High school girl battles alienation in her bid to play football

October 13, 1991|By Richard Obert | Richard Obert,Arizona Republic

PHOENIX -- Swallowed up in her oversize armor, Erika Gomez sits alone on a bench outside the locker room at Glendale Deer Valley High, waiting for football practice to start.

Other players stretch out nearby, talking and laughing among themselves, ignoring the small girl holding the undersize helmet.

This is the 18-year-old senior's second week in pads. People on campus are counting the days before she turns them in and calls it quits.

Each evening, after practice, she limps home and soaks sore, bruised legs in a hot bath. Her battered body, however, is minor compared with an ego that needs massaging, she says.

"It's a little harder than what I expected it to be," said Gomez, who is 5 feet 4 and weighs 130 pounds. "Not the actual physical stuff, but the way that I'm treated. It's really different. I don't think the team has really accepted me yet."

When word got out that a girl was joining the Skyhawks football team, Coach Fred Haeger told a reporter to call back in another week, figuring Gomez wouldn't last that long on the field.

But the aspiring halfback keeps going back, putting herself through tackling and blocking drills against boys who dwarf her.

More than anything, she battles alienation from schoolmates who can't believe she would want to participate in a boy's game.

"It's more of a shock to the girls at the school than it is the guys," linebacker Carlos Valdivia said. "A lot of girls say, 'You got a girl out there? Is she crazy?' "

Gomez says she has overheard such remarks of disbelief.

"If people would just come up and ask me, I'd be glad to tell them in their face why I'm out there, and answer the other questions that they have," she said.

"I just want to play football. It's not to prove a point or anything like that. It's just a game that I've always enjoyed. I've always wanted to play, and I feel this will be my last chance ever to play. I just wanted my chance."

Deer Valley can't stop her. About five years ago, the Arizona Interscholastic Association, fearing potential lawsuits, opened the door for girls to play high-school football.

Since then, only a handful have tried. Gomez is the only girl known to be playing varsity football this season in Class 5A, the state's highest level.

She never has played organized football before, and Haeger says it's evident. She also is trying to play positions at which inexperience isn't easily hidden -- running back and defensive line.

"It's tough on her," Haeger said.

"I can't imagine myself, at my age, going out and playing ice hockey. I've never played ice hockey before. I'd get killed."

Haeger and Deer Valley's athletic director, Tom Meck, have tried to explain the dangers of football to Gomez, but she shrugs them off.

"You've got a 130-pound girl playing against 220- and 250-pound guys," the coach said. "I don't have a guy that small. We've expressed to her and her family that we're concerned about her health and safety, but the general consensus is that this is what she wants to do."

Meck said, "We understand women's rights and those things. She has the right to be out there. But I would be very concerned the second she steps on the field [in a game]."

Players aren't quite sure how to deal with Gomez at practice.

"The first week she was in pads, we all looked at each other and said, 'Are you going to hit her?' The response was, 'I don't know, are you?' " said Deer Valley linebacker-quarterback Steve Haynes, a college recruit at 6 feet 3, 215 pounds.

"You might feel bad or something, but she knows what the game is. She's out here on her own free will, so you've just got to act like she's any other player, I guess."

Few took Gomez seriously last spring when she took part in football drills with the boys.

"No one thought she'd come back in the fall," Valdivia said. "No one took her seriously."

It took some persuasion for Gomez's parents to let her go out for the team this fall.

Gomez grew up playing football in the street with her cousins, Chris Ansley and Rusty Brown, who are co-captains of Tempe High's football team. They support her quest.

But her parents were strongly against it, until she struck a deal with her father: If she toughed it out during an eight-week boot camp for the National Guard in South Carolina in the summer, she could play football in the fall.

"She did it," said Carlos Gomez, Erika's father, who now supports her football dream. "She came back with honors. She has a rank in the service. I'm real proud of the kid.

"She's a pretty headstrong kid, and she knows what she wants to do with her life."

Because of boot camp, the Deer Valley administration allowed Gomez to go out for football a month late. Once she did, she had to wait a week while a helmet small enough to fit her head was ordered.

Haeger says he doesn't feel any obligation to put Gomez in a game.

"I wouldn't feel an obligation for anyone who came out this late," he said.

"I would much rather be talking about guys like Steve Haynes and Carlos Valdivia. They've been with us two years. They've been through weight training in the summer. They've been through two-a-days and three-a-days (practices). I don't feel any obligation at all to her."

Gomez, who also is involved in gymnastics and ROTC, says that won't dissuade her. She realizes that it's up to the coach to decide who plays, and she says she's happy just to be practicing.

"I'm going to stick with it through the whole season," she said. "I don't think anything can make me quit. It's something that I've always wanted to do. This is something that I'm really determined to do."

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