Amber Seifts’ hands shook as she stepped onto the football field, the deafening Centereach High School homecoming crowd roaring behind her. And as she jogged to her spot at cornerback, her long, light brown hair shifted and fell out of her football helmet, spilling down to her shoulder pads.
“There’s a girl!” she said, recalling the screams from the opposing sideline. “And then my team had megaphones and they started screaming stuff [back]. I was freaking out . . .[but] everyone [in the crowd] was cheering.”
Seifts didn’t get a tackle that Sept. 16 game, a 43-8 Centereach victory, but the 5-11 junior certainly made a lasting impression. And she’s not alone.
Seifts, who has also played safety this season, is one of at least nine known girls playing varsity football for Long Island public schools this year, and one of four to play a contact position.
Girls who also played last year, like Bay Shore High School linebacker Cayleigh Kunnmann, have noticed a subtle shift. There will always be detractors, or those who think the sport is no place for a girl, they said, but that seems to be becoming less of a deterrent for female athletes.
“I think a lot of girls are seeing, not only women in football, but women in all of kinds of male-dominated fields and just gaining a lot more confidence and knowing that they can do it,” said Kunnmann, a senior.
Hannah Martin, a senior kicker at Patchogue-Medford High School, said she’s actually become aware of more naysayers than when she started last year. “Now, I can almost feel for the other girls, when I hear about other people talking about them. I definitely think we should keep doing what we like to do. It’s not going stop me.”
“My family and friends and people in school, they always ask why I never talk back or yell back at people and it was actually the finishing line in my college essay,” added Martin, who loves the influx of female players and hopes to kick in college. “I told them that I don’t need to yell back, I don’t need to talk back to them. The points on the scoreboard are what speak for me.”
On Saturday they spoke loudly. She kicked nine extra points in the Red Raiders’ 68-19 victory over Whitman.
But whereas sights like these were once anomalies - on Long Island, at least, there have been long stretches with no girls on any varsity football teams - they look primed to become very common. Of the nine known girls who play football, four are underclassmen - meaning they could ostensibly return next year. There is Seifts, and Julia O’Neill, a junior kicker from Connetquot High School who is also on the varsity soccer team. Tyanna Middleton, an AP Honor student and a junior from Central Islip, is also a kicker/wide receiver. She grew up an avid Jets fan, but also idolized former Giants running back Tiki Barber. Longwood’s Gina Deleonardis, also a junior, is an offensive lineman and was featured on News12Varsity.com.
Participation is booming
Female athlete participation in football as measured by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association has has increased by nearly four times in the last year and far outstrips the numbers from 10 years ago, and that’s primarily due to a staggering increase on Long Island.
There are 269 girls participating at some level of football in the state this year, according to a survey conducted by the association, which tallied up girls in varsity, junior varsity, freshman and modified football, which generally includes players in seventh and eighth grade, but may also include ninth graders — the equivalent of high school freshman. That amounts to one girl for every 179 boys. There was no breakdown of whether the girls played contact positions or were kickers.
Of those 269 girls, 124 are playing football in Section XI — the designation for Suffolk public high school athletics. Nassau, or Section VIII, boasts the next-highest total, at 57. Central New York is a distant third, with 12 girls.
Last year, only 71 girls participated in football, according to the study. NYSPHSAA did not conduct a survey for a handful of years before that data, but numbers before 2012 are modest. Nine girls played football in the 2011-12 school year, and 10 played the previous year.
“I wouldn’t even say it’s a statewide trend, it’s a national trend,” said Robert Zayas, executive director of NYSPHSAA. “Thankfully, girls are being given the opportunity to participate in sports that maybe they would have never envisioned participating in.”
Football participation has decreased in the United States — the National Federation of State High School Associations reported that it went down almost 26,000 in the 2016-2017 season — but the number of girl participants has gone up. There were 2,017 girls participating in 11-player, or high school football, nationwide last season, and that number had been steadily increasing for three years and far exceeds the total from seven years ago (1,249).
