WUNC 91.5 North Carolina Public Radio
October 21, 2021
It’s fall, which means the leaves are changing colors and dropping off trees, days are getting colder and darker, and more than a million boys across this country are putting on helmets and shoulder pads and playing football under Friday night lights.
And quite a few girls are, too.
In 2018, 2,404 girls played high school tackle football, compared to just about 500 girls playing in 2008, according a study by the National Football League. That’s a fivefold increase in the number of girls playing football in the last decade. From 2008 to 2018, 47 of 50 states saw an increase in the percentage of girls who play full-contact high school football, according to the NFL’s study.
One of those many girls who have taken a liking to a sport long dominated by boys is Brooklyn Harker.
She’s a junior at Chapel Hill High School and a safety for the Tigers’ varsity football team.
“Brooklyn is a football player. Like I’ve said 1,000 times, she just happens to be a girl,” said Chapel Hill head coach Issac Marsh. “She knows the game and she executes at her position.”
Part of a trend
I would say all of the girls playing high school football right now, and middle school football and flag football, are helping knock those [barriers] down, and making it not so crazy or weird.
— Brooklyn Harker
Young women playing football is not as rare as it once was. Harker is the first to do so for Chapel Hill High School, but she’s far from being the first or the only one in the state of North Carolina.
Last season, Sydney McCorkle successfully kicked two extra points for Providence Day in Charlotte, becoming the first girl to play – and score points – in an NC Independent Schools football game, the state’s league for private schools. Other girls around the Tar Heel State are suiting up for football, too. Pender High School, which is about 29 miles away from Wilmington, has Kattie Horrell, a girl who handles kicking duties.
And girls aren’t just infiltrating football at the high school level. At Brown University, Heather Marini became the first woman to be a position coach at the Division I level when she was hired as the Bears quarterbacks coach in March 2020. This season in the NFL, 12 women are working as full-time assistant coaches. One of them is Eden, North Carolina, native Jennifer King. The graduate of Rockingham County High School and Guilford College is a running backs coach for the Washington Football Team.
A year ago, Sarah Fuller — a standout soccer player at Vanderbilt University — grabbed headlines when she suited up for the Commodores’ football team. Fuller made history when she connected on an extra point against Tennessee, becoming the first woman to score in a Power 5 college football game.
Fuller is someone that inspires Harker. Both of them are shining examples that this is no longer a sport just for boys.
“I would say that I’m helping break down these barriers, along with Sarah Fuller and Becca Longo. I’ve always looked up to them a lot,” Harker said in a recent interview with WUNC. “I would say all of the girls playing high school football right now, and middle school football and flag football, are helping knock those down, and making it not so crazy or weird.”
Like they did with Fuller, media gravitated toward Harker, too. The attention came after Chapel Hill’s 55-6 victory over Carrboro on Sept. 10, when Harker started at safety. That night, Harker’s mother sent out a Tweet touting her daughter’s accomplishments. It quickly went viral, garnering nearly 65,000 interactions.
Many folks were complimentary, proud and congratulatory, including former Carolina Panthers’ defensive back Tre Boston.
But there were many others who showed insecurity, fear and opposition to change in the game. Some replied to the Tweet with taunts, unoriginal jokes and memes, and disbelief in Harker’s skills. To some, it’s unthinkable that women can compete athletically on the same field or court as men. But Harker is proof that football is no longer a game just for men.
She got a kick out of reading some of the responses to the Tweet.
“The hate comments and stuff… Some of them are actually kind of funny to me,” Harker said. “I try to use it more as motivation, more than letting it knock me down. Someone said I might help the (Atlanta) Falcons’ secondary.”
On the field, Harker hasn’t heard the same kind of comments. Between the lines on the gridiron, she’s just another football player. And she likes it that way.
“Trash talk… not this season,” Harker said. “When I was in the eighth grade, there was a little bit of teasing whenever I tackled people. Like, ‘Oh, you just got tackled by a girl.’
“I felt more powerful than anything.”
Convincing her parents
It’s a gamut of emotions. I’m so proud that she’s able to go out there. I trust her teammates and I trust her coaches. The worry hits, because I’m a parent.
