Big time: Players from Utah Girls Tackle Football League invited to Pro Bowl to showcase their skills
Twenty-two Utah girls will demonstrate skills and abilities of female players on one of NFL’s largest stages
HERRIMAN — Laura Goetz made her way to her parents room trying to figure out what she’d done to get in trouble.
And what they told her once they asked her to sit down certainly made her cry.
But instead of reprimanding her for a mistake, they told the sophomore at Summit Academy that she and her football teammates were going to play a scrimmage during halftime at the NFL’s Pro Bowl on Jan. 26 in Orlando, Florida.
“I started crying because I was so happy and so excited about it,” said Goetz, who plays quarterback in the Utah Girls Tackle Football League. “I started jumping up and down. It was awesome.”
The NFL’s invitation to the first-of-its-kind all-girls tackle football league came about 10 days ago when Brent Gordon, a coach and board member, received a phone call from Samantha Rapoport, senior director of diversity and inclusion for the NFL.
“My reaction was, ‘Heck, yeah!’ we could. We’d love to go do something like this.” — Coach Brent Gordon
“My reaction was, ‘Heck, yeah!’ we could,” said Gordon. “We’d love to go do something like this.”
The 22 players on the All-Star team are guests of the NFL and will be playing about seven minutes “to showcase the abilities of girl football players, and to demonstrate the growing interest among girls and women in the game of football,” Gordon said.
The 22 girls were chosen from the nearly 500 girls in Utah who played football last spring in the UGFL. The players attend 17 Utah high schools and many serve as their schools’ girls football club presidents. Nearly half of the girls are “legacy” players — players who have played in the all-girls league from its inception in 2015.
The girls will practice at the Real Salt Lake Academy indoor facilities in preparation for the scrimmage. While in Orlando, they will attend the AFC and NFC team practices and visit the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Gordon was instrumental in creating the Utah Girls Tackle Football League because his daughter, Sam Gordon, who was a star on her little league team, wasn’t comfortable competing against boys on her high school team. He also led the effort to file a lawsuit that would force Utah high schools to offer girls-only teams. The Utah High High School Activities Association has said football is a coed sport and girls can play on high school teams if they wish.
Some do, but most say there are a lot of reasons they don’t — or can’t — including physical disadvantages and hostility from coaches, parents or other players.
The only downside to the offer, Brent Gordon said, was trying to decide which 22 players should represent the league at the Pro Bowl. Because of the timeline, coach Matt Goetz, league president and coach Jason Dixon and Gordon had to hand pick the players, order all-star jerseys and get individual names to the NFL so flights could be arranged — all on the same day.
“We wanted one to two representatives, so that each team would be represented on this All-Star team,” Gordon said. “And then those coaches can use this experience to help grow their teams. ... So we have 22 girls representing 17 different high schools. ... Within a day, we called them and everyone said yes. Nobody had to think about it.”
The first thing Brent Gordon did after getting the call from Rapoport was text his daughter, who is a junior at Mountain Ridge High in Herriman. She was in Arizona at a soccer tournament when he delivered the news.
“He was like, ‘Hey, we might get this opportunity to play at halftime of the Pro Bowl, but don’t get too excited yet,’” Sam said, sporting her fresh-from-the-box all-star jersey for a media interview. “And then he texted again, ‘Yeah, we’re doing it.’ I thought it was amazing. It’s insane to get this opportunity to go out there and have so many of our different girls represented on the field. It’s amazing.”
Sam Gordon became a viral sensation when her dad posted videos of the running back dominating her little league games. As she’s gotten older, she’s felt more and more unwelcome in the sport, and the support of the NFL, which included inviting her to appear in a Super Bowl commercial last year, has been an unexpected source of encouragement.
All of the girls have endured negative and sometimes hurtful comments about how they don’t belong in the sport they love.
“My dad always talks about when we get people who say things like, ‘Girls shouldn’t be playing football and stuff like that’, he always says we have to focus on not trying to change their minds, but trying to find like-minded people and find others who agree with us that girls should get this opportunity to play football.”
The girls said it’s been discouraging to feel like a lawsuit is their only option to convince school and state officials that they deserve the opportunity to play in their own league, but their love for the game and the lessons they’ve learned keep them motivated.
“It is unfortunate that we’re having to fight against these people and not getting the opportunity to play this amazing high school sport,” Sam Gordon said. “But I think there’s also amazing supporters like the NFL and every time that they’ve taken a step forward with us, it’s a boost of confidence, and gets us closer to playing the sport we love.”
For the players, the invitation, and more importantly, the support of the NFL, feels like validation that they belong in the sport they love.
“One hundred percent,” Goetz said of the fact this invitation reinforces her feeling that football is a game women should be playing at all levels. “Because finally, it’s like a big push, we finally get something to show people that girls can play and want to play and are actually good and capable of playing like the boys are. This is promoting that.”
Copper Hills junior Lauren Dixon, who plays middle linebacker, said her cousin, Laura Goetz, convinced her to play. She wasn’t playing sports when Goetz invited her to give football a try.
“I was like, ‘No, I’m good’,” she said smiling. “The next year, she was like, ‘Come on you’ll love it.’ So I went and played with her and had a good experience. ... I really loved it so I went and played with the boys.”
She played in eighth grade on a boys team, and she said it was a good experience, but she no longer plays on her high school team “because I’m too little to keep playing with them.”
“I think it’s somewhat unfair because they can just keep growing and play the sport we love, but I have to go and find an alternative route instead of playing for my high school.”
She said she’s learned the value of teamwork and communication from her time on the football field.
“With this sport, if you try to do it by yourself, it’s not going to work,” she said. “You also have to use communication with your teamwork because if you don’t communicate ... it could blow up. It’s just a huge circle of communication and teamwork.”
Adds Goetz, “It’s taught me discipline. Just doing your job and your position, and doing the small things, paying attention to everything and learning and communicating and all of these different things that are extremely valuable to life and making you a better person.”