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As the number of kids playing tackle football drops in the United States, one thing that is actually on the rise is the number of girls playing youth football.
According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, while girls make up less than 10 percent of all youth football players across the United States, more girls are playing than ever before.
Included in that number are two girls, Maeve Kelly and Madeline Tarr, who are members of the Northshore Trevians football program. Kelly, a Wilmette Junior High student, is a member of the Varsity White squad, the program’s team for players who are in junior high, while Tarr, a third-grader at Harper Elementary School in Wilmette, is on the Bantam team, a squad made up of second to fourth graders.
The 2018 football season marks Tarr’s first year in the program, while Kelly has played since fourth grade. While she’s been in the program for four years, the Northshore Trevians program is a new relatively new, one that is a combination of the Northshore Griffins and Junior Trevians programs.
“I always liked hitting, like, tackling people and stuff, and my brothers always played,” Kelly said. “So I always wanted to try it.”
Tarr, coincidentally, had a similar response.
“My brother played and I thought it would be really cool if I played, too,” she added. “Plus, I just like tackling people because it’s better to get your anger out on the field.”
Dominating the competition
Kelly, who dreams of playing for New Trier next season, is one of the best players on the varsity squad. And it hasn’t been just this year that Kelly has been successful on the gridiron; she’s been one of the best players since she started the game.
Kelly, who plays on both the offensive and defensive lines and in the backfield, is proficient in all phases of the game.
But what is it that makes her such a successful player?
“She’s a very good football player at this age; she’s got a willingness to learn,” coach Jim Roth said. “She’s coachable, is I guess the word that we use when we find a player that is open and responsive in a positive way with instruction. I would say that’s one of Maeve’s strong suits is that she wants to know how to be better, and then just her athleticism.
“She is very athletic, she’s got phenomenal hands with regards to being able to catch a football, she’s fast and she just ... if you didn’t know she was a girl — it’s hard to tell when she’s in her football uniform — you would think she’s just like all the other boys.”
For Kelly’s dad, Mike, it’s been great to see his daughter succeeding on the field.
“She’s just an athletic kid. And she throws herself into it,” Mike Kelly said. “So to see her continue to succeed, it’s just great to see her continue to learn. She’s had such great coaches, and you know, she just throws herself into it. She really is a student. She really does her homework, tries to learn her plays. It’s been really great for her. She’s really ... she’s learned a lot. Sports do that, any sport.”
Despite playing both offense and defense, Maeve Kelly said that one phase in particular is her favorite.
“Defense,” she said. “I get to tackle people and stuff and plus it’s actually really fun. Well, it’s fun. Well, defense sometimes wins the game. And offense, sometimes people do bad, and so the defense is there to pick up what the offense didn’t do.”
It wasn’t really shocking to her family when Maddie Tarr came to her parents and told them she wanted to play football.
“I don’t know that I thought of it any different than when Charlie (her son) asked me to play football,” Tarr’s mom Michelle said. “Maybe it’s just because the way the program is so open here. We’re a big football family. My husband’s a big Nebraska football fan so we sit and watch football together on Saturdays. I just was so excited that my kids could be a part of this sport really. It was like a no-brainer for us.”
With the season being the first time she had played on a football team, it’d be easy for Tarr to have struggled against others who have been playing for a long time. But, lucking for Tarr, and her bantam teammates, two-thirds of the squad has never played football, so they’re all on even ground.
One thing that has helped Tarr develop so quickly is her gymnastics background. The third-grader was a gymnast growing up and says she plans to continue doing acrobatics in the circus when she isn’t playing football.
That training is something her coach, Eduardo Monk, said has helped her progress so quickly, even though, like Kelly, she is a lineman for her squad despite not being the biggest of players.
“When I saw Maddie, I was like, ‘Okay, so she’s going to play a lineman,’” Monk said.
Tarr is skilled at backbends, flips and cartwheels and with amazing feet and good upper body strength, Monk thought Tarr’s skills could adapt to football.
“You could see early on Maddie had the strength and the power and the good feet to play on the line, which is what you really need,” Monk said.
Female football players isn’t a new concept to the North Shore youth football programs. The teams have had female players in the past, but the difference between this year and those in the past is that this is the first time two girls have been in the program at the same time.
While girls playing football isn’t something new to the local teams, it might be to those teams that face the Northshore Trevians program. With that, it’d be easy for opponents, whether it be players, coaches or fans to make comments toward the girls. Thankfully, that’s something that hasn’t happened.
“I’ve heard nothing of the sort,” Monk said. “I’ve seen other coaches and other players look at Maddie in the same way that they would look at boys on the team.
“That’s what I love about this level is these kids don’t see male or female. They see athletes. They see football players.”
It isn’t just the other teams and coaches that have done that with the girls. Kelly said it’s been the same way since she’s been with the program.
“The best part is they don’t treat me like a girl,” she said. “They treat me like one of the boys and stuff. They don’t go easy on me or anything like that.”
Both girls said that playing in the program has helped them socially, as well as athletically, and allowed them to come to certain realizations.
“I used to feel like girls couldn’t do a lot and boys were more stronger than girls, but then I realized that girls can do anything boys can do,” Tarr said.