These players are changing what it means to throw "like a girl."
At 9 years old, Sam Gordon learned the hard way that being the best didn’t always mean getting picked first.
She was fast and agile, beating every single boy at her first ever tryouts for tackle football. She exceeded her dad’s already high expectations. He knew Sam was a gifted athlete, but seeing just how gifted she was blew him away.
Rather than being first pick in the draft, Sam was put onto the seventh of nine teams. Around 80 boys who were slower and not as agile were picked before her.
“I had to explain to her, a 9-year-old, ‘Sam, because you’re a girl, you are going to have more obstacles to success than if you were a boy,” says Sam’s father, Brent Gordon.
But rather than be discouraged, Sam didn’t let that unfairness hold her back.
“I decided to prove the coaches wrong,” Sam says, now 14 and a freshman in high school.
And that’s just what she did: All season long, she used her small size and speed to weave in and out of holes in the defense, taking hits and making hits as she went.
That season — her first season of playing tackle football with an entire league of boys — she scored 35 touchdowns, rushed nearly 2,000 yards, and made 65 tackles.
Her father made a video reel of Sam’s highlights from the season — and the video went viral.
Finally everyone saw the talented football player she was.
Sam was put on a Wheaties box, invited to the Super Bowl, and even went on a variety of talk shows.
While she was never afraid to tackle and play as the lone girl on a team, other girls were, which meant they never got the chance to play tackle football because, if they wanted to, they had to join a boys team. Even after Sam’s video went viral, parents were still nervous about putting their daughters in a boys football league.
That’s why Crystal Sacco, a former football player, reached out to Brent with the proposal of starting a girls tackle football league.
At first, Brent wasn’t sure there would be enough girls to start the league. But his worries soon vanished. Sam was asked to speak at a middle school about how she plays football and she asked the assembly room if any girls wanted to join her.
“I’m not kidding, every single girl’s hand shot up,” says Brent. He called Sacco the next day. Soon after, Sacco and Brent set up all the necessary measures to begin opening up the sport for girls who always wanted to play.
The Utah Girls Tackle Football League had their first season in 2014. Within one week, 50 girls signed up.
And the number of sign-ups doubles each year. They’re currently going into their fourth season, and they might have as many as 400 players.
The best part is, prior experience doesn’t seem to factor into who succeeds on the team.
“Around 80% of the girls have no experience playing football,” says Sacco, but that’s OK because they’re taught from the ground up. “When they put on those pads and helmets, they just emotionally fit into it.” She wanted to show these girls, ones who weren’t the most confident in themselves, that “strong is OK.”
Despite the majority of the girls not having experience, competition on the field didn’t take long to become fierce, says Sam. “It’s tough out there,” she says. “And everybody is super passionate about it.”
“At the first game, one of the referees came back to me and said, ‘You guys have more fans in attendance than we see at high school sophomore games,’” says Brent.
The league was a clear hit with girls and parents alike.
“One of the best things about starting up this league is that I will get, almost on a weekly basis, either a text message or email from a parent that signed up their daughter for football tell[ing] me how big of an impact playing football has had on their daughter’s self-esteem, confidence, mood — attitude in general,” he says.
In their town of Herriman, Utah, football is everything. Boys in the town start playing at age 8. “Now girls have this [same] opportunity,” says Sam.
The Utah Girls Tackle Football League may have been the first of its kind, but it definitely won't be the last.
Girls finally have their own space to compete in football, a place where they can get into the sport while breaking down bias of what it means to “play like a girl.” They’re proving that they can be just as good, if not better, than the boys. It’s about more than having the chance to play the game, it’s about continuing a legacy of strong women who reclaim and open up new spaces for future generations of women in sports.
This story was produced as part of a campaign called "17 Days" with DICK'S Sporting Goods. These stories aim to shine a light on real occurrences of sports bringing people together.