Tell me no. I dare you.
My muscles are tight, tense, pushed to the point of exhaustion, but the feeling is like flying. I watch as the quarterback counts out before screaming, “Hike!” He fakes a pass, then runs up the field. I sprint, slamming into the receiver who was protecting him, then into the quarterback. Stopping the play before he gets a chance to touch the end zone.
Twenty-two players. Two teams. Eleven players each. Twenty-one boys. One girl.
My name is Grace Kannberg, and I am the first female football player at Mead High School.
My interest in football started after attending my first high school football game when I was in middle school. I was instantly hooked. But, when I tried convincing my parents that I wanted to play, all I got was a firm, “No.” Well, I got more than that. I got a long running list of no’s. No, you are accident prone. No, you broke your neck. No, the boys will kill you, etc. I didn't push it much after that, but it always ate at me how much I longed to be on that field.
Finally, I couldn't take it. I started my sophomore year determined to play football. I secretly started training with my best friend, Kwaday Corppetts, one of the starting players on the varsity team. We trained for hours almost everyday after school and on the weekends because I was fixed on playing. He taught me all the rules, as well as how the game is played, and how to play it. Then, finally, I went to my parents, and again I was told no.
I wasn't going to take no for an answer this time. Instead, I went behind their back to the head coach of the program and asked him if I could play. His reaction was similar, as he told me gymnastics was an alternate sport for girls who wanted to play football, and that if anything bad happened to me it would be his name in the paper. Needless to say, he was not too thrilled at the idea of having a girl on the team. He wouldn't even give me any of the upcoming information about the program when I asked for it. That’s when my parents finally got involved and told me that I could play. They saw how much I wanted it and how serious I was about it. From then on, they became my number one fans. They helped me get the information, but we had to go through the Athletic Director at my school to get it because my coach wouldn't give it to me still.
Soon after, I was given a helmet and pads. And, before I knew it, I was on the field.
My first practice was overwhelmingly exciting! I ran out to the field right when the last period bell rang, already dressed down for practice. That day we played a scrimmage at the end of practice. I was on the sideline watching the game when coach pulled one of the boys out and told me to take his place as corner. I still remember the boy looking angry and huffing off while making a comment about being replaced by, “the girl.” I was so excited and nervous to get out there because it was the first time I played with a team. Right off the bat I was knocked on my butt and the boys were laughing at me. I wasn't embarrassed, I was grinning. Smiling from ear to ear, feeling happy. I got back up and did it all over again.
That’s when my reputation at school started to change dramatically. I went from the sweet girl in debate to “the football girl.” All of the varsity players, except for Kwaday, hated me and wanted me off the field; same with all of the other boys in my grade and the one below. Only a few really didn't care and even supported me. On a daily basis I was being threatened in a way that’s called, “Head hunting.” It’s when players purposely go out of their way to hurt someone to the point they can no longer play. A senior boy head hunted me during defensive rotations at practice and laid me out. My shoulder was hurt for a few weeks after.
When we were off the field, the harassment was all verbal. A group of freshmen boys would gather near the parking lot after practice, and as I walked to my car with all of my gear to go home, they would make fun of me and call me vulgar names. Girls at my school would do the same thing; going as far as taking photos of me for snapchat with captions that made me out to not be the greatest person.
I kept my head up throughout everything. Shaking off the Head Hunter’s hits like they were nothing and letting the words motivate me to push myself harder. There were days though when I wanted to stop playing, knowing the name calling and pain would stop too. On those days, I would remind myself that I was playing for me, and I didn’t come all this way to quit now. That’s what motivated me to strap on those pads everyday.
It also helped that I did make friends with some of the boys that supported me, and they would always stand up for me. And there were groups of people at my school who would always cheer me on when I passed by. As the season went on, I slowly earned the respect of the other boys and coaches by working my butt off and proving myself on the field and in the weight room. It paid off, as I became the starting corner for the junior varsity split team. I became close with the supportive coaches who taught me life lessons I will take with me forever.
Everyday I played made me feel (as corny as it sounds) like I was really living. That was my favorite part about playing. I felt like I was a part of a second family when I finally earned their respect; joking around with the other players and coaches as we practiced. I felt accepted -a feeling I have never had playing any other sport. At all of the games we competed as one unit. Everyone had my back, and I had theirs. It didn't matter that I was a girl. We celebrated after every game, no matter if it was a win or a loss. We understood the concept of setback, comeback. A value we strongly believe in.
Throughout my experience playing, I thought I was losing a part of myself because all of the physical and emotional demands that came with being the first girl to play football for an entire season. However, I didn’t lose anything, I found myself. Strength, independence, camaraderie, perseverance, determination were all inside me, but I didn’t know that until I started playing football.
I am the strong girl I am today because I didn’t take no for an answer, not from my parents, coaches, or society. The image I had of myself changed, and it changed in the eyes of those who doubted me - I am a girly girl in football pads. I identify with that title because it represents who I am more than anything. It shows strength and grace, the two attributes that I used to make it through the season and what I use in my everyday life.
Playing football started out being for me, and me alone. But now it’s not just for me, it’s for everyone looking up to me, the old and the young. It is for the little girl who came up to me and told me, “I want to be like you.” It is for my adopted brother to have a role model to look up to. It is for everyone who came before me and was told no.
To every girl who wants to play, but has been told no or is nervous about playing, know that you can do it! And, if you work hard, push yourself, and are patient, you will be able to do what I did. It’s a sport that takes time, but it is worth all of the blood, sweat, and tears.
Overall, my football experience has been a dream come true and something that I will always remember for the rest of my life.