Society says girls aren’t supposed to play football. It’s too rough, they say.
And besides, doesn’t the team need cheerleaders?
Those thoughts apply at many places, even in a football-rabid state like Ohio, where a passion for football knows no gender bounds. It doesn’t apply at Zanesville Middle School, however, where gridiron equality is the norm.
The Junior Devils have two girls participating on this year’s team in eighth graders Rilyn Humphrey and Nicole Dodson. They followed in the footsteps of Miya Heidt, a current ZHS freshman who played for two years prior and blazed the trail.
Humphrey, who also wrestles and throws the shot and discus, was the starter at offensive tackle before a knee injury ended her season prior to last week’s 8-6 win at Marietta. Dodson, who plays despite a daily battle with Type 1 diabetes, spent her time at nose guard.
The team, coached by Jason Smith, is 4-2 and plays its final game on Saturday at Logan.
Smith and assistants Shane Holliins, Buddy Spraggins and Brady Palmer have enjoyed having the girls on the team, particularly for the examples they set for other players, not to mention their determination and positive outlooks.
“It’s different in some ways because technically we have a couple girls, but we don’t treat them or look at them like girls,” Smith said. “They do the exact same things the boys do — a lot of the things they do better. They’ve taken ownership of it. They’ve taken it upon themselves to fit in and be a true football player.”
When Heidt walked into the football locker room two years ago, Smith thought it was one of the players’ sisters. He described her as “your stereotypical little girl” wearing white flip flips, who stunned him when she asked to play.
Smith estimated he had 30-to-40 girls say they would play in the past, only to eventually change their minds. He had his doubts about Heidt also, based simply on the history of girls trying to play.
She quickly proved him wrong.
The first day in full pads, as the team was conditioning, she hunched over and wasn’t sure if she could finish the required running. Smith told her to take the time she needed to recover, then finish like the rest.
“I turned to walk away and took a couple of steps, and I hear this ‘clank, clank, clank’ of shoulder pads bouncing up and down,” Smith explained. “I turned around and she came running by and said ‘I’ve got two laps left coach!’ And I was like, ‘yeah, she’s a football player. She ain’t going anywhere.'”
Small in stature — she barely stands 5 feet — she was an easy choice for defensive back. She eventually worked in at linebacker as the season progressed. She admitted it took a few weeks to gain full acceptance by the boys during her seventh grade season, taking quite a bit of friendly razzing, but Smith said “they learned quick not to mess with her.”
Heidt has never been one avoid conflict, something she feels is a necessity to be a good football player. Even with a fearless, determined outlook, there was still a matter of convincing her parents to let her play. They eventually gave in, and the rest is history.
“I didn’t care about getting hurt. I just wanted to play,” Heidt said. “The injuries and things like that didn’t matter. I was just determined to be in the game and be with my (football) family.”
Following the path
Humphrey’s love for football goes back to her childhood, when she used to watch football on television with her father.
“I saw some guy get hit really hard, and I was like, ‘I want to do that,'” Humphrey said. “I asked my dad, ‘can I play football?’ He was like, ‘no, girls don’t play football.’ I warned him that it might be me someday.”
Her aspirations became reality when Smith held a meeting for prospective players as she entered the seventh grade. Her reality check came when she arrived at the first practice and saw several players, “but things went pretty well.”
Like Heidt, fear wasn’t an option. When asked how she approached the game she said, “I love getting hit, I love to hit and I’m really excited about it.”
She made her presence known on the first day of practice, when an unsuspecting teammate took a hard hit from her. She has started every game since.
“Coach Palmer was pretty excited,” she said. “It just got better from there.”
She quickly earned the nickname “Big Mama” from her teammates, not only because of her height and strength, but also for a ferocious competitive streak. As the starting right tackle, she’s helped fuel a strong running game.
“She comes off the ball as hard as any lineman we’ve ever coached,” Smith said. “That stuff she talks about, it’s not just talk. She goes. It’s special, because a lot of boys, they don’t have that fight. At halftime, if things aren’t going well, you can see it in her eyes. She’s fired up and ready to go. She’s a true football player.”
Dodson, in her first season of football, likes the 1-on-1 battle a nose guard encounters every play. She credited her father and older brother for preparing her for the contact.
“At first (enjoying the contact) didn’t come natural, but after I started getting into the game I was like ‘yeah, I want to do this,'” Dodson said. “You have to be lower than the person who is in front of you.”
Dodson said having Humphrey to support her has made the experience more enjoyable. Humphrey helps Dodson monitor her blood sugar levels during games, and it was Dodson who helped carry Humphrey off the field after her knee injury.
Humphrey and Dodson credited Heidt for making their chances possible.
“I didn’t think I would make this kind of impact,” Heidt said. “Playing football was just something I loved to do. After everyone did start coming, I realized I made an impact.”
“I”m going to play high school football”
Those were the words of Humphrey when asked what her future held after middle school. She said she wants to be the first girl in ZHS history to play for the Blue Devils.
“Even though it might be really hard, I’m going to keep going at it,” she said.
Smith wouldn’t sell them short and doesn’t think high school head coach Chad Grandstaff would either.
“I know him well enough to know he wants to win, and I know her well enough to know that she is going to approach the game with the right mindset,” Smith said. “I think if she’s the best one, if she’s willing to go through what needs to be gone through, they’re going to keep the people who want to be there.”
Even if their football careers end in middle school, Smith has seen enough of the girls to be confident each will have future success if they approach life with the safe vigor as football.
He called them “model examples” of what student-athletes should be.
“I hope as a coach I’ve taught them some things,” Smith said. “But honestly these three have taught me a lot, as far as don’t underestimate the mind and the will power of a young kid that doesn’t know any better than to follow what they want to do.”