I have a big mouth and a bold personality, and I talk a good game of tough. Yet when it comes to new activities and adventures, I am a big, fat chicken. Mack was the opposite of me in this regard. She had a soft voice and a gentle personality, and she never talked a good game of tough. She actually was tough; and when it came to new activities and adventures, she was absolutely fearless. Playing tackle football was a perfect example of Mack’s true grit.
When she brought home from school a registration form for the American Youth Football League of Sangamon County, Mack made her pitch for why we should let her play. First, she well understood the rules of the game from watching the NFL on Sundays with me. Second, she could throw a tighter spiral across longer distance than any of the boys at school. And third, football was by far her favoritest sport. The third point did absolutely nothing to support her case, because Mack said that about every sport she played. Yet the first two arguments were compelling enough for me, so I filled out that form and put it in the mail. I will admit that I half expected to receive a call from the league, telling me that girls could not play, and I rehearsed a speech to change their minds. Thank goodness that call never came. Yet there was a fair amount of shock that rippled through the assembled volunteers who greeted us at the weigh-in and equipment pick-up day the week before practices began. As it turned out, the league had not realized that “Mackenzie” was a girl, and seeing her there to register was a surprise. But despite that surprise, they happily registered Mack and, actually, treated her a little bit like a celebrity as they took her weight and found equipment perfect for her size.
Mack had always been rowdy and rough, physically strong and mentally determined. But I first came to appreciate her fearlessness when I took her to her very first football practice. Next to the car in the parking lot of Southern View Park in Springfield, I helped her to lace up her shoulder pads and to pull an adult-sized St. Louis Rams jersey over them. After she was suited up, Mack, who was just six years old, took off running across the field to meet her new football coaches and new teammates. She had not hesitated. She had not looked into my face to find encouragement. She did not need it. I had a thousand doubts about what Mack was about to do that day and so many fears about what she might face, but she harbored none of my doubts nor any of my fears. With excitement and with confidence, she ran fast towards all of those boys and towards a sport that I worried might not accept her.
As I watched Mack run towards that first practice—with concerns for her physical safety and all of the unknowns of how coaches, players, parents, and opponents might respond to my little girl’s participation—I was nervous for her; but I was also very much in awe of her. Mack was a brave girl…a brave kid…that day. Watching her sprint towards that new activity and that new adventure with such passion and with such certainty solidified my respect for her. She was just a tiny little child, but she was a big, brave hero to me.
While the league had not thwarted Mack’s desire to play football, I was still nervous that the coach of her assigned team, the Springfield Steelers, might offer resistance. Luckily for Mack, however, her head coach was a sweet and wise man named Scott Sables. When Mack arrived at the first practice, Scott knelt down to her eye level and he said, “Don’t think of yourself as a girl on a boy’s team. You are just a player on the team like everyone else.” Mack remembered those words and that coach for the rest of her life. Scott not only accepted Mack as a player, but he also held the same expectations for her as he held for all of the boys, and this fair treatment set the tone of her experience on that football team. She was afforded every opportunity to thrive as an athlete. Never did she experience a slight, a negative comment, or any disrespect from her coaches, teammates, or parents of teammates. In fact, she was a favorite teammate and a friend.
Mack had arrived at that first practice with confidence in her athleticism to play the game, she met immediate acceptance, she worked her little butt off (becoming one of the team’s best tacklers), and she earned her place as a quarterback and a leader. From the beginning, she stood out for her physical ability, her toughness, and her football knowledge; all good qualities in a quarterback. And it did not hurt that she knew her left hand from her right hand, as well! It was a joy to watch her play, and I was always tickled to hear her yell-out the snap count, her voice loud and tinged with just a touch of swagger. Sometimes, Mack’s braid would fall out of her helmet, and from the opposing sideline we would hear, “Is that a GIRL?!!” Mack already enjoyed the support of the Steeler moms and dads, but many parents on the opposite sidelines ended up cheering for her as well.
When the local public radio station showed up at a practice and later a game to do a story about the girl football player, Mack was embarrassed and a little confused. She was oblivious to how totally cool it was to be the lone girl in that football league. Later in life, she came to appreciate the experience as formative; but when it was all unfolding before her bright eyes, she just flat out enjoyed it. To her, she was a kid playing a game she loved. And because Mack approached her participation on that football team as an equal teammate with equal responsibility for working hard and hitting hard, the experience was formative for many of her teammates as well. She illustrated for a lot of little boys her age the toughness and ability of which girls are capable. I have no doubt that Mack’s presence on the Springfield Steelers made an important impact on many of her teammates and even some of their dads.
Danan Beedie, one such teammate, is a case in point. Danan, a high school football player, remained a friend through high school, and on one particular occasion he stood up in a class and supported Mack’s toughness in a feminist argument by calling attention to the fact that she had played tackle football with him. Mack rarely volunteered information to me about her days at school, but she came home to share that story; and when she told me the story, she beamed. Perhaps that had been the moment when she realized that playing football with boys was more than just fun. When Mack and Danan graduated from high school, Danan’s mom took me aside and thanked me for letting Mack play football all those years ago. She believed that being a teammate with Mack on the gridiron helped Danan grow up to be a good young man, respectful of women as equals.
Looking back on Mack’s short tackle football career, I always smile when I think about her and those other little kids, tackled mostly by the weight of their own football pads. I can close my eyes and hear Mack’s bold snap counts, as she lined up under center. I can vividly recall the excitement in Mack’s little face every time she had the opportunity to make a tackle, especially if there was a whole of lot of wet mud in the bargain. I had a great deal fun cheering her on from the sidelines, but Mack actually played the game. And for that, I am still very much in awe.
“Throws Like a Girl,” story on WUIS radio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyaO9WRry0o).
Mack wrote an award-winning essay about the importance of a her coach’s words to her as she grew up as a girl who loved sports (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Afpjdwf-994).