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First Girls on the Gridiron in Texas Find Spotlight

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PITTSBURG, TEX.--On a flatbed trailer bridging a parking lot in the center of downtown, 10 cheerleaders with smiles frozen on their young faces shake their pompoms and chant to rouse the crowd that has assembled here for the Friday afternoon pep rally.

On the pavement below, a half-dozen majorettes, decked out in short black skirts and gold sequined tops, await their turn to take center stage.

The crowd hoots and claps as the Pittsburg Pirates file onto the makeshift stage and then quickly adopt the nonchalant pose adolescent boys affect to show how cool they are.

Similar scenes are unfolding in scores of towns across Texas this day in honor of the "Friday Night Heroes,'' the high school football players who are worshipped in their communities.

But here in the front row of the flatbed trailer, the fifth player from the right is not your ordinary gridiron jock.

Seventeen-year-old Tammie Overstreet is one of only a handful of girls who are playing interscholastic football since the Texas University Interscholastic League opened up the game to girls this year.

Texas is one of the last states to permit girls on varsity football squads--a not altogether startling situation considering that the sport is akin to religion in these parts.

So seriously is interscholastic football taken that The Dallas Morning News, one of the largest dailies in Texas, devotes four pages to it in its Saturday editions.

Understandably, the league's decision sent shockwaves through the state as folks tried to grapple with the notion that girls might end up playing football for their cherished teams.

Winning Over the Skeptics

Sure enough, the unthinkable happened in Pittsburg (population 4,245), some 125 miles east of Dallas in the northeast wedge of the state where Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana meet the Lone Star State.

Next to Tammie, who has become a local celebrity of sorts, the town's biggest claim to fame is the "Ezekiel Airship,'' now on display in a popular local restaurant. Built by the Rev. Burrell Cannon, it took flight a full year before Wilbur and Orville Wright made history in Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, according to local lore.

Of course, the Pittsburg Pirates also have left their mark in the pages of the town's history. They won the state football championship in 1980.

More than a decade later, Tammie Overstreet sought out Calvin M. Hill, the Pirates' head football coach as well as the school's athletic director, and told him she wanted to play football.

A senior, Tammie had played girls' basketball and softball and added volleyball this year.

Football, though, was something she had pined to do since she was a 7th grader.

But her father wouldn't let her, and once she got past the 8th grade, neither would the state association.

"When I was younger, I wanted to be the first girl to play football,'' Tammie says. "Now, it's different. I just want to play.''

Coach Hill concedes that he was both concerned and skeptical when Tammie approached him and told him what she wanted to do.

After a long talk with Tammie, he was satisfied that she knew about the potential physical danger and the grueling practice schedule, but he was still skeptical about her ability to play.

At the first team meeting of the season, the coach explained to his players that Tammie would be a part of the team. A roomful of eyes stared at him in disbelief.

But then, he and her teammates saw her pulling crossties and pushing blocking sleds and hitting far bigger guys--sometimes while wearing full padding in temperatures that hovered around 100 degrees.

"She proved me wrong,'' Coach Hill said shortly before the Sept. 17 pep rally. "She proved she was capable of playing. She was for real.''

A handsome young blond in shirt, tie, and blue jeans leans into Coach Hill's cubbyhole of an office.

"Coach, do we have to wear helmets?'' the young man asks.

"Yes,'' replies the coach.

The youth, he explains, does not want to muss his hair before the pep rally.

"The boys spend more time primping these days than the girls do,'' he chuckles.

A Student With Honors

Tammie isn't one to primp. Never was. As a child, she was inclined to be out playing ball with the boys rather than dolls with the girls, her mother, Margie, says. And these days, she's far too busy with all her activities.

Pulling up to the football stadium in her blue pickup for a Friday afternoon practice session, she goes into the freshman locker room to change into her uniform.

Suited up and from a distance, it is difficult to distinguish her from her teammates. She tucks her blonde braid into her helmet, but the ends escape.

At 5 feet, 6 inches, she weighs in at a solid 220 pounds and plays offensive guard.

Her parents support what she's doing, but they still worry. "We're still afraid she might get hurt,'' Mrs. Overstreet says. "But like her daddy said, this is her last year; let her play.''

In addition to playing four sports--two simultaneously--she raises and shows pigs and rabbits, and is a member of the National Honor Society.

Out of a junior class of 119, Tammie ranked 14th and carried a 93 average.

She wants to become a veterinarian, a heart surgeon, or go into sports medicine.

Although she hopes to get a college scholarship, she shrugs off any idea that it would be for football, but not necessarily because of her gender.

"I'm too small to play college football,'' she says.

For the moment, though, it is football that has brought her a measure of fame. At an out-of-town McDonald's with her volleyball teammates a few weeks back, a couple of girls asked Tammie for an autograph.

The people who know her say all the attention, especially from the media, is something she would just as soon do without.

