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Tracing the history of the Powder Puff football game

Walking onto a high school football field the weekend before homecoming is probably a very unusual sight for those who do not understand the tradition of Powder Puff football.

A bystander would see a group of teenagers girls playing what appears to be very aggressive flag football. This is Powder Puff. A long standing homecoming tradition, the game is usually seniors vs. juniors and occasionally gets pretty ugly.

The tradition began in 1945 at Eastern State Teachers College in Madison, South Dakota. While the peace treaty with Japan that ended World War II was signed in September, most young men had not yet enrolled in the fall semester of college, and there were almost no males at the school (only three had enrolled at Eastern State Teachers College).

When the war ended and homecoming weekend approached, the school decided to cancel all homecoming sporting events due to the lack of males at the school. But the girls of the school suggested that they play in place of the boys.

“A bunch of us were sitting around after gym class and we thought, if we’re going to have Homecoming, we’ve got to have a football game,” said Susie Lowry who was a freshman at the time, in an interview given to South Dakota Magazine, “So we decided we should have a game of our own.”

They received criticism from the few male students on campus. One freshman boy wrote in the school paper, “The very idea of women playing football ‘was enough to curl your teeth.’”

Nonetheless, the homecoming committee approved the idea for an all-female football game. The 23 girls who wanted to play were split into two teams: the “townies” were the girls who lived in the surrounding towns and the “dormies” were the girls who lived in the dorms.

The game was more of a spectacle for entertainment than a serious football game and at halftime the girls put on a show of their own. Instead of a band or a dance team the players decided they would go onto the field and apply a fresh face of makeup, inspiring the headline for the local paper the following morning, “The Powderpuff and Rogue Elevens.”

The tradition of Powder Puff disappeared for a while, but it came back in the ’70s — this time, it came to the high schools. Over the years, the tradition spread from school to school, and the tradition turned into an annual game at central Illinois high schools between junior and senior girls. Most of the time it’s a touch or a flag game, but sometimes it can turn intense, foregoing the whole touch aspect and turning into a full contact game.

Now, nobody applies makeup at half-time but at some schools seniors write the names of juniors they plan on coming after on their legs and arms and wear football jerseys sans pads. Powder Puff started out as a joke, but it has become a cherished tradition and a creative way to create school spirit at schools across the country.

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