— David Harker
At 16, Brooklyn Harker loves sports. She’s been playing them her whole life. When she’s not playing football for the Tigers, she might be fencing, or honing her skills on the soccer pitch as a goalkeeper, or tossing around a frisbee. And when she’s not actually playing sports, she’s probably watching them. She worked for the Durham Bulls this past summer and is an avid fan of the Arizona Cardinals.
Soccer was the first sport Harker fell in love with as a child, but it wasn’t long before her dad started throwing the football around with her in the yard. That hooked her, and when the third grade came around for Harker, she started playing flag football, a non-tackle version of the game.
“At a very young age, I wanted to make sure she wasn’t going to be afraid of a ball,” Brooklyn’s father David Harker said.
Eventually, Brooklyn wanted to try playing tackle football. She wasn’t just convinced she could play with the boys – she knew she’d be better than a lot of them.
But football is a very violent game. Brooklyn’s parents worried about her safety.
“I wasn’t really on board with it at first,” David Harker said. “Just knowing that it’s predominantly a male sport. Her wanting to go in there – I want to support her, and I’m like, ‘that’s awesome’ – but then you start thinking about the dynamics. Like, does somebody want to make a name for themselves by just wailing the girl on the team? Do they want to be that person? So many things ran through our mind.”
It took more than several conversations with her parents, but Brooklyn’s persistence and stubbornness won out. And so far, she’s steered clear of any severe injuries or dirty players. Still, her parents watch her from the bleachers with some concern.
“She has the physicality,” David Harker said. “She’s not afraid. She’s good at defense. She has great hands. She has all the attributes. What I worry about is dirty play… My first line is to listen to the coaches. And (Marsh) is all about safety. He’s all about how to tackle correctly and how they protect themselves on the field. It kind of sold me here.”
Still, Harker’s mother has a message for her everyday when she wakes up: “Good morning. Make sure you keep your head on a swivel when you’re playing football.”
Inclusive environment in Chapel Hill
The Harker family has moved around a lot as Brooklyn has grown up, exposing her to different environments in Arizona, Texas, West Virginia, and now North Carolina. The Harkers came to Chapel Hill because Brooklyn’s mother Jennifer earned a scholarship to UNC to pursue her PhD.
It’s their second stay in the Tar Heel State, and Brooklyn and her family arrived back in Chapel Hill on Dec. 31, 2020. A few months later, they got an email from the school outlining when practices started for fall sports. Brooklyn’s eyes gravitated towards the information for football.
She showed up, and there was no hemming and hawing, no pushback. A coach handed her a helmet and a practice jersey, and pointed toward where her locker would be. And that was that.
“You would never be able to tell that I was Coach Marsh’s first female athlete,” Brooklyn said.
The culture that Marsh has established for Chapel Hill High School’s football team particularly impressed Brooklyn’s father. The way David Harker tells it, Marsh wasn’t worried about a girl joining the team, he just turned his attention toward the dynamics around it and how to make sure she was comfortable by, for example, making sure she always had access to the girls locker room.
During the family’s first stint living in Chapel Hill, Brooklyn started playing tackle football at Culbreth Middle School – an experience she treasures. But not every team she’s played with or against has been the most welcoming. In West Virginia, Brooklyn said, the atmosphere wasn’t always inclusive. So, she played soccer instead as a freshman and sophomore in high school there. When she moved back to Chapel Hill though, she wanted to give football another try. And Marsh’s program was the perfect fit.
“He doesn’t treat me any differently,” Brooklyn said of Marsh. “I’m just one of the guys. And I really am grateful for that.”
Start leads to spotlight
On Sept. 10 against Carrboro, Harker got a chance to show everyone how good of a football player she is when Marsh started her at safety.
Harker simply playing is not why eyes gravitated toward her. It’s the fact that she started at safety – a position that requires aggression, speed and physicality, where the goal is to stop a ball carrier’s progress by any means necessary. When many football fans think of safeties, they think of Ed Reed or Steve Atwater or Troy Polamalu – or one of Harker’s favorite players, Tyrann Mathieu. These are hard hitters that play recklessly.
Girls who have played football recently are typically in specialist positions like kicker or punter or wide receiver – not roles like safety, where the job is to initiate contact. In this way, Harker is defying some stereotypes; not just about girls playing football, but about the position she plays. She’s not delivering bone-crushing hits, but she’s not getting embarrassed either. Against Carrboro, she excelled, and the Tigers won convincingly, 55-6.
