"Jenny, come here. I need to teach you something," Coach Ray said as he called me over to the side of the practice football field. Earlier, I told him about how after games when the team lined up to shake hands and high five the opposing team as an action of respect, some of the guys on the other teams refused to shake my hand or throw out a high five when they got to me. Instead, they'd take my hand tightly and hold it. "It's the girl," they'd whisper to the guys behind them. I wasn't complaining to Coach. I honestly thought their reactions were amusing. I understood there would be some strangeness when molds were broken. But he took note.
"Jenny, I want you to practice this," Ray said. "Take your hand, ball it up in a fist and leave your thumb out, like this," he said as he showed me what he wanted me to work on, flexing at his elbow and then moving his fist from the front to back behind his shoulder. "Do this and repeat after me. Roll punk!" he shouted. I practiced the motion with him but still remained a bit confused. Then he explained, "If some guy tries to play you like that again, grabbing your hand or anything like that, you tell them to 'roll punk.'" While the rest of the guys went on about their usual drills, I had one of my own. That was the only day I received special treatment. And trust me, the team took note.
"What were you doing over there?" some of the guys asked. I showed them my new move and they got it. That day, when we wrapped up practice and came in for the huddle, dirty hands forming an unsymmetrical circle, our captain ordered, "Roll punk on three!" And on three we ordered the punks to roll as a team.
I never took my helmet off during a game. No matter how much it hurt hiding my long hair in a bun under the plastic and foam. I didn't join the team for attention. I did it because I wanted to play and to learn the art of football. And because I had spent years mentally preparing myself to ask if being on an all men's team was even allowed. (It had been a dream of mine since the fifth grade.) And because I worked hard so I could play hard. I spent almost all of my free time in the weight room, in the gym and on the track to get stronger and faster than half of the guys on the team.
I knew as soon as I let my long mane fall out of that helmet during a game, cameras from local news teams would find a story. It was a story. No doubt about that. A beautiful one about how one girl didn't care about what other people thought of her. About how working hard pays off. About earning the respect of my brothers as an equal rather than it being handed to me. But that wasn't a reporter's story to tell. It was mine. Both to play out in my own field of dreams and to write more than a decade later.
When I asked Coach Wheeler (the head varsity football coach who had also been my track and weight-lifting coach) before school let out the summer prior to my senior year if I could play in the upcoming season, he responded: "Jennay (in the Forrest Gump accent he always used to say my name), if your daddy says you can that's up to you. But I'm not cutting you any slack." And that was that.
Many women are spending their time thanking their fellow sisters right now for their support throughout their lives. I am too. But right now, I feel like reaching out to my brothers, my coaches and my dad more than anyone. Not for treating me special but for treating me the same. Playing football wasn't about me. Hell, I was terrible at football if we're being honest. I might have been fast and strong but I had had no prior experience handling the ball. Football was about the team and during that grueling season of two-a-days, chest busters (up-downs) in the dirt spot, the County Fair during Code Red days when it was too hot to be outside and Friday night lights with my boys, I learned about more than a game. I learned about working hard to get where you want to go. That you must practice before you preach (even if it takes years before you're ready). That if you work towards your goals in this order, people will that note. And those closest to you will have your back. They'll gather together around you and tell anyone in your way to ROLL PUNK. And for that I am infinitely grateful.