIHS from 2008-2017 she scored:
  • the most points by a kicker
  • the most points per game by a kicker
  • the most PATs made
  • the highest percentage of PATs made
  • the most field goals made
  • the most field goals attempted
  • the longest field goal (36 yards)
She was also the first girl ever to: 
Stickers on Julia’s helmet mark points scored.
Rob is a huge sports fan, and loves nothing better than watching his daughter play.

Frequently asked questions

What was her longest field goal? 36 yards, although she often hit 40+ yards in warmups. 

Is she accurate? Yes. Nearly all her field goals and PATs were good. Of the ones she missed, most were tipped by boys on the opposing teams who jumped up and bumped them so that they didn't go through the posts. 

Does she want to play in college, and where is she going? She was just accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her first choice of colleges right now. After four very rigorous years in the International Baccalaureate curriculum, her goal in college is to focus on academics while still having a social life. That's why she didn't pursue playing soccer in college (although she may do intramural or club soccer). Who knows; maybe she’ll change her mind and walk on for football tryouts at Carolina!

Weren’t you afraid she’d get hurt? Yes; that's why I always said no before, and why I insisted that she only do PATs and Field Goals, where the risk is very low. (She basically ran on field, kicked, and ran off the field.) She sustained no major injuries while playing football. In our experience, we've seen more concussions during girls’ soccer, although Julia is fortunate to have not had one so far. She has had several minor injuries this basketball season so far.

How long has she been playing? Julia only started playing football this summer, although she did throw a football around with the neighborhood boys when she was little. She joined her first soccer team when she was 4, and has played ever since. She’s also played softball (for a few years in elementary school) and basketball (since middle school). Julia’s played on the varsity soccer team since her freshman year. She’s been a captain for her varsity soccer team her junior and senior year, for her JV basketball team her freshman and sophomore year, and for her varsity team her senior year.

Did she know much about football before she started playing it? Yes. Julia has been watching football – and lots of other sports — with her father since she was tiny. She has a good grasp of strategy, and an amazing ability to read the field. She shocked her grandparents at age 5 by explaining a complicated play to them when they were watching an NFL game together. She’s won college basketball brackets. And some of her fantasy football teams have been quite good; she's outplayed a number of the soccer dads. 

How the heck did you end up with such an athletic kid? I have no idea; I am a total klutz. My husband played youth sports. My father played basketball in high school. And Julia’s great-grandmother, Helen McDanel Brubaker (my paternal grandmother) played basketball in high school and coached her high school team after college. Maybe it’s in the genes!

Helen, Julia's great-grandmother, about 1917.  
Are you glad you let her play football with the boys? Yes, absolutely. It was a great experience for all of us. I hope it has reinforced Julia’s belief that she can do whatever she sets her mind to do, even in male-dominated fields. And I hope it has made the young men and the coaches who witnessed it think differently about girls, and be more likely to welcome them on the field, in the classroom, in the workplace, and in positions of leadership. While I’m frustrated that it’s taken us as a society so horribly long to get to this point, Julia’s experience has given me hope that today’s girls and young women will be allowed to participate, and that they will thrive and achieve.