- Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The roar beneath the fall lights has crescendoed. It’s homecoming night, and Olympus has scored once more to extend its lead to four touchdowns.

Band members ready their instruments for the fight song to the delight of the student section while cheerleaders prepare for 28 more pushups, pending the point after. The Titans kicker splits the uprights with ease and confidently scurries back to the sideline.

The play is routine and often overlooked, but Ashley Denning cannot contain her elation. “Kicking Ash,” as she’s known, just scored another point in her senior season.

Denning is 5-foot-9 and 120 pounds, competing at the varsity level against boys - in reality, nearly full-grown men - two to three times her size. She performs low-contact duties at kicker, but she has been known to mix it up with opponents. Denning is never intimidated in a sport that quickly exposes the weak. Football is poetry written with violence. Football is passion and kinship and intensity.

Football is many things, but one thing it is not is a “man’s game.”

Denning is one of 14 girls playing in Utah’s 104 high school football programs. From Layton to Montezuma Creek - they are the girls of autumn.

Escaping gender roles

Taylor Stevens, a junior defensive end for Clearfield, was beyond stressed six years ago.

At an age when emotions are more confusing than insightful, Stevens talked with her mother, searching to tame the growing frustration of life, when inspiration arose.

“(My mom) suggested it,” said Stevens, still with a hint of shock. “She was like, ‘Why don’t you play football and you can hit some guys?’ She was surprised because I said, ‘All right.’ The next year, I did it.”

Stevens said several players questioned her intentions when she appeared at tryouts for the first time. “Umm, what are you doing here?” she remembers them asking. She quickly realized acceptance in football is earned, that admittance to the members-only club is achieved through dedication: finishing gassers, getting off the turf after another up-down, playing through the pain and exhaustion. Size, strength, speed and gender are irrelevant if players are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.

“I know at first guys were a little nervous, until they realized she’s not going to back down,” said Clearfield coach Andre Dyson. “She might not be the biggest or the strongest, but she competes. I think a lot of guys can learn from that. If you believe and compete, then you can be successful. She’s proof of that.”

Football terminology is gender-specific in many ways - lineman, man coverage, illegal man downfield - but women are the quickest growing demographic in the sport, according to a report SportsBusiness Journal released last fall. The report says NFL has increased its female viewership for a decade.

“They were so excited,” Denning said of her parents’ reactions to her playing. “I am from a family of football players. That is what we eat and breathe.”

Watching and playing are two entirely different entities, though.

Concerns and realities

“There are some safety issues because of the nature of the game,” said Canyon View’s Robby Robinson, who coaches receiver Morgan Cheney. “The collision factor at full speed is a jolt. I don’t think she was ready for that part of the game. She works as hard as anybody in our program. She’s awesome, but she weighs maybe 140 (pounds), and now you’ve got a 215 (pound) running back coming at her. That’s a different story.”

Cheney needed time to acclimate to the violence. Denning bruised her leg badly after receiving an unexpected blow on kickoff. Layton receiver Abby Pruitt injured her neck during football-related stretching. Park City’s defensive end Morgan Lukrich is troubled by the potential necessity of retiring next year because her body hurts “everywhere.” Stevens has played with her hand in a cast after breaking it when she “kind of punched a linebacker in the chest” while she pursued the ball.

Coaches are paying attention.

Summit Academy coach Scott Gorringe carefully watches sophomore kicker Ryann Timm. “I believe she could kick off, but I’m a little bit worried about somebody going after her.”

Injuries are an unfortunate - and inevitable - part of football. Many former players suffer from aches, and there are no guarantees. Avoiding the pain means missing the memories. Participation boils down to measuring the risk against the reward.

“That’s the nature of the beast. When you go out there, there’s always that chance you could plant on the ground wrong, and there goes a knee,” said Layton coach Jim Batchelor, who has undergone shoulder and hip surgery and had his neck fused because of football injuries. “It’s part of the game, part of the excitement. There’s that rush you don’t get from anything else.”

Corner Canyon’s Bailie Appleton, who engages in the physicality during every play on the defensive line, sees her size as an advantage.

“I think they’re scared to block me ‘cause I have boobs, which, I don’t know - I’m fine with it,” Appleton said with a giggle. “But also I’m pretty dang short compared to all the rest of them, so I just squeeze right through, I guess.”

Defined by the name

Sweat bonds. Hands on the hips, gasping for air, waiting - praying - for the barrage of whistles to stop signaling sprints in the insufferable summer heat creates powerful connections, the kind that last forever.

Every athlete reminiscing about the past remembers what it meant to be defined by the name on the front of the jersey.

“Once she puts that uniform on, she’s just another member of our football team,” said Batchelor, who noted the only required accommodation is separate locker-room arrangements. “They coach her the same. She works out the same. She’s not treated different.”

The perception of girls playing football has changed for the 13 coaches who have female players. Many had reservations about the situation until seeing how positive it could be. Worried and cautious parents’ mindsets evolved, too.

“It shows you can do anything you want - even if it’s something out of the norm,” said Warren Riehm, whose daughter Jacinda plays receiver at Jordan. “The potential is there for kids to do whatever they want. It might be different, but at the same time that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I’m very proud of what she does.”

This season, 14 girls learned football is many things. Football is endurance and determination. Football is motivation and attitude and enjoyment. Football, most importantly, is a game for everyone.


Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, https://www.sltrib.com

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