This 16-year-old is defying stereotypes: She’s starting free safety on her high school varsity football team

·Senior Editor
·7-min read
Football player Brooklyn Harker is a Chapel Hill High School junior. (Tina Coyne Smith)

Brooklyn Harker just kicked off her first year playing varsity football — not as a kicker, as some might assume, but as a free safety starter and second- and third-string wide receiver. And last week, the 16-year-old Chapel Hill High School junior and sole female player for the Chapel Hill Tigers, in North Carolina, helped her team win its first home game, 55-6.

“I like being aggressive, and I have a highly competitive side,” Brooklyn, named for the New York City borough where her grandparents have roots, tells Yahoo Life about why she likes football. She started playing the game in third grade, with flag football, and then moved into tackle by middle school.

“She’s always been really rough and tumble,” says mom Jennifer Harker. “She really can hold her own out there with the boys, and she’s played so many different positions. That’s the big ‘wow’ factor.”

Jennifer's proud tweet ahead of Brooklyn’s opening game has drawn more than 59 thousand likes and more than a thousand comments — from supporters noting that they had personally never seen a girl play any position but kicker, from parents of athlete daughters thrilled for a new role model and from a man who said he was “the only male varsity cheerleader in 1985 in a small NC high school” and believes that “sports should not be gender assigned.” (That is a particularly resonant idea in a year that has seen the fight over transgender student athletes get heated and political in 30 states, with some passing bills that ban transgender girls from sports, and more bans are expected to follow.)

There were a handful of naysayers, too, of course, with some chiming in with the likes of “your arms should never be that small playing football” and “imagine being the dude that’s her backup.”

Brooklyn’s dad tweeted a postgame follow-up, noting, “She played great. She even got a few plays on offense as well. She has a good team around her!”

Of course, while still a rarity in a country that has no girls’ high school tackle football teams, plenty of athletes like Brooklyn do exist, thanks to Title IX allowing female athletes to try out for male teams when no other option exists.

On TikTok, a smattering of proud girls post about playing high school football.

Tackle football has more girls playing than ever before, according to the latest data available (2018) from NFL Football Operations, which showed 2,404 participating in the sport. Also, Chris Boone of the National Federation of State High School Associations notes that while the federation does not collect position-specific data, he has noticed, anecdotally, that more girls in recent years are “line players and running backs.” He also points out that contrary to what many believe, it is “not a hard-and-fast rule that they’ll be kickers.”

Still, that is just 0.2 percent of the million-plus high school students in the male-dominated sport — and this small percentage represents only 1,918 different schools, meaning that girls are usually the sole female players on the field.

That certainly helps explain why Brooklyn’s coach Isaac Marsh had never before had a girl on his team in his 24 years of coaching.

“Brooklyn is my first female athlete,” Marsh tells Yahoo Life. “To be honest with you, it hasn’t changed anything — the dynamics, coaching the game. She’s a student of the game and she knows football. She just happens to be a girl.” Besides having to use the girls’ locker room all alone, she is a total team player, he adds. “Each day she works to get better, she pushes her teammates, and her teammates push her to be the best version of a player she can be.” And he notes, “She doesn’t miss any balls.”

Brooklyn on the field. (Tina Coyne Smith)

While she does also kick, Marsh says, her skills go way beyond that. “Brooklyn is a football player, and she doesn’t have a limited role," he says. "She practices wide receiver, defensive back and safety.”

To keep Brooklyn out of harm’s way on the field, he adds, “We put her in situations that are favorable for her, as far as matchups. … We had an opening scrimmage and she made some tackles, and she got hit pretty hard but she bounced back up. … We teach a safe tackling procedure, the ‘Seahawk roll,’ that keeps your head out of play, so with that I’m not worried.”

It is a different story, of course, for her mom.

“It’s pretty nerve-racking,” Jennifer, a writer for the National Institutes of Health, tells Yahoo Life. “I’m proud of her, I’m bewildered by her bravery, but it’s a little scary. My husband gets a little nervous too, but he’s like, ‘She’s well-trained, she can do it.’ Brooklyn, even when she gets hit really hard, she'll watch the playback and just burst out laughing. Knock on wood she’s not been injured.”

Still, Jennifer was so worried about the possibility that she says, “We kept telling her that freshman JV was going to be the last and final year we’d let her play.” Then came the pandemic.

"It just wreaked a lot of havoc on teenagers’ mental health, physical health … so I felt like the benefits outweighed the risks,” she says. “And the coaching staff is a really strong bunch. I felt I could trust their judgment on when they would play her.”

Brooklyn also plays soccer and is a fencer — with her eye on fencing for Notre Dame, as inspired by graduate and Olympian Lee Kiefer — and she has an older brother who does mixed martial arts training and a younger sister who plays tennis, runs track and is a cheerleader. While on the football field, she says she does not feel afraid.

“I’m definitely nervous but not scared,” she says. “I sometimes see the size of [the other team’s players] and my first thought is 'if they come at me, how am I going to take them down?' ”

Brooklyn's teammates, she stresses, are “all super-, super-, super-supportive, and I really appreciate that and I’m very grateful to be on a team with such coaches and players.”

But players on the opposing teams have not always been so kind.

“In eighth grade I played linebacker in West Virginia [where they lived previously] and we were playing a team and I sacked the quarterback, and [the players] were teasing him,” she recalls.

“For her to have done that is super-cool, but some people get really mad about that stuff,” Jennifer adds. “There will be a player mad that there’s a girl out there and they’ll target her and do a blind hit from the back. In that game, they did that. But he wasn’t smart about it and got ejected from the game, with a penalty called.”

About that incident — “I didn’t feel scared,” Brooklyn says. “I felt more, I guess, powerful, that it upset them.”

For the younger girls who may want to get out on a football field but are intimidated, she says: “If you want something, go for it. And if people are hating on you, it means you’re doing something right.”

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