"Mom, can I play football?" That was the question she asked for the third year in a row.
"No," was on the tip of my tongue, for the third year in a row. But the look in her eyes was different this year. Before I could reply, she started speaking.
"Mom, please listen. Just listen before you answer," she said. "I need you to let me do this. I NEED to try and see if I can do it, and I don't know if I'll have another chance. I don't want to look back and wish I would have tried. Please, mom. Let me." She was 11 years old when she said that.
As a mother, you try to teach your children to be strong, to stand up for themselves. You teach them that they are smart, capable and that they can be anything they want to be. You teach them to be leaders, to not worry about going along with the crowd or doing things they don't like, just because their friends do.
Here she was knowing exactly who she was and what she wanted at 11 years old. She had not a care in the world what her friends would say, or what the other boys or coaches might say about a girl joining the team. She had goals and was going after them. As her parents, how could we possibly say no?
Believe me, we wanted to say no. We spent days justifying no. Because, while we worry about teaching them all the right things, we also worry relentlessly about them getting hurt. Football is a physical game, one with huge potential for serious injuries like concussions, broken bones, and damage to growing bodies and brains. Our daughter is an average-sized girl, could she defend herself against boys her size and bigger?
What about the potential for emotional damage? Would her teammates and coaches accept her? One of her best friends, a boy who plays football and would be her teammate told her, "We're friends, but I don't want you on my team." The mother of a good friend told me she hoped my daughter would "get this football nonsense out of her system."
What about other teams? Would the boys taunt her? Would they say awful things to her, or vulgar things to try to scare her? Would they make her a target and deliberately try to harm her to teach her a lesson that girls don't play football?
We didn't know what the right answer was then, but ultimately we decided that if she was brave enough to try, we would be brave enough to let her. We sat her down and had a very honest conversation about what might happen, and how she might be treated by everyone else. Two weeks later, she signed up for Pop Warner football and I dreaded every minute until the season started the following August.
On the first day of practice, none of her teammates spoke to her. Not one. That hurt, as she is good friends with several of them off the field. But no one wanted to be the first one to acknowledge her. It took days, but then something shifted—they figured out she could play. And she was good. Really good. Turns out, football is her thing.
She danced for 10 years, and the conditioning and stamina she gained from dance translated to endurance and agility on the field. Not only could she keep up, but she also started beating them in drills. The boys stopped seeing her as a girl; they started seeing her as a teammate and started to respect her as one, too. The coaches have been amazing since day one, and have treated her just like any other player. They embraced her and gave her the opportunity to learn and prove herself. We hope they know how much we appreciated that and how much that contributed to the team accepting her.
Everyone else started noticing also. So many teachers, classmates, friends and family have come to games or stopped to tell her how proud they are of her having the courage to follow her heart. I can't tell you how many mothers have told me that their daughters want to play, too. Parents of her teammates are supportive, and they tell her so. We are so proud to be a part of a city that has been so amazing and supportive.
But not everyone has been so accepting. Boys from other teams have openly laughed at her. Thankfully, this doesn't happen at every game. Emotionally, she is handling that well. Physically, well, she gets hit. Hard. But guess what? She hits back hard, too! She's not afraid to get in there and battle every play. She leaves that field black and blue some days and she loves every minute of it.
We don't know how long her football career will last. The boys will keep growing, and she likely won't grow much taller than her 5 foot 3 inches. But she will play until they drag her off that field.
As parents, we have learned that our decisions and the decisions that are right for our family aren't necessarily what's popular among friends, family or neighbors. But maybe all it takes is one person to step out of the "lines" to create a new normal.
It was scary, but we made the right decision. Our kid will move mountains.