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Tackling the gender divide

Twelve-year-old Paxten Jensen doesn’t care that she is the first girl to play junior high football for Tri-State.

She doesn’t care that football is a game dominated by boys, especially at the junior high level, a time when girls venture into volleyball and leave this field behind.

All she truly cared about on a recent afternoon was helping her team, whether that meant tackling, blocking or catching the football.

Paxten truly stands out, whether she’s on the field or sidelines. And that isn’t just because her long, golden red hair flows in a ponytail down her back.

She stands out because a girl isn’t afraid of tackling cultural differences that normally set her gender apart. It may not have been her intention to bridge these gender divides because all Paxten really wants to do is play football. This year, next year and on into the varsity level.

Football looked like fun, so when the sport became available to her when she entered the seventh grade, she decided to give it a try, she said that Tuesday afternoon as her Tigers took on Dakota Hills on a misty and cold afternoon. She didn’t really want to talk about football as she watched her team run up and down the field.

She wanted to play.

Her mom, Rebecca Jensen, said it hasn’t always been an easy season. Some schools do not have accommodations for a girl playing football and her daughter hasn’t always been accepted for her role on the team.

Being accepted has been a hurdle, she added. “We’ve heard, ‘what’s a girl doing on a football team?’ She doesn’t want to quit … She pushed through and she’s looking forward to next year,” Rebecca said.

It also hasn’t been easy to watch her little girl cracking shoulder pads with the boys as the worry is ever present about injury, especially as the boys grow up and become stronger.

Paxten points out she’ll become bigger and stronger, too. She isn’t concerned. In fact, she’s using the physicality she’s learning on the football field to help her become a better hockey player, her first team sport.

To Coach Casey Lipp, Paxten is just another football player. He doesn’t see the fact that she’s a girl. He sees an athletic receiver and a “hawk” on defense.

“The boys accept Paxten on the team. I know she’s heard from classmates that girls don’t play football. But she has taken the challenge and done very well this season. She is always trying to improve,” he added.

Paxten has never played football before, other than a pick-up game during noon recess at school, so wasn’t sure what to expect, she said.

The first time she was tackled was shocking. “It kind of hurt. I wasn’t expecting it, I was just blocking,” she explained.

She still got up and kept competing. This fall afternoon she wasn’t afraid to lead block or try and take down an opponent. “Football is fun,” she shrugged, then raced back out on the field.

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