In full football gear, Jade Watson and Kennedy Davis don’t look a whole lot different than their 32 Eisenhower High School teammates out on the field.
But Watson and Davis, both freshmen, are the first-ever female football players to suit up and play an entire season in head freshman coach Jeremy Rodrigues’ 10 years as a coach
While they aren’t the first two girls to ever come out at the beginning of the season for the Blue Island team, Rodrigues said he has never had a girl on his roster by the first week of play.
“They’re doing something that a lot of other kids, boys included, are scared to do, and that’s to play a tough game, and they’ve done it without complaint,” said Rodrigues, who teaches English at the school. “They’ve done it without getting hurt. They’ve been an asset to this program and to the school overall.”
High school football has already seen declining participation numbers from students across the country. The National Federation of State High School Associations, an Indianapolis-based organizations that oversees high school athletics in all 50 states, reported that in the 2015-2016 school year, there were 14,047 high schools in the U.S. with a football team, the lowest in eight years.
But the number of girls contributing on those teams continues to grow. In the 2015 season, the NFSH reported that there were 1,964 high school girls playing on 11-player football teams — the second-most ever recorded in a year.
But for both Watson and Davis, playing football is more than just about being a statistic. It’s about a love for the game and a sense of family. Watson has been playing football for five years — primarily for the Jackson Park Wolfpack, based on Chicago’s South Side, but coming to Eisenhower was a whole new element of teammates and coaches.
Davis, a defensive lineman, has always wanted to play football, but until she met Rodrigues during summer camp at Eisenhower, she had never been to a school where girls were allowed to play. She said she likes hitting people, but her teammates, have been a great help throughout the year so far.
“They help me a lot,” she said. “They tell me that it’s all OK, mentally, because it just makes you get stronger. You’ve got to just keep pushing.”
With Watson and Davis as the only girls in the Eisenhower football family, Rodrigues said there’s been a culture shift throughout the program, but their additions haven’t caused any issues.
The other freshmen Eisenhower football players have accepted both girls as their “sisters,” as the program pitches a family-like team.
Stacy Watson has seen her daughter, Jade, a cornerback, grow firsthand from playing football for both the Wolfpack and Eisenhower.
“To her, it’s way more than a game,” she said. While Stacy Watson said she’s fearful about her daughter playing football, ” just like any other mother with a boy,” she said the sport has allowed Jade to grow, telling her that, “if no one’s empowering you, empower yourself. Have faith in yourself.”
The bond between both Davis and Jade has become a “sisterhood,” Stacy Watson said.
“They’re all they’ve got on that field,” she said.
For Rodrigues, their value to the program has been insurmountable. Watson and Davis are both the first ones on the practice field, they’ve only missed one practice between the two, and they both talk about being four-year football players for Eisenhower.
The season wrapped up Oct. 19 with a loss against Evergreen Park, but it turned out to be one of the girls’ best games, Rodrigues said.
Nonetheless, the team has already started to look forward. Both Watson and Davis said they’d be coming back to play for their sophomore seasons.
“They know that not only are they going to do their job to the best of their ability, but they’re going to try to do a little bit more because they’re always constantly wanting to prove their place and their belonging,” he said. “They’ve earned those boy’s respect since day one.”