2014-10-16 / Front Page

Girls Meet Boys on Pop Warner Gridiron

By Olga Enger

Fourth-graders Syndey Newsome (left), of Newport, and Makenna Gilman, of Middletown are the only two girls of 287 players in the Newport/ Middletown Pop Warner football league this year. (Photo by Olga Enger) Fourth-graders Syndey Newsome (left), of Newport, and Makenna Gilman, of Middletown are the only two girls of 287 players in the Newport/ Middletown Pop Warner football league this year. (Photo by Olga Enger) Three afternoons a week, fourth-graders Syndey Newsome, daughter of Rogers Head Coach Frank Newsome, and Makenna Gilman suit up to practice line drills with a team of boys. Both girls grew up watching older brothers play football and wanted to get off the sidelines.

“After one year of being a cheerleader, she lost interest and asked if she could play football,” recalled Newsome’s mother, Jodi Pacheco.

Similarly, throughout the four years Gilman was on the cheerleading team, she tenaciously asked her parents to play football.

“We said no at first” said Gilman’s mother, Danielle. “But there is no real reason we said no,” she admitted.

For Gilman, the challenge of being a girl on a team full of boys is her favorite part about playing football.

“I like sticking out,” she said. “Of all the boys, we are the only girls,” she added with a proud smile.

Pop Warner Coach Jason Kleinknecht said the girls show more dedication and spirit than most of the players and are well respected by their teammates.

“They work hard with all the other boys…I mean with the boys,” Kleinknecht laughed at his mistake. “Football is a unique sport. You can’t just go through the motions; it’s a contact sport,” said the coach. “They really are one of the guys.”

Their mothers agreed the aggressive nature of the sport has not been an issue for the girls.

“I’m not as worried about her getting hurt, as I’m worried about her hurting others,” said Pacheco. Gilman’s mother agreed with a firm nod.

Although the girls enjoy playing with the boys, it’s not always easy on their mothers. It reminded me that I was relieved when I found out I was pregnant with a boy. Being a mother to the 12-year-old version of myself would be wearing. By then, I had been handed society’s “memo” about how to act as a soon-to-be woman. Somehow, I was supposed to be pretty and graceful, despite a mouthful of braces and a changing body that I was less than happy about. That was the year I asked our hockey coach if I could try out for the team; he laughed and told me to be a cheerleader. Throughout my childhood, I skated against the neighborhood boys at the rink across from my house, but suddenly my role was to root them on.

When the doctor told me I was carrying a son, I didn’t realize that during my twenties, there was a coup d’├ętat of 12-year-old girls, who stole that memo of rules, rewrote them, and politely handed them back to society. And part of what they wrote was that girls, if they choose, can now be one of the guys.

In one game, Newsome was tackled hard and Pacheco’s instinct was to run to the sidelines to comfort her.

“My boys would die if I ran to the sideline, so I stayed put,” she said. Despite a few tough falls, her daughter said that tackling is one of her favorite parts of the game.

The first girl to play for the league was 7 year-old Kelsey Bell in 2000, according to Tina Vars, president of the local Pop Warner organization. Bell also started out as a cheerleader, but wanted to get into the game.

Vars recalled one game when Bell tackled a player and sent him flying.

“The other team kept running after her. At the end of the game, it was obvious they did not know she was female,” said Vars. “She whipped off her helmet, her long hair flew, and the entire opposing team stood there with their mouths open.” Bell, who played for five years, paved the way for many other girls to join Pop Warner football.

Newsome, a student at Pell School in Newport, and Gilman, a student at Gaudet School in Middletown, play on the same team, after Newport merged back with Middletown in 2011. Newport had split off in the 1990s to form a separate league.

“[Newport] did well for a few years, but struggled with having enough volunteers, no support from the city and declining enrollments,” said Vars.

The Middletown league is now open to students from Middletown, Newport and Jamestown. Portsmouth and Tiverton have their own Pop Warner organizations.

Newsome and Gilman are the only girls playing in the league this year.

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