Photos by Bronte Wittpenn /Tampa Bay Times via AP
Story by Jeffrey S. Solochek/Tampa Bay Times via TNS
Julie Michael stood in the metal bleachers, flute poised at her lips, ready to play the national anthem with the Seven Springs Middle School advanced band.
As the band segued into the school fight song, the 8th grader continued performing. But she kept glancing toward the sidelines, where the 80-man football team gathered to stampede the field for its first game of the 2018 season.
Make that the 79-man, one-woman team.
As the final notes faded, the heavily padded Michael bolted from the stands, thrust her instrument into her mother’s hands and dashed to the end zone for the introductions. She needed to get there in time for the opening kickoff—that’s what kickers do, after all—and coach Van Daele had made clear that players could remain in the band only if they’re responsible enough to handle it.
Helmet on, it was hard to single out Michael as the only girl on the Seven Springs football roster, and the third one in the school’s history.
“It doesn’t really make a difference between boys and girls,” teammate Luke Cartiglia said during practice a day earlier. “We’re all here to do the same thing, to get the job done.”
And as star quarterback Chris Ferrini put it: “She’s good.”
Julie Michael loves football (not to mention soccer, weight lifting, track, basketball … you get the picture).
So when she learned that girls were allowed to play on the school team, she reasoned, why not go for it?
“This shows anyone can do anything they want,” explained the 5-foot-1, 120-pound kicker who also plays wide receiver and linebacker. “I think more girls should play it, just to break all the stereotypes.”
Though far from the norm, stories about girls playing football have grown more common in recent years. Just days ago, a Mississippi high school senior won homecoming queen honors and then entered the homecoming game to kick the winning extra point in overtime.
Nike’s new Dream Crazy campaign features high schooler Alicia Woollcott of Michigan, with the lines, “Don’t settle for homecoming queen. Or linebacker. Do both.”
In U.S. culture, football is a big deal, arguably replacing baseball as the national pastime. Children hear their parents cheering, debating, lamenting over teams.
Why wouldn’t girls want to be a part of it?
“They don’t just want to cheer, not all of them,” said Deidre Silva, spokeswoman for the Women’s Football Alliance, which has a team in Tampa. “It makes sense that they want to play.”
More than that, Silva added, football is a huge industry with jobs in training, announcing and other facets.
“You earn your street cred from playing,” she said.
Michael can attest to that.
She joined the middle school team as a 7th grader and found it a bit awkward at first.
Many of the boys had played together in the community, so when a girl showed up, she said, “they gave me a little bit of a hard time. They wanted to see what I was capable of.”
She didn’t back down from guys a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier. She took her hits and dished them out.
“They were like, oh, okay.” Michael said. “Now I have a lot of friends on the team.”
Still, it’s not always easy. She’s sometimes isolated in a separate locker room, missing out on the coach’s instructions and teammate camaraderie.
She can’t let that be a deterrent, Michael said. She has to take the initiative to find out what she needs to know.
Coach Daele said that her maturity shines through in her work ethic and on-field performance. Her training in other sports gives her better coordination and strength than many of the boys, he said. Michael often leaves football straight for club soccer.
Family friend Toni Maxton is not surprised. Everything Michael does occurs in beast mode, Maxton said, watching the action from the bleachers.
“She’s not your average girl,” Maxton said. “She’s not scared of anything or anyone.”
Sharon Michael, Julie’s mom, wouldn’t admit to any nerves with her daughter on the field.
“I don’t want my fears cast on her,” she said, particularly after she has repeated to all three of her girls that they “can be whatever you want to be.”
Michael is passionate about football, her mom said, and does well balancing her many responsibilities — including advanced classes, band and other team sports.
“I’m very proud,” she said. “She’s got a lot of gumption.”
And she’s made an impression.
Principal Cortney Gantt called Michael an “amazing student in every possible aspect.” Teacher Lisa Papuga praised her work ethic, also noting that “she’s nice to every child.”
Classmate Thomas Toner said he had no doubts about Michael on the field.
“I know Julie,” he said. “She can totally handle it.”
In that first game of the season, a 36-0 victory over Hudson Middle School, Michael certainly did that. While not the game’s most-valuable player, she wasn’t a bit player, either.
A Hudson receiver fumbled her line-drive kickoff, which Seven Springs recovered for a scoring drive. As wide receiver, she made the key block to allow Nicholas Wolfgang through to the end zone, putting the team up 18-0.
“Did you see that?” she said, grinning widely. “I made the block that cleared the path.”
Eight-year-old Sara Brandenburg, watching the game with her dad and brother, was impressed.
“Girls can play any sport, if they practice hard. They fit on the team,” said Sara, who knew there was a girl playing because she saw Michael’s ponytail. “Boys can be just as good as girls.”
Michael agrees. Even so, she’s not sure she’ll play football after this year.
She’d love to, but might not have the time. She wants to join the Mitchell High marching band and ROTC, keep playing club soccer and keep her eyes open for any new adventures. She hopes other girls will follow their dreams, too.
“Just go for what you want to do,” Michael said. “Don’t let anyone stop you.”
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.