“I was naturally an aggressive, angry girl, and football sparked something in me,” said Naliyah, now 19 and a community college student.
That first season in 2015 saw around 50 girls sign up, taking all the league spots just three days after registration opened, said Renica Rueckert, who played in a women’s soccer league and helped coach her daughter’s team. The girls’ league, which was initially only open to fifth and sixth graders, now has over 650 players and includes girls up to grade 12.
“Naliyah got into football like me,” Rueckert, 39, said. “It gave her a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie. I saw my daughter grow and become physically and emotionally strong through football.
“I struggled a lot, but football became my therapy,” added Naliyah. “When I was on the pitch, I didn’t need to worry about what was happening at home.”
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Naliyah’s story is among many in “First Down”, an 11-minute film documentary about the women’s league team that made the rounds at American film festivals this year.
In it, one of the players describes the squad in part by saying, “We all come from difficult backgrounds.”
Producer and director Carrie Stett said she hopes the film challenges the belief that girls shouldn’t play football.
Stett was a Dallas Cowboys fan growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, and said she often wished girls had the same opportunity to participate in her favorite sport.
“I played tennis in high school, but there was a wall for women when it came to soccer, and there’s still a wall there now,” said Los Angeles filmmaker Stett.
Two years ago, when she realized June 2022 would mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX, Stett said she decided to examine how federal civil rights law had affected girls in school sports. The 1972 law prohibits discrimination based on sex in schools that receive federal funding.
During her research, Stett heard of a Utah girl and her father who sued multiple school districts in 2017 for Title IX violations because women’s soccer was not available as an interscholastic sport. .
Brent Gordon and his daughter Sam lost their lawsuit in 2021, but Stett was intrigued by the success of the Utah Girls Tackle Football League the Gordons had started with Utah occupational therapist Crys Sacco.
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Women’s soccer leagues have been around for years, but Utah’s program was considered the first full-contact league for girls in the country when it began seven years ago, Stett said, noting that the league has three age divisions: elementary, middle school and high school.
Stett contacted the Utah league and arranged to travel to Salt Lake City in early 2020 to make a short documentary on one of the teams, the West Granite Quakes – nicknamed the Underdogs because of their streak of defeats.
The film has been accepted to several festivals in 2021 and 2022. Outfest, the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival have already screened the film, and it will screen later this month at the Salute Your Shorts Film Fest in Los Angeles and Cinequest in San Jose.
Stett said she hopes the film will show people a window into the game and the girls who play it competitively.
Youth football has become a controversial sport as many parents have not allowed their children to play for fear of head injuries. Last year, legendary former quarterback Brett Favre warned parents not to let their children play football until they were 14, saying youth football can dramatically increase children’s risk of eventually develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease, known as CTE.
Football injuries, including concussions, top the list of injuries in high school sports, and a 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that young football athletes had 23 times more head injuries than flag football players.
Stett said that shouldn’t be a reason for the girls not to play.
“Yes, there are injuries, but like boys, girls learn the correct tackling skills,” she said. “A risk of concussion has never stopped football. Why should that be an excuse not to play the game?
“My goal is to help raise awareness of the need for more equality in sport,” Stett added. “Football is a way for young girls to feel empowered and have a community, and why not?”
For years, the girls played on boys’ teams in high school and a few played football in college. Olympic soccer player Carli Lloyd attended a Philadelphia Eagles training camp in 2019 and said earlier this year she was open to opportunities to kick for an NFL team.
But for the most part, players cannot pursue their footballing aspirations beyond the National Women’s Football Conference – a non-paying league with 18 teams that was founded in 2018.
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“To have a successful professional system, you need a power system,” Stett said. “You need girls who grow up playing. That’s why we need more leagues like Utah’s.
For the girls of the West Granite Quakes team, football has become more than a sport.
On “First Down,” several high school crew members talk about the personal challenges they’ve faced, from difficult home lives to body image issues and feeling like they don’t belong.
A girl identified as Giselle says in the film that she came home and cried after her first practice with the team because she had finally found a place where she felt her weight and her body were accepted.
Another player, Liz, recounts how football helped her forget, at least temporarily, the daily frustrations she endured as she grew up poor in what she called an ‘eviction house’.
On the football field, the teenagers found a way to channel their anger and learned to work together, Stett said.
“They’re from a struggling part of town, and they don’t have a lot of the same opportunities that some of the other girls in the league have,” she said. “But on the pitch, they could leave all that behind.”
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She said she also found inspiration in Sacco, the occupational therapist and co-founder and coach of the league. During filming, Sacco was transitioning from female to male.
Sacco, 40, said he was initially terrified to tell the team he had changed his first name to Crys.
“They accepted who I am and we focused on football,” he told The Washington Post. “When I first played this team, they hadn’t won a single game or scored a single touchdown. But one day at a time, we built their confidence.
Although the girls featured in the documentary have graduated from high school and are no longer on the team, Sacco is now coaching a new team of players, including 15-year-old Lilliana Knotek.
Lilliana’s father, Allen Knotek, is a single father who helped coach the West Granite Quakes.
“Lilli definitely gets kicked around at football – everything from cuts and scrapes to bruises and cleat marks on her legs,” the 36-year-old Knotek said.
“After a game in April, she came home like that and then went to prom four hours later,” he said. “But she loves football as much as I do, and I’m her biggest fan.”
Lilliana said practicing her tackle moves in the front yard with her dad was one of her favorite things to do.
“We train for hours and I love it,” she said. “Some people were surprised at first when I started playing football – they thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it or I would get injured.”
“I proved them wrong, and I would really like to be on a national team one day,” she added.
Naliyah Rueckert said she could identify herself.
Her mother was a linebacker for the Utah Falconz, one of the National Women’s Soccer Conference teams.
“I want to play with the Falconz,” Naliyah said. “Just like my mother.”
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