Paterson's Gridiron Girls Tackle a Boys' Game
Monday, October 22, 2012 • 7:22pm
PATERSON, NJ – Clad in bulky shoulder pads and muddy cleats, the Bulldog linebacker jogged across the practice field with a helmet in hand. It was time to get busy. There were players to hit, tackles to make, opponents to block. But before number 91 took her position, she stopped to give her hair a quick brush through with her fingers, tucking it inside her helmet.
Nine-year-old Keanna Clarke plays football for the Mitey Mites. All her teammates are boys. So are her opponents. But that doesn’t seem to bother her.
“It’s not scary, I don’t even feel anything,” said the fourth-grader, describing the experience of being tackled.
To don a Bulldog jersey this season, Keanna was determined to overcome all obstacles, whether that meant persuading her parents for permission or losing 12 pounds in three weeks to make weight.
“My friends think it’s really cool that I play football,” said Keanna. “The boys on the other teams always ask, ‘Is that a girl?’”
Keanna’s mom, Katie Jaquez, hears the same question in the stands.
“Parents ask all the time ‘Is that a girl?’ and I tell them ‘Yes it is, and she is my daughter,” said Jaquez. “People criticize me, but I have confidence in her and if she can handle it, why not let her play?”
Keanna is not the only young lady wearing the Paterson’s Pop Warner colors this season Bulldogs. She has inspired a trio of little ladies to opt for footballs instead of pompoms – a first in Bulldog history, which has never seen a female football player until now.
The three younger girls all play on the 14-member flag team, which is a rarity in a sport in which even one female player is hard to come by. Not only is it the first time the team has girls among its ranks, but the first time it has a female leading its offense.
Eight-year-old Aalyse Ali Simpson is the Bulldog’s quarterback and has contributed three touchdowns to her team’s undefeated record.
“The key is you have to give a lot of effort and pay a lot of attention or you’ll be sitting on the sidelines,” said Aalyse, as she got ready for practice.
It seems Aalyse was destined to have football in her blood. She has been watching her father, Mitey Mite coach Ali Simpson, run football practices since she was 2-years-old. In her down time she is the Mitey Mite water girl and even helps develop play ideas with her father.
“She used to be a girly girl and now it’s ‘Daddy, when are we going to practice, I’m ready,’” said Rosetta Simpson, Aalyse’s mother.
Aalyse’s friends tell her that football is for boys, but that does not faze her.
“I tell them that I like it so I don’t have to worry about it,” said Aalyse. Her enthusiasm for the aggressive sport has her parents worried at times, especially since she plans on playing next year and would be eligible to play tackle.
“She’s not playing tackle, it’s back to cheerleading ,” said Coach Simpson, as he and Aalyse tossed a football back and forth. Her hair swished as she shook her head in disagreement. Although Coach Simpson appeared intent on seeing Aalyse in a skirt instead of a jersey, he also expressed pride that his daughter was an integral part of the undefeated team.
“To be undefeated is real something,” said the coach. “And she’s a girl, with an undefeated team, playing quarterback.”
He recalled when Aalyse made the second touchdown in the first game.
“I ran out onto the field and we were running to the end zone together – I couldn’t help myself,” said Coach Simpson.
Running back Madison Ramirez, 6, is noted for her speed, which has enabled her to boast a 60-yard touchdown this season. Madison’s friends often question how she can be a girl as well as football player – a criticism that might deter girls from going out for the team.
“I would tell those girls to try and be brave and try to get through it,” said Madison, her long hair pulled back in a braided pony tail. At games, Madison’s mother Samantha Ramirez, also receives criticism for letting her daughter play.
“I’m not going to hold her back from trying something because she’s a female,” said Ramirez. “I’m not worried – she may be tiny, but she’s a tough little cookie.”
Running back and defensive tackle Jeyda Vazquez, 5, was going to have a position on the team and no one was going to tell her otherwise.
“Ma Ma, I need white socks, cleats and something for my mouth because I am going to play football,” recalled her step mother, Christina Vazquez. “She might be small, but I’ve seen her push back the big kids.”
More than anything, the kindergartener said she wants to be a Mitey Mite so she can wear shoulder pads and a helmet like her big brother.
It’s not surprising the young ladies get a lot of flak from their male opponents and are often teased and taunted. However, they just use that to fuel their motivation for victory.
“It’s like, they can’t let the girls show them up, so they play extra hard, but they still lose,” said Coach Simpson.
Sometimes the teasing turns physical. Aalyse has been tackled, had her braids pulled and her shins stomped on – but that doesn’t keep her away from the field. In fact, Coach Simpson said despite all the jeers and taunts, most of the tears fall from their male contenders.
“Half the kids on the other team are crying at the end because they just got beat by the three girls they were making fun of,” he added.
It’s the same three girls that keep the crowds coming back to the bleachers to watch them lead their team to victory. Aalyse’s third grade teacher Maureen Cooper even made a special trip to watch her play – a game that wiped any lingering disbelief that her small student was a quarterback.
“The girls hold their own on the team and even make the boys work harder,” said flag coach Tony Ramirez. “The girls are the stars on the flag team.”
While one might expect jealousy to crop up from the Bulldog boys, on the flag team it is the exact opposite.
Ramirez said his boys accept their lady teammates whole heartedly and even work extra hard to protect them. Coach Simpson agreed, saying that when the girls are running the ball, the Bulldog boys make sure no one even gets close to them.
All four ladies plan on resuming their football positions in August next year – a decision that pleases the Pop Warner football commissioner Maria Sanabria, who loves having females on the teams.
“They show everyone that women can do things they don’t expect,” said Sanabria. “We should always give girls opportunities like this because there is a lot of talent in young ladies and people won’t know that unless they give them a chance.”