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How this stigma-defying young woman started the first all-girls tackle football league.

These players are changing what it means to throw "like a girl."

How this stigma-defying young woman started the first all-girls tackle football league.
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DICK'S Sporting Goods

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.


freshman year here we come!

A post shared by Sam Gordon (@sam_gordon6) on

“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.

First ever girls high school football state champs! Go Mustangs!🏈

A post shared by Sam Gordon (@sam_gordon6) on

The Utah Girls Tackle Football League may have been the first of its kind, but it definitely won't be the last.

Small leagues have popped up in other states like Indiana and Georgia. Even the NFL recognized the influence, naming Sam as the first ever winner of the Game Changer Award at this year’s NFL Honors.

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.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

The Schmidt family's Halloween photoshoot has become an annual tradition.

Two of Patti Schmidt's three sons were already well into adulthood when her daughter Avery was born, and the third wasn't far behind them. Avery, now 5, has never had the pleasure of close-in-age sibling squabbles or gigglefests, since Larry, Patrick, and Gavin are 28, 26, and 22, respectively—but that doesn't mean they don't bond as a family.

According to People.com, Patti calls her sons home to Point Pleasant, New Jersey, every fall for a special Halloween photoshoot with Avery. And the results are nothing short of epic.

The Schmidt family started the tradition in 2017 with the boys dressing as the tinman, the scarecrow, and the cowardly lion from "The Wizard of Oz." Avery, just a toddler at the time, was dressed as Dorothy, complete with adorable little ruby slippers.

The following year, the boys were Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca, and Avery was (of course) Princess Leia.

In 2019, they did a "Game of Thrones" theme. ("My husband and I were binge-watching (Game of Thrones), and I thought the boys as dragons would be so funny," Schmidt told TODAY.)

In 2020, they went as Princess Buttercup, Westley, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik from "The Princess Bride."

Patti shared a video montage of each year's costume shoot—with accompanying soundtracks—on Instagram and TikTok. Watch:

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."