But she puts up with it, says Harold G. Hinsley, the principal of Pittsburg High School, if it will help the school.

"She has gotten a lot of respect,'' Mr. Hinsley says. "The high school here is behind Tammie 100 percent.''

The support is evident at the pep rally. When Tammie takes the microphone, she receives the longest and loudest applause.

"I have been hearing about some shooting that's going to go on,'' she says of the possibility of violence breaking out between fans of the Pirates and the Mount Pleasant High Tigers. "They may as well take those guns out and shoot us all. That's the only way they're going to beat us tomorrow afternoon.''

The crowd roars.

Chet Lange, who played offensive guard for the Pirates before he graduated last year, doesn't believe that girls should play football because of their physical differences.

But "Tammie is an exception,'' says Mr. Lange, who drove 250 miles from the University of Arkansas's Monticello campus to watch the game against the Tigers.

"She's tough; she's probably mentally as tough as most of the guys out there,'' he says, observing the Friday practice.

"The first couple of days the guys gave her a hard time,'' says Stallone Cody, a Pirates center who's on the injured list with a cracked vertebra. "Now, nobody messes with her. She's our teammate.''

"I think it's a constitutional right that anybody should be able to do what they want,'' says Jerry Dunlap, who works downtown at B&S Hardware and Sporting Goods on the town's main drag.

Eager for a Chance

But while Tammie has found acceptance in her own community, folks outside of Pittsburg have been less charitable.

The lineups take place on a day so hot that some of the ladies in the crowd have brought umbrellas to shield them from the relentless sun.

More than an hour before game time, fans are arriving at the stadium in Mount Pleasant, which is right next door to Pittsburg.

"I don't like it,'' says Jewel Cody, whose great-grandson, Jeff, plays defensive tackle for the Mount Pleasant Tigers.

"If that girl lines up in front of him, he won't pull no punches either,'' says Jeff's daddy, Tom.

Doug Evans, the football coach at Sulphur Springs, is scouting the game between the Pirates and Tigers. Not knowing a reporter is at hand, he says he doesn't know if he would play a girl when the Mount Pleasant boys' basketball coach, Ted Heers, asks him.

But Mr. Heers has no doubts. "There are games for boys and games for girls,'' he opines. "I don't think football is a girls' game.''

"It's so new, I don't think people really know how to handle it,'' Mr. Evans confides.

"I bet [Coach Hill] doesn't play her,'' Mr. Heers adds.

Tammie played in the two pre-season scrimmages, but not in the first two games.

"My philosophy is you play your starting [squad],'' Coach Hill says. "Most everybody accepts that in sports.''

Tammie accepts it, but being the competitor she is, she wants her chance on the field.

Fourth-Quarter Debut

Will she get that chance against Mount Pleasant, which the newspapers have given a 19-point advantage going into the game? Once these ancient rivals were in the same division, but now Mount Pleasant draws from a community three times the size of Pittsburg.

Even so, Pittsburg beat the Tigers 13-12 last year, and emotions are pitched. There is a sizable police presence, including officers on horseback.

Because there've been several violent episodes between students at the two schools during the past year, the game was even moved to a Saturday afternoon.

As halftime rolls around, it looks as though the football analysts are right. The Tigers are leading 37-0; Tammie hasn't played.

Pretending they're players, the Tiger Dolls, Mount Pleasant's drill team, takes the field in tights, football jerseys, and padding to perform a routine spoofing "Monday Night Football.''

The second half begins, and along the sidelines, Tammie, No. 68, and her teammates watch dejectedly as the Pirates are beaten down.

At the end of the third quarter, the Tigers have built a 50-0 lead. Tammie still hasn't played.

In the fourth, several pockets of Pirates' fans begin chanting, "Let Tammie play!''

Maybe the coach hears; maybe not. But No. 68 finally runs onto the field. Those fans who realize what is happening cheer wildly.

Standing immediately to the left of the center, she rushes forward at the snap of the ball and is lost in the tangle of bodies. It happens again; then she leaves the field.

One play later, and Tammie is back in. On her third try, she lunges forward and falls down. On the fourth, she blocks her man. Playing time is over for her on this day.

She has played in her first regular-season game, and, in that drive, the Pirates score their only touchdown. The final: 50-8.

Coach Hill says he won't evaluate Tammie's--or any other player's--performance until he views the videotape.

But an assistant coach doesn't hesitate. "I wish some of our boys had half the guts Tammie has.''

The day before the heartbreaking loss to the Tigers, Rebecca Quezada, a Pittsburg resident, has joined the throng at the pep rally. She has brought along her mother, visiting from New Mexico, to give her a taste of the "spirit of Pittsburg.''

In particular, she is a major Tammie booster. She thinks it's great that a girl has the opportunity to play football. Beside her is 9-year-old Lisa.

The youngster is asked if she wants to be a football player someday. She shakes her long brown locks "no.''

"I want to be a cheerleader,'' she says.

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