At the start of every football season, Sarah Clasen has the same conversation with parents in the stands.
“Is that your daughter playing?”
“I didn’t know girls could play.”
They can — and her daughter, Sophia, does. Quite well, in fact.
Sophia, 12, just finished her fifth year of tackle football. For all five years, she’s been the only girl playing tackle in the Oregon City Youth Football Association, and one of only a few dozen girls among the roughly 5,000 tackle players in the Tualatin Valley Youth Football League.
“It is a rough sport, and Sophia is a tough girl,” said Mike Canchola, president of Oregon City Youth Football Association. “She puts her nose in there and gets after it. She’s pretty dang good.”
In 16 years, Canchola said he’s coached only two girls in the league.
“We’d like it to be more girls, to be honest,” he said. “We like to have girls play. We think it’s awesome for the program.”
Sophia started playing flag football in the first grade. At that level, there are no tackles or helmets. With the exception of hands on the ball, it doesn’t look terribly different from soccer.
“I was one of the boys when I played,” Sophia said. “I was the fastest, or as fast as all the other boys.”
She was a natural running with the ball. When flag football ended in the third grade, she decided to try out for tackle. While there were a handful of girls playing at the flag level, on the first day of third grade assessments, Sophia was the only girl to show up.
“I remember being terrified,” Sarah said. “But she had zero fear. I remember thinking, ‘Sarah, check yourself. Don’t let your issues become her problems.’ She didn’t see herself as different. It was only abnormal because we made it abnormal.”
To Sophia, the gender divide was never an issue.
“I was good at it,” she said. “I didn’t really think of it as a sport that boys only played. I didn’t think about them being an opposite gender. I just thought of them as people that I was going to tackle.”
Sophia had tried a number of sports — soccer, gymnastics, T-ball – but with football, it was love at first spike. Though Sophia says it was her idea to play, she likely came by her love of the sport through her dad. Neil Clasen played football at Molalla High School and the College of the Siskiyous. In the 1990s, he was a defensive end for the now-defunct semi-pro team the Oregon Thunderbolts. After a record-setting 28 sacks his rookie year, he was recruited to the German Football League, where he played for the Dortmund Giants.
Today, Neil works as a firefighter and, during the eight-week youth football season, serves as offensive coordinator for Sophia’s team. He remembers standing on the sideline when Sophia was in the fourth grade. With two minutes left, the team was down by seven, and Sophia got the ball near the end zone.
“She scored that touchdown, and I almost got sick,” Neil said. “It’s silly, because it’s fourth graders, but it was fun to watch your daughter – as it would be if it was your son. It was more exciting than anything I ever did when I played sports, or anything else I’ve ever seen in sports.”
Sophia has excelled at football. She starts on both offense and defense, as halfback and cornerback. This season, she had 45 tackles, including 17 solo tackles and five tackles for loss of yardage.
“She follows the flow of the play well and does a good job with her pursuit angles and covering people,” said Bob Swanson, who’s been coaching Sophia on defense for four years.
And her teammates say she’s just one of the guys.
“She’s tougher than most boys out here,” said player Jace Werts. “I don’t think it’s weird, it’s just different than almost every other team. Some of the other teams are like, ‘Oh, they’ve got a girl, they’re going to suck,’ and then we cream them, 35-0.”
“She’s better than some of the boy players on the team,” said teammate Kasyn Paulson. “We make jokes occasionally, but we don’t disrespect her. We know she can kick some of our butts.”
“She’s just a football player,” Coach Swanson said. “Line ‘em up and have them push each other around, she’s just as competitive as everybody else.”
Out of the field, Neil said he sees no difference between Sophia and the rest of the boys – with one exception.
“She’ll come up on the sideline and want a hug,” he said. “And I’ve never seen any of the boys come up to their dads that are coaching and want a hug.”
When Sophia started in the first and second grades, she was playing no-contact, flag football. But as the kids grow, so does the chance for injury.
“When you see the kids play, it seems like it’s kind of slow motion almost, it’s not terribly violent,” Sarah said. “But the hit she got two years ago, yeah, that was terrifying.”
During her fifth grade season, Sophia was knocked down in a helmet-to-helmet hit. It was serious enough that she was taken by ambulance to OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, where her parents said she was diagnosed with a concussion, but no soft-tissue or vertebrae damage. She sat out for several weeks, but she got back in the game.
“I was scared,” Sophia said, “but I wanted to go back and play.”
Concern about concussions are part of why the numbers of youth football participation continue to drop. Sarah says she’s talked to Sophia about “how football might not be around” in the long term. She said she’d like to see Sophia switch to primarily playing on an all-girls rugby team – but the decision is ultimately up to Sophia.
“Her bones aren’t more fragile than the boys,” Neil said. “There is the concern that the boys are getting bigger and stronger and faster more quickly than she is. It’s a thought process for us, but I wouldn’t want to make that decision for her.”
Playing on a team comprised mostly of seventh graders, Sophia isn’t terribly smaller than the other players. But that’s starting to change.
“She gets incrementally bigger, and the boys get exponentially bigger, it feels like,” Sarah said.
Every year, Sophia has told herself this will be her last year, and to give it her all.
But after a solid seventh grade season, Sophia’s already made up her mind about eighth grade.
She’s definitely playing again.