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Evelyn Smith: Taking her gridiron

The+JV+team+at+a+game.+Evelyn+Smith+is+the+player+with+the+pink+shirt+beneath+her+jersey.
The JV team at a game. Evelyn Smith is the player with the pink shirt beneath her jersey.

The JV team at a game. Evelyn Smith is the player with the pink shirt beneath her jersey.

The JV team at a game. Evelyn Smith is the player with the pink shirt beneath her jersey.

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The football field is brightly lit for the night’s JV game. The Generals, boys dressed in heavy padding and helmets, are clumped on the sideline, ready to take the field. Yet as the players jog into the bright lights, coming out with them is sophomore Evelyn Smith, taking to the gridiron.

Smith is the only girl who plays in the school’s football program, and she is in her third year playing for the school. “I pretty much feel the same as [any of the other players],” she said on participating in a sport that is dominated by boys. “[The difference] pretty much comes down to strength.”

Since the 1972 establishment of Title IX, a law prohibiting federally funded programs from discriminating based on sex, women have risen to become some of the most successful athletes of all time. Sports idols like Serena Williams, Abby Wombach, Gabby Douglas and Lindsey Vonn have become internationally recognized in tennis, soccer, gymnastics, and alpine skiing, respectively. Yet, while many sports played around the world have been reigned by both males and females alike, some, either out of lack of interest or due to pressure, are strictly played by men alone.

Football is no exception to this rule. Both historically and in the present day, football has always been a sport for boys. To put this into perspective, online statistics portal Statista reported that while there were 1,085,182 high school football players in the United States during the last school year, only 1,565 of those athletes were girls.

Enter Evelyn Smith, a girl who decided three years ago to play football on the freshman team. “When I first started football it was all about letting my anger out,” she said. “Now it’s all about the team and building friendships so we can help each other out.”

According to an article on sports news site ESPN.com, the majority of the few high school female football players are kickers, meaning they do not get much experience beyond kicking a ball across the field or through two goalposts. Smith, however, is an offensive lineman, meaning she is in the thick of the game, tackling and blocking the boys who she plays against. “I like to hear the coach say, ‘good job,’ like he says to the rest of the guys,” she said. “It’s the best feeling.”

Smith did not always play football. While all three of her older brothers played for the Generals, she was more interested in dance. “I did ballet from when I was about three or four until I was twelve,” she said. “I also did hip-hop, tap and modern.”

Smith quit ballet when she was twelve. “I decided to quit because they said that I didn’t have the ballerina’s ‘body,’” she said. After that she went through a sort of trial-and-error period, testing out all of the sports offered to her to see what suited her best. “I didn’t find one,” she said. “Then my brother came up to me and asked, ‘why don’t you just play football like the rest of us?’ I tried it out, and I actually really liked it.”

At first there was pressure on Smith, from all people, her teammates. “When I first started I got a lot of dirty looks from the players,” she said. She found that she had to prove herself in order to gain the respect of the rest of the team, which mostly meant running drills at the same level as the boys. “The first two drills I ever did I got driven into the ground like a screw,” she said. “From then on out I worked my way up and beat most dudes.” She played exceptionally well, comparative to her male counterparts. “I started to get respect when I did everything they did, and I keep working every day to get to my best potential.”

Smith is not the first girl to play football for the Generals. “The last year we had a girl play was 2007,” head football Coach Josh Shapiro said, referring to Angelina Candelas-Bush, who was a JV linebacker while she was a student at W-L. Coach Shapiro has been coaching in the football program for eleven years. “[In my tenure] we’ve only had three girls: Angelina Candelas-Bush, a girl named Bianca, and Evelyn.”

The expectations for Smith remain the same as all of her male teammates. “You do your best everyday,” Coach Shapiro said, outlining the standards that the football team should be meeting. “You practice hard, you take what you learn from practice and try to apply it to your scrimmages. I wouldn’t expect her expectations to be different from anybody else’s.”

Shapiro is impressed with how Smith plays, considering she is the only female player on the team. “She understands her position, and her technique is good,” he said. “She gets into her stance and is able to fulfill all of the drills and conditioning that we do.”

Smith can be seen as a pioneer for girls who want to play football at W-L. “Training’s really vigorous,” she said. “Not a lot of girls would want to go through that.” She attributes her success in the sport to her older brothers. “I pretty much was raised by three boys. We were always together. They taught me how to fend for myself.”

That is not to say that Smith is not pleased with herself for being a female player in a game created by men, for men. “I am proud that I can get through the challenges that come with football,” she said. “Coach said to me before my first game, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ That just got me going: in that game I got three tackles.”

Whatever dogs, fights or hefty linebackers come her way, Evelyn Smith will always be on the field to take her gridiron. “I’m not trying to get noticed because I’m a girl on the football team. I want to get noticed because I’m doing a good job.”

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Evelyn Smith: Taking her gridiron