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Oak Grove female football player tackling challenges on and off the field

Katarina Crnogorac didn’t know much about football when she came to the United States 14 months ago. She had heard of rugby, which shares some similarities to American football and is a growing sport in Montenegro, her home country.

Crnogorac, a senior at Oak Grove High School in Fargo, quickly learned she would be taking on a traditionally male sport in football. She was never concerned about being the only girl on the team.

With two long, blond braids hanging out of her helmet, Crnogorac was insistent on trying out for the sport. And she cracked the roster.

“It was a new opportunity and it was a unique sport, because back in my country, we don’t have it,” Crnogorac said. “So I wanted to try something new.”

(Katarina Crnogorac shares a smile with her teammates as she gears up for practice at Fargo Oak Grove. David Samson / The Forum)

Crnogorac, 18, hails from Pljevlja, a town in northern Montenegro. Montenegro is a small southeastern European country on the Adriatic Sea, and was a part of Yugoslavia until 1989 before it became independent in 2006.

“It’s a unique place to travel, but it’s really hard to live in it,” Crnogorac said. “The city where I grew up, it was hard because a lot of things are happening there. The economics are pretty bad. It was just hard growing up in that city.”

Crnogorac has never been afraid to take chances. She uprooted her life from a struggling homeland to the U.S. seeking better opportunities. Now, she’s the only girl on the Grovers football team, which plays in North Dakota Class 1A Region 1.

She doesn’t really know how she ended up in Fargo. Crnogorac was looking for high schools online, and Oak Grove happened to pop up. Affording the private school tuition was going to be a significant challenge. Crnogorac’s family struggles to make ends meet. Her parents’ annual income would cover about one-tenth of Oak Grove’s tuition.

(Katarina Crnogorac goes through drills during football practice at Fargo Oak Grove. David Samson / The Forum)

“I come from a really poor family. When I was accepted into this school, I felt right away, my parents don’t have money to pay for it,” Crnogorac said. “But my parents said they were willing to do everything for me. They said, ‘We can help you with some, but for the rest, you will have to find a way.’”

Crnogorac completes work study hours to help cover the difference in tuition. She worked concessions — where her love for the game of football started — last fall as part of it. Every game she worked, she would ask Oak Grove athletic director Brent Wolf questions about the fundamentals of football.

Crnogorac, whose first language is Serbian, didn’t know the rules of the game. She’s had some trouble with the X’s and O’s because of the language barrier. Watching film has helped, she said.

“It was my first time playing football. When I got there I was like, ‘What should I do?’ ‘Where’s the ball?’ ‘Am I just running for a ball or what?’” Crnogorac said with a laugh. “At the beginning it was hard, because most of the boys have played since childhood.”

(Katarina Crnogorac and her teammates take a water break during football practice at Fargo Oak Grove. David Samson / The Forum)

Crnogorac, who was a youth boxer, is more than capable of physically holding her own on the field.

“In my city, you need to know how to fight. You are not safe if you don’t know how to fight,” she said. “Growing up as a girl, if something happened, you need to take care of yourself, because you won’t have your brother or dad next to you.”

Boxing wasn’t a recreational sport for Crnogorac, but somewhat of a necessity. Her hometown was plagued by violence.

“There were a lot of people who wanted to attack you, (a girl),” she said. “You really need to be careful because you have little kids who do not know how to defend themselves.”

(Katarina Crnogorac arrives at football practice at Fargo Oak Grove. David Samson / The Forum)

So, Crnogorac joined a small boxing club and competed against boys and some girls. She ended up being named the international champion, which she said is no big deal.

Being the only girl in a room of boys isn’t a new thing for Crnogorac, so it didn’t take her long to fit in on the field.

Crnogorac has played in two games for Oak Grove (1-5). She saw a little bit of game action two weeks ago, and played a full quarter last Friday on defense.

“The best part of my senior year is playing football,” she said. “It’s a unique feeling when you get out on the field. You’re not just playing for yourself, you’re playing your team and for your coaches, for your school. But you also represent other girls.”

(Katarina Crnogorac warms up with teammates before football practice at Fargo Oak Grove. David Samson / The Forum)

Crnogorac brought a boy down by his helmet during last Friday’s game because he chirped her about being a girl playing football. Somehow, no flag was thrown.

“I’ve gotten a lot of critiques from different people,” she said. “They would be like ‘You’re a girl, you cannot play football.’ ‘Look at you.’ Sometimes it hurts because people don’t support you. But then you just go harder for what you want.”

There’s no question about Crnogorac’s toughness. A fierce competitor when she’s on the field, she lights up when she talks about her teammates.

“Sometimes it’s hard because they are stronger than me. But still, it makes you work harder and practice more with them,” she said. “But you make that bond with them and are a part of that family on the team.”

(Katarina Crnogorac runs through drills with her teammates during football practice at Fargo Oak Grove. David Samson / The Forum)

Crnogorac’s friends in Montenegro think she’s crazy for playing football. Her dad supported it, but her mom was a little wary of the contact sport. When she approached her host parents, John and Jeanine Machacek, about trying out, Jeanine’s response was, “Well, it’s better than boxing.”

John said he was worried about her getting injured at first, because she didn’t know many of the rules. He’s still a little uneasy, but those nerves have settled a bit.

“Every time she had a tough practice or was frustrated about an injury, we talked it through and encouraged her to just do her best and keep going with what she started,” Jeanine said. “It’s crazy to think that she is out there with boys that are double her size.”

Crnogorac moved into the Machaceks’ home on May 30.

(Katarina Crnogorac goes through drills during football practice at Fargo Oak Grove. David Samson / The Forum)

“After hearing about Katarina and her family scraping by to get here, we knew we had to welcome her to our home,” John said on why they wanted to host Crnogorac.

Back home, Crnogorac lives under the same roof with her grandparents, mom, dad and older brother. Her parents had to sell their vehicle a couple years ago because they couldn’t afford it anymore. The Crnogoracs know about facing challenges.

Her brother was going to college in Kosovo, a country in southeastern Europe, but wasn’t able to finish because of his financial situation. It also became too dangerous for him to stay in the country. His friend was killed in Kosovo because of his Christian faith amidst civil unrest sparked by religion.

The opportunities back home are scarce, Crnogorac said.

Crnogorac wants to stay in the U.S. for college, but she’ll need to receive a scholarship or some type of financial assistance for it to be a possibility.

She wants to pursue music, the reason she wanted to come to the U.S. in the first place. Crnogorac has played piano for 12 years. She said she’s willing to do whatever for the opportunity to attend college, which includes working in Medora next summer.

(Katarina Crnogorac reaches for a pass during football practice at Fargo Oak Grove. David Samson / The Forum)

(Katarina Crnogorac catches a pass during football practice at Fargo Oak Grove. David Samson / The Forum)

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