By Jonathan Deal
If you’ve watched the NFL recently, you’ve probably noticed long hair flowing from some of the player’s helmets. The hair of defensive players like Troy Polamalu and Clay Matthews has become as synonymous as how many tackles they make on Sunday.
That same flowing hair can be found on a few players who play youth league football in Limestone County. But these aren’t 7-year-old boys who’ve never had a haircut. In the local mini midget league, several girls are showing they have what it takes to tough it out on the gridiron
“This is the first year I’ve seen this many playing,” said Brandon Willis, Athens-Limestone Youth Football Association president. “At that age, the little girls that play are usually a little bit taller. There is a little girl at Elkmont that can knock the socks off some of those boys.”
That girl, 8-year-old Morgan Morris, is one of four females who play in the local mini midget league. The other three suit up for the Clements’ youth team. Jaime Burke, 8, Joy Burke, 6, and Saffron Long, 7, play on both sides of the ball for the Colts Mini Midgets.
“When I was told my team would have the most girls, I didn’t know what to think,” said their coach Justin Wilson. “I figured out it can be an advantage. You see, boys will get mad and remember it for one play. Girls are a little tricky. They don’t get hit and forget about it. They hold that grudge and get them back later.”
The longhaired trio are proving they are more than capable of holding their own against the boys their age. Wilson said Saffron is one of the best blockers on the line while the Burke sisters hit just as hard as their brother, Justin, who is also on the team.
“Joy wasn’t sure about it at first, but she loves it now that she is playing,” said Jack Burke, father of Joy and Jaime. “I knew Jamie would like it because she is more of a tomboy. She is one of the best athletes on the team. She’s carefree out there.”
Outside the long hair, nothing separates Morris and the Clements’ trio from the boys they line up against. Willis said he coached against a girl that played for Athens last year that consistently knocked down one of his defenders.
“He ran to the sideline and said, ‘Coach, that little dude with the pink helmet keeps knocking me on my butt,” Willis recalled. “I told him, ‘I hate to tell you this, but that little dude is a girl.”
Willis said Clements had another girl a few years back that played quarterback and was one of the best players in the county, but her father did not want her to keep playing past the mini midget level.
That begs the question, how good can these girls be? They may be the same size now, but it’s another story in peewee and middle school football.
“I would be more nervous if they moved her up,” said Heather Long, mother of Saffron. “The boys would be bigger at that age. But it’s been a really good experience for her.”
Long said she learned only recently that girls were even allowed to play football. She went with a friend to sign their son up for football and that’s when Saffron decided to join in.
“We weren’t planning on signing her up,” she said. “I didn’t know if they would let girls play. But she is all for it. They told her she could knock boys down.”
The Clements team is down to 13 players after a few dropped out, meaning all the girls get playing time on both sides of the ball. Had the trio decided not to play, it would be difficult for Clements to field a team at that age. With such small numbers, playing a few girls is the least of Wilson’s worries.
“With the small numbers, we’ve got 4 year olds starting against kids that are 9 years old,” Wilson said. “When that 4-year-old hits him, he might get knocked down, but we teach them to get back up. They’ve got a lot of heart. I’m proud of them.”
While it might not be the most common thing for a little girl to do, Morgan Morris and the Clements trio have demonstrated that girls can compete on the gridiron. With football’s popularity growing more and more, who knows what the future holds for these longhaired mini midgets.