It was never Kelly McKenna’s intent to make a statement, never her intent to launch a salvo in the gender wars.
She just loved football.
And so, a few years after a middle school gym coach scoffed at the notion of a girl putting on pads and helmet and mixing it up with the boys, she made a decision.
That first summer before her sophomore season, the head coach wouldn’t even speak to her. Then, one day in practice, she got knocked down. Knocked down hard.
“I got hit and I popped back up and kept running,” McKenna says. “And the coach realized right then I was not going to sit down and cry every time I broke a nail.”
Kelly McKenna just completed a three-year career playing football for the Watchung Hills Regional High School Warriors. She chose to play not just against the advice of that middle school coach, but against the urgent pleas of her mother. She chose to play despite being jeered at by some teammates, most opponents and even by her schoolmates.
Kelly McKenna, despite all that and despite breaking a collarbone in her eight seconds of action her junior season, has zero regrets.
“No matter how hard it was at times, I’m glad I did it,” she says. “It taught me how to handle people who are rude to you and taught me how to deal with things in a mature way. It made me physically and mentally stronger.
“And I hope I paved the way for other girls to think about playing. They tell me, ‘I’d like to play, but I just can’t.’ And I tell them, that’s not true. You saw me play for three years here.”
From Cheering To Being Cheered
McKenna’s early exposure to football came from the sidelines when, as a Junior Warrior cheerleader, she rooted for her brother and his team. She realized then that watching the game, rather than cheering, was what she most enjoyed. But she put any notions of becoming an actual player aside when that gym coach told her girls don’t belong on the field and when her mom, out of concern for her daughter’s safety, told her, essentially, she could forget about it.
Then, a senior football player encouraged to her to come out for the team when she was still a freshman. It was especially tough early on.
“The first year was definitely rough,” she admits. “It was weird for all of us – weird for me, weird for (her teammates). Some were mean and some were rude. They didn’t know how to handle it so they wouldn’t talk to me.”
By her junior year, though, they had warmed up to her and this past season, she says, they were like brothers and, well, sister. Still, in the beginning, mom didn’t like it at all and refused to drive her to practices her first season. So McKenna paid her brother to drive her.
“She’s only five foot, four inches,” mom Regina says. “And as she got older, the other boys kept growing and she didn’t. So, she was playing against men basically. I was torn because I wanted to see her play. She worked so hard for it. But I didn’t want to see my girl get hurt.”
McKenna’s stepfather played football in high school and was a little more understanding, though she says he couldn’t fully understand why she’d want to put herself through all that.
McKenna didn’t get a lot of playing time, but she’s not complaining. She concedes it was more of a skill-level issue than a gender one. She played on JV her first two seasons, though she finally saw varsity action in the closing seconds of the season finale against Kearny her junior season when she was inserted into the game to defend against a two-point conversion attempt. She got to the quarterback, though he was able to get the pass away.
For mom in the stands, it was a matter of dodging a second bullet, a second season with her daughter escaping unscathed. She breathed a little easier.
“I was thinking, ‘Thank God she didn’t get hurt and we made it through another season,’” Regina recalls. “I told her great game as she was coming off the field.
“And she says to me, ‘Mom, I think I broke my clavicle.’”
Indeed she had. That settled it for mom, who insisted she hang up her cleats after the Dec. 19 surgery. But McKenna had endured far worse than shattered clavicle leading up to her first varsity action and she wasn’t about to quit now.
McKenna saw plenty of action on the JV teams her first couple of seasons and if she thought her teammates’ initial reactions were rude, she was in for something worse from opponents peering across the line of scrimmage and seeing all that hair and realizing they were guarding a girl.
“They were surprised,” she said. “And some were pretty insulting. They’d laugh and say, ‘Oh, I don’t even have to guard her or do anything.’ And some would go out of their way to hit me as hard as they could. Or some wouldn’t touch me at all because I’m a girl.
“They were equally insulting to me because they were treating me differently.”
She was heartened by an Elizabeth defensive back who was inserted into the game after the player he replaced drew a penalty for hitting McKenna away from the ball. She blocked the new defensive back downfield and he patted her on the back and told her, “good job,” not in a condescending but rather an accepting manner.
McKenna finally got a varsity touch in the final game of her career in early November. Again it was against Kearny in a consolation game and this time she did not need surgery afterwards. It was a swing pass that netted, she says, a couple of yards.
“Somebody missed a block so I didn’t gain a lot,” she says with a laugh. “But they put in the play for me and I made the catch so I was happy about that.”
McKenna is also a world-class Ultimate Frisbee player for a Watchung Hills team that has won six straight state titles. She gave up fall Frisbee the past two seasons to focus on football but continued to play in the spring and now has one more season left in a few months. She will also try out for the national team next year.
As for her future, well, her football experience might have changed a few plans. Whereas her lifelong goal had been to open a bakery – McKenna each year designed and baked the cake for the team banquet – she is now eyeing something along the line of sports communication along with marketing, with the idea of maybe becoming a team manager, a sideline reporter or a broadcaster. She is considering Clemson and the University of Oregon, among others.
And she still hasn’t given up on the bakery idea. It may just get pushed down the road a bit. Whatever role football plays in McKenna’s practical plans for her future, there is no question in either her or her mother’s mind that the experience of taking on the challenge was a defining one.
“What she’s gone through will serve her well the rest of her life,” Regina says. “She knows what it’s like going against the odds. I’m so proud of her for sticking it out. She’s changed others’ views for the good and became a positive role model for other girls and opened the door for them.”
For Kelly McKenna, though, those things were always secondary.
“I wouldn’t go through all of that just to prove a girl can do anything, though when it got tough for me I told myself I couldn’t quit, that I had to push through it,” she says. “I did it because I really like the game.”