By DEREK BELT
Oct. 5, 2005
ELBERTA, ALA. – First-year Elberta Middle School football coach Adam Crandall saw nothing out of the ordinary the first time he glanced over the Raiders’ roster.
Nothing but the names of 44 boys planning to get down and dirty on the football field in the coming months. Anthony, Andrew, Justin and Josh all sounded like heavy-hitters to him, and he could already envision Steven, Sean, Ryan and Wesley making great plays to win the big game.
Then he saw it.
A name not usually associated with football.
Abby, he thought, is a very interesting name for a boy.
“They asked me in my interview what I thought about girls playing football,” said Crandall. “I told them I didn’t have any problems with it. They never said they had a girl playing, though. I just saw the roster and there she was.”
Abby Brock is not your typical seventh-grader, and Brittne Wheatley isn’t your typical eighth-grader. Why? Because both played football—a sport made for and dominated exclusively by men—and they both played it well.
Abby, who also runs cross country for Elberta and plays softball, basketball, volleyball and soccer for the city, was a running back and a linebacker on the Raiders’ seventh-grade squad.
She scored one touchdown and several two-point conversions this season, and according to Crandall, blossomed into one of the best all-around players on the team in only her first year playing organized football.
Brittne, who also enjoys softball, soccer and volleyball in addition to the gridiron, played on the offensive and defensive lines at Gulf Shores Middle School.
Up until a knee injury brought an early end to her season a few weeks back, Brittne’s tough-as-nails attitude was a big reason the Dolphins were able to go undefeated on the year and wrap up the program’s fourth straight county championship.
Not bad for a couple of girls.
“Everybody thinks that a girl can’t do it just because you’re a girl,” said Abby. “I think I’ve proved the point that you can do it, and that you can be good at it. I really like football, and I’m having a lot of fun. I’d play football all year if I could, but we don’t have a year-round team.”
Abby, who was recently elected Elberta’s new student body president, first discovered her affinity for the smashmouth sport in the fifth grade after dishing out a big hit as a catcher on the softball field.
She got such a rush from the impact that she just had to have more, and from there it was simply a matter of honing her skills in the back yard and waiting for the time to come when she would finally be allowed to play.
“I always wanted to play football,” said Abby. “My dad was going to let me play when I was like seven, but my mom was totally against it. I’ve been begging her since I was really little, and this year she finally let me play.”
Abby’s parents have since embraced their daughter’s decision to play football, and have become strong supporters of her game after watching her compete at such a high level week in and week out.
“I’m totally amazed,” said father Robert Brock. “Things have really changed the last 10 years as far as girls playing guys’ sports, and they’re going to change even more the next 10 years. Abby’s always been into sports, but I never thought she’d pick up football. She’s doing what she wants, and as long as she’s happy I’m happy.”
The first time Abby strapped on her shoulder pads last spring and took a hit on the Raiders’ practice field, she wasn’t nearly as spirited about the sport as she is today. The first-timer learned the hard way that playing football might not be as fun as she thought it would be.
No, it was going to be even better.
“It’s a lot different than what I thought,” said Abby. “We get to have the coaches on the field, and I didn’t think we would get to have them. I also thought (getting hit) was going to hurt a lot worse, but it didn’t. It leaves bruises, but it doesn’t hurt.”
Crandall said Abby played hard, practiced even harder and cared deeply about whether the team was executing its plays well and not just winning the game. He also said she played with more passion and more maturity than many of her male counterparts.
“She’s the player we know we can always rely on,” said Crandall. “She’s got speed, she’s got quickness and she’ll give a shoulder shake every once in awhile. When she blitzes she can get to the quarterback, and when she’s in pursuit you can always count on her to make the tackle. She’s got it all.”
She even has the admiration of her peers, something not easily attained in the middle school environment.
“When we’re on the field, there’s no discrimination,” said Crandall. “The guys respect her and they look out for her. Some of them probably even fear her because she’s a starter and she’s better than them.”
It wasn’t as easy in the beginning for Brittne, however.
Several Gulf Shores players taunted the rookie for no other reason than because she was a girl on the football team. Brittne said the verbal abuse wasn’t widespread, but it was relentless and spiteful at the start of the season and would have been enough to drive many in her position out of the game for good. She paid little attention to her skeptics, though, and went about her business like every other member of the team.
She wasn’t trying to make a statement. She wasn’t trying to stand out. She just wanted to play football. But it wasn’t going to be easy, and she knew she had to earn it.
“A couple boys didn’t think I could do it,” said Brittne. “They didn’t think I could keep up. They said I would whine, and I’d cry and I’d quit. Some people made me feel bad about it and made me regret it, but the rest of them stood up for me and helped me with what I needed.”
Despite being the center of attention for all the wrong reasons, Brittne worked extra hard and quickly earned the respect of her teammates and coaches. She became an integral part of the team and was present for every team meeting, practice session and game—even after suffering a season-ending knee injury.
It was the least she could do for her teammates, who had gone from cynics to supporters in just a few short months.
“I think at first the players were a bit leery of the situation,” said Gulf Shores coach David Jones. “But when they saw that she came out and gave 100 percent and didn’t back down, they kind of accepted it and have really taken her under their wing.”
Unfortunately, not all of the doubters have been silenced.
“Some people still say I shouldn’t be playing,” said Brittne. “They don’t see a girl—any girl, no matter who you are—playing football. It gets on my nerves. I’ve always wanted to play football, and when people make me mad and tell me I can’t do something it motivates me. The more people tell me I can’t, the more I do.”
For the most part, the support for both girls has been overwhelming. The players now see the girls as equals, while the coaches have enjoyed every bit of the experience and all it has brought to their attention.
“We didn’t know how it was going to work out when it was first presented to us,” said Jones. “It was new waters for us to tread. We decided to accommodate Brittne in every way we could off the field, but treat her just like the rest of the players on the field. That’s what she wanted. She didn’t want any special treatment.
“I think it takes a special person to do what she’s done. I don’t think many girls would want to go through what she’s gone through, but it was something she wanted really bad. It’s been a delightful situation.”
That situation might not be finished just yet.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about (playing in) high school,” said Brittne. “I didn’t get to finish this season, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I might just have to play next year.”
Imagine the reaction the coaching staff at Gulf Shores High would have the first time they glanced over that roster. A girl on the football team?
It must be a typo.