As football season gears up, I'm reminded again how much my 7-year-old daughter loves to play the game.
“Cayla, do you want to play soccer this Fall?” I ask her.
“No, Mom. The only way I'll play soccer is if you let me play football, too. You know I want to play football,” she replies.
She's right. I do know. She made it pretty clear on the field last season.
It was the first time she played. Even though my husband and I have let our 9-year-old son play flag football since he was 5, I struggled with letting my daughter play.
There were a few reasons for my hesitation.
My reasons to hesitate
For starters, safety was the main concern. Safety was why I wasn't completely sold on football for my son, either. Secretly, I wished baseball and basketball would be enough for him.
The social aspect was something else I was worried about. As the only girl on her team, and one of the only girls in the league, would she make any friends? Not just friendly acquaintances, but the long-lasting friendships kids develop on sports teams.
For six months straight, I contemplated all the reasons why not to let her play. All the while, Cayla begged us to sign her up. “We’ll see,” her dad would tell her, eyeing me with a smirk that meant: “You know football's in the kids' blood. Remember, I played in college?”
I’d reply with a shrug which said it all: “I know. I’m just not ready to commit to a ‘yes’ right now.”
How I realized I was wrong
After several months of us hemming and hawing, Cayla set me straight: “Ben plays football. Why would you let him play and not me, Mom?”
I wasn't sure how to answer that. The truth is, each year Ben plays flag football, the more I embrace the game. The more I love to watch him. The more I share in his excitement about the new season.
Plus, Cayla had already played soccer and T-ball on teams that had mostly boys. She never got hurt. I knew she was athletic from the time she started walking — fast, coordinated, aggressive, and strong for her petite stature. Not to mention competitive, driven, and quick to learn rules.
As she pushed me to answer why her brother could play football, but not her, I realized I had no valid reason. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was being a hypocrite. I consider myself a feminist, for women's equality in all forms. So why should I stray on this topic?
I especially felt wrong given the fact that I’d played in a park district boys basketball league when I was in grammar school, because there wasn't a girls league in my town at the time. I had stood my ground, and had made friends with both boys and girls. I also developed a love for a game that I eventually got to play in college.
Most impactful, though, was when I reminisced about how my parents let me play in that league. That they encouraged me to do my best, and never let me think I wasn't good enough just because I was the shortest person and only girl on the court. I remembered feeling how much they loved watching those games.
So, I decided to follow their lead.
The first of many touchdowns
When we signed Cayla up, she was pumped. The first thing she did was make a bet with her brother to see who would get the most touchdowns throughout the season. That definitely added to her motivation.
I'll never forget her first touchdown. The look of determination on her face was priceless. As her tiny hand held the miniature — yet still much too big — football, tucked under her arm, she remained focused with her eye on the end zone. She cut through a few defensive players, her short but strong legs helping her dodge their attempts to grab her flags. Then, when all was clear, she sprinted her way to the end zone.
As everyone cheered, she dropped the ball, turned to her Dad who was coaching on the field, and dabbed. He returned a big, prideful smile. The exchange is something I know they'll always cherish. Perhaps even talk about for years.
Throughout the season, Cayla proved herself physically capable. I never doubted she would. She went on to get several more touchdowns (and dabs), pushed back when it came to blocking, and grabbed many flags.
There were a few hard falls, and she got a few bad bruises. But they were nothing she couldn't handle. Nothing that phased her.
A few weeks into the season, Cayla wiped out bad on her bike. Her legs were scraped and bleeding. As she began to cry, I picked her up and started heading toward our house. But then she stopped me. “Mom, I play football,” she said. “I want to keep riding.”
After each game, she told us how much fun she was having. How much she loved playing. And how, just like her brother, football was her favorite sport.
What struck me most during the season was the confidence and pride she gained. As I watched her play, it was clear that she felt equal to the boys on the field. She treated them as equals, and expected them to do the same. It became apparent that while she was learning to play the game, she was also learning that boys and girls should have the same opportunities.
When a family member asked my son how football was going, Cayla chimed in: “I play football, too.”
Breaking barriers and boosting self-esteem
Perhaps, in years to come, she'll look back and realize she did something outside the realm of what girls were expected to do at the time, and that she had a small role in helping to break the barrier for other girls to follow.
Some of the moms of the boys in her league, and others who live in our neighborhood, have told me Cayla was living out their dream. That they wanted to play football as little girls, too, but weren't allowed even though their brothers could. They encouraged and cheered her on almost as loudly as I did.
I don't know what Cayla's future in football will be. Do I think she'll go pro someday? No. Will she eventually play tackle? Probably not. How much longer will she play? I'm not sure.
But I do know I'm backing her now. I do know that she'll always have this experience to remind her that she can do whatever she sets her mind to. Best of all, I know she'll get a boost of self-esteem that comes with being able to say, “I played football.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health, and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She’s a regular contributor to Healthline, Everyday Health, and The Fix. Check out her portfolio of stories and follow her on Twitter @Cassatastyle.