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The Utah Girls Tackle Football League Tackles Gender Norms

“We’re showing the world that we can do whatever we set our minds to.”

On numerous fields across the state of Utah this season, more than 300 young girls will gather to participate in a sport that they’ve traditionally not been allowed to play: football.

And it all started with Sam Gordon.

At just 9 years old, she caught the attention of millions of people when a 2012 video of her playing on a football team with boys went viral. She scored 35 touchdowns, rushed for 1,911 yards, and racked up 65 tackles.

Since then, Gordon has used her internet fame to speak at schools to share her story. At a middle school in 2015, she asked a group of girls a simple question: How many of you would play football if given the chance?

“Basically every girl’s hand in the audience went up,” Gordon, now 14, tells GOOD. She took it upon herself to start an all-girls football league, and with the help of her parents, the Utah Girls Tackle Football League (UGTFL) was born.

“We thought [that] if there’s this many girls in this assembly who want to play football, imagine how many there are in Utah or the entire country.” she says.

It’s estimated that close to 25,000 girls under the age of 18 play football in the U.S. However, this pales in comparison to the approximately 2.47 million boys who play. Even as girls football continues to grow, the sport still struggles to find a way to welcome in a new era of girls who long to don the signature shoulder pads and helmet.

While Gordon and her father started conceptualizing their league, youth football coach Crystal Sacco had also begun to explore developing her own girls’ league. Sacco, who’d played professional tackle football for the Utah Falconz (formerly the Utah Jynx) saw an opportunity to usher more girls into the game. They joined forces and, just two days before orientation for their new league, they had reached their goal of 50 girls registered.

Jonna Tucker was one of the first girls to sign up. “One of her dreams she wrote out when she was a little girl was that she wanted to be the first female NFL player,” her mother, Dawn, says.

So when Dawn received an email from UGTFL, she immediately sprang into action. “I received the email at 6:30 a.m. and had her signed up by 6:35,” she says, laughing.

Photo courtesy of the Utah Girls Tackle Football League.

Before Jonna joined the league, though, her mother was not always the biggest fan of youth sports. “I used to consider playing sports as a nuisance, something that took up too much time,” Dawn says.

As she’s watched her daughter excel on the field, Dawn’s perspective has changed, giving her a new appreciation for what sports can do off the field. Holding back tears, Dawn tells GOOD that football has brought her and Jonna closer together: “I have found a new connection with my daughter because I have been able to respect her passion instead of looking at it as a detriment.”

Beyond parental relationships evolving through the sport, Coach Sacco has seen a powerful transformation take place with the girls who have joined the league. “Of course, they all make friends, and they also get to legally channel some of their aggression,” she says with a laugh.

But it also offers girls who may not feel comfortable in sports like gymnastics or swimming to find comfort in a helmet and pads. “I’ve had girls tell me they feel more secure and confident in a football uniform than in other sports attire,” Sacco notes.

For Jonna, joining the league has been empowering. It’s offered her an opportunity to join a movement that helps break stereotypes girls often face playing football — and in life in general.

“It has probably been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” Jonna says. “I think this girls team shows that girls aren’t too weak to play football, and we’re showing the world that we can do whatever we set our minds to.”

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