Many do have concerns. The physiological differences between girls and boys at the varsity level can be stark, but Zayas said that the state Education Department has protections in place. Mixed competition rules dictate the girls must receive approval from a panel, which decides whether the student’s abilities put her in danger. The panel includes a school physician, as well as a physical education teacher, and students undergo physical tests.
“I certainly hope” the trend of female participation continues, Zayas said. NYSPHSAA’s job, he said, was to “find ways to give more kids more opportunities to participate . . . that should be our goal, to [help students] find new and creative ways to participate in sports.”
Attitudes are changing
All six girls interviewed said they were determined to prove they belonged on the team — sometimes to themselves, and sometimes to teammates or opponents.
Alexis Saladino, a senior captain on the Newfield High School girls soccer team, describes herself as outspoken but said she dials it back on the football field. Being a first-year player, in addition to being the only girl, changes her role significantly.
“In the beginning, not everybody was very welcoming,” said the kicker, a soccer goalie with a mighty wingspan and a booming foot. “As they saw what I could do, that I could actually kick — they thought it was a joke at first — but seeing I could actually kick long field goals, they welcomed me as one of their own, as one of their brothers.”
Mia Advocate, a senior kicker for Calhoun High School, said it was imperative to her that she participate in all the summer practices — from laps to two-a-days. She was actually encouraged to join the team by coaches and teammates, two of whom took her to kick on an empty football field before summer began.
“She ran with us all summer, she lifted with us all summer,” coach Brian Moeller said. “She is one of the boys as far as the boys are concerned. She’s tough, she’s not afraid of a challenge. She gets after it and she’s not afraid of competition.”
Jackie Seifts, Amber’s mother, said her daughter’s dedication — her steadfast intent on proving she was good enough — helped assuage some of her original fears.
“We’d see the practices and she was able to go in with the best of them,” Jackie said. “She can take a hit and get back up and she can also give a hit . . . I think after they get tackled and they get back up, you get over the initial shock. It’s much better.”
Alec Kiernan, a senior captain for the Centereach team, said the team embraced Seifts. “We were definitely a little surprised, but we took her in right away. We treat her like family,” he said, adding that her play exceeded his teammates’ original expectations. “We take her out to dinner, we do therapy together, we do everything.”
Added football coach Adam Barrett: “It’s not like a boy-girl thing. She’s an athlete.”
The new role models
One thing does appear certain: Female football players have the power to beget more female football players, or baseball players, or hockey players.
Advocate said her experience has been completely positive, but even she was surprised at the impact her participation had beyond the football field. She was volunteering at a fair for the National Honor Society when she saw a young girl whispering to her mom and pointing her out.
“The little girl looked up and was smiling and the mom says, ‘She sees that you play football and she was interested in joining the boys baseball team, and she just thought it was really cool. Now she’s going to go out and try that,’ ” Advocate said. “That was a moment I’m never going to forget — just seeing how I can impact someone. How many more people that can be impacted by just a little thing.”
Almost all the girls have similar stories.
Seifts said after her homecoming appearance, girls came up to her in droves. “It was like empowerment,” she said.
After she was featured in Newsday last year, Kunnmann was inundated with Facebook messages — many of them women with daughters who saw Kunnmann as a role model. Megan Benzing, a senior kicker from Mepham High School, was in her athletic trainers’ office when she was greeted by two freshman volleyball players who were star-struck by “the girl kicker.”
“I don’t even notice who knows and who doesn’t know,” said Benzing, a former cheerleader who realized she preferred to be on the field than on the sidelines. “Even on jersey days, it looks like I’m a cheerleader wearing my [designated] football player’s jersey or something. It’s cool when you realize how many people know and notice you.”
Football “changed my whole high school perspective. When I was in ninth grade, I had no idea that that’s how my high school would go. It made it unique and I loved it.”
And it’s more than a girl thing, Kunnmann said. Now in her second year on varsity, she’s taken her hits and gotten back up. She’s lined up knowing that the guy on the other side might be bigger, and may even hit harder.
“I would just hope to be a role model, not only just for girls, but for my younger teammates that are coming up,” she said. “I want to show them that just because you might not be the best player on the team doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader. I’ve never been the best player on the team but I’ve always tried to be somebody that they can look up to.”