Pick a sport and Hannah Hillman probably has played it. Soccer, basketball, softball, swimming, golf — she’s tried them. But there was one sport the Mooresville freshman-to-be wanted to go after.
“I always liked football,” Hillman said. “Getting to tackle somebody seems fun.”
Hillman will get her chance later this summer with the debut of the Indiana Girls Tackle Football League, which will be based at Mooresville’s youth fields, but is open to all girls entering fifth to ninth grade anywhere in the state.
Mooresville Youth League director Chad Oldham is hoping for about 50 girls in the first year. The idea is modeled after a program that started last year in Utah as the first known all-girls league in the country.
“We’re mimicking what Utah did,” Oldham said. “We’re optimistic about how it’s going so far with the response we’ve received. I’ve heard from a lot of girls who’ve said, ‘Why didn’t you do this before?’”
Oldham said the idea actually began when his own daughter, 15-year-old Emily, expressed interest in playing in the boys’ league. When that idea was nixed, she wondered aloud how many girls would be interested in playing in a league. Oldham drove a golf cart around at last year’s boys’ all-star tournament at Mooresville’s youth complex, asking girls why they weren’t playing. Most of the girls there were sisters of boys playing for various community and township teams in Central Indiana.
“Almost all of them said their parents wouldn’t let them play against boys,” Oldham said. “Nine times out of 10 that would be the answer. I said, ‘What if we had a girls’ team?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, let’s do it.’ That’s kind of how it started.”
Oldham’s online research turned up the league in Utah. It started for fifth- and sixth-graders in 2015, sparked by a 12-year-old girl named Sam Gordon. When Gordon was 9, she generated headlines and became a viral video sensation as a running back playing in a boys’ league.
The Utah league, which completed its second season earlier this month, was the subject of national coverage from ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and NBC. Oldham presented the idea for a similar league to the Mooresville Youth League board.
“There are still stereotypes out there like, ‘That’s my princess, I don’t want her getting hurt,’” Oldham said. “I guess my thought is, ‘She can still be your princess and put on a football helmet and shoulder pads.’”
Oldham said the plan is for two age divisions — fifth and sixth grade combined in one, and seventh, eighth and ninth graders in the other — though it could change depending on registration. The cost is $120 in addition to a $25 equipment fee. July 23 is the final registration day with the league set to begin play in early August.
Carley Neely, Martinsville, is a fourth-grader who intends to participate –—and play quarterback. She’s played volleyball, basketball, baseball and is involved in dance.
“I hope it’s going to be fun,” she said. “I like to tackle.”
Her grandmother, Virginia Holsapple, said she doesn’t have any concerns about Neely getting hurt playing football.
“Anything she does, she gives 100 percent,” Holsapple said. “She had a broken leg (jumping on a trampoline) and she always comes right back.”
The headline on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” segment asked the question: “Girls youth football: Is it safe?” The segment didn’t definitively answer the question, though Dr. Robert Cantu of the Boston University School of Medicine called it “absurd.” Cantu is against any tackle football — boys or girls — under the age of 12 because of what he believes is a greater risk of cognitive problems later in life compared to those who don’t play before that age.
Sam Rapoport, the director of football development at USA Football, is an advisor to the girl’ league in Utah. Oldham reached out to Crystal Sacco, the president and commissioner of the Utah Girls Tackle Football League, before presenting the idea to the Mooresville board. Rapoport and Sacco developed the Utah league with a few safety precautions — eliminating high-impact plays like punts and kickoffs, playing eight-on-eight instead of 11 players, using a lighter helmet than for boys — before starting last year.
Brad Robbins, a member of the Mooresville Youth board, said he hasn’t heard any concerns from parents on an all-girls league.
“We’re not saying every girl has to play,” Robbins said. “Who wants to play is who is going to play. If a parent says no, that’s fine.”
Robbins’ daughter Skylar, a freshman, is signed up to play.
“I’ve seen my daughter run around and play with the boys in other sports,” he said. “I know the girls have the same energy and enthusiasm to play football. The night I told her and her friends about the league, they were already wanting to put on helmets and pads and were on the phone recruiting other girls.”
The Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter last year as an assistant coaching intern, making her the first female coach in NFL history. Kathryn Smith became the first female full-time coach in the NFL when she was hired as the special teams quality control coach by the Buffalo Bills in February. Last year, Sarah Thomas was hired as the first full-time female official in the NFL.
Oldham points to these hires as evidence that there is a future for women in football beyond the playing field. But playing football — tackle football — may open those doors.
“There are stepping stones out there,” Oldham said. “We’re trying to align them to an ultimate goal. It can be a starting point to an ultimate goal of maybe working in the NFL if that’s where she wants to get to.”