Two weeks later, Harker was a crucial reason why the Tigers beat the East Chapel Hill Wildcats 49-0. She registered a tackle, an interception and a pass breakup, and she also successfully kicked two extra points.
Bottom line is, Brooklyn, she’s a football player.
— Chapel Hill head coach Issac Marsh
“Anywhere they put me is my favorite position,” Harker said.
When Harker’s mother’s Tweet went viral, Chapel Hill High School’s football team suddenly had a bunch of new eyes on it. The daily newspapers in Raleigh and Fayetteville sent reporters, Yahoo called, and Bleacher Report made Harker the subject of one it’s Tweets — making her known to nearly 27 million followers.
“I didn’t go into the season thinking or wanting anything about this,” Harker said of her newfound social media stardom. “It’s been crazy. It’s been very overwhelming. But I’m very grateful for such a great team and great coaches. They’re just telling me to not let that stuff go to my head. Because I know my abilities and they know my abilities.”
After Harker started receiving a lot of attention, a few of Marsh’s players asked him, “Coach, do you think this is going to be a distraction?” He replied, “It’s only what you allow it to be.”
Which is to say, no, Harker wasn’t and hasn’t been a distraction. Marsh welcomes the spotlight Harker has been getting and thinks it could benefit the other players on his team, too.
“The majority of you guys, you want to get recruited,” Marsh told his players. “So, if you want to get recruited, this is one of the best ways to do it. When you got the spotlight, people are going to come and see.”
The Tigers weren’t distracted that week. They went out and beat Person High School 35-21 at home. The extra reporters and photographers on-hand to get a closer look at Harker witnessed running back Elijah Ayankoya rush for 221 yards and three touchdowns. Less than a month later, he picked up his first Division I scholarship offer from Valparaiso.
During that game against Person, Harker didn’t play too much. But when she entered on defense, lining up against a wide receiver in the slot, the opposing quarterback tried to test her. She stayed with her assignment the whole way though and the quarterback missed his target.
“We pick the moments to play her where she will have success,” Marsh said. “It’s not a situation where she’s isolated. It’s just a matter of what we want to do as a program, together. It’s not about one person. The players are happy for Brooklyn. When you have that unselfishness, the sky is the limit.”
For the majority of that game against Person, Harker stayed close to her coaches with her helmet locked on tight. She wanted her coaches to know that, whatever the situation called for, she’d be available.
After one of her teammates scored against Person, Harker pumped her fist and clapped. Then she quickly refocused, tightening her black and white gloves and making a beeline for her coaches. She’s a football player, not a sideline act, and she’s consistently prepared for the next play.
“I’m always ready, just in case they need me,” Harker said.
When asked why she loves football, Harker reflected for a brief moment, then summed it up: “I like the physicality and the aggression of football. And the unity and chemistry you have with the team. The guys on the team feel like my family. They’re not different around me.”
“And I just like to hit people, and you can’t really do that in fencing,” she added.
Football has long been patrolled by self-appointed and hyper-masculine gatekeepers who have their own ideas of who should and shouldn’t play the game. They’re the ones who kept non-whites out of college football in the South decades ago. And they’re the ones who have often believed that women weren’t tough enough, strong enough, or smart enough to compete on the gridiron.
Folks with open minds like Marsh are defying those faux protectors of football. And young women like Harker are proving them wrong.
Marsh said that a few other girls have stopped him in the hallway since Harker’s first start, asking him, “Can I play?”
And he always says, “You’re more than welcome.”
“We want football players. At the end of the day, if you can walk and chew gum and you know the game, then we’ll teach you the rest,” Marsh said. “Bottom line is, Brooklyn, she’s a football player.”
Another study in 2018 by the Sports and Fitness Association reported that of the 5.5 million Americans playing tackle football, 10.9% of them are women – about a half a million. Harker is just one of them, breaking up passes, bursting through offenses and busting down barriers.
Chemistry is Harker’s favorite subject, and she’s hoping to study abroad soon and put her French to use. She’d like to study both at Notre Dame, which has long been her favorite university, and a school with a pretty good fencing program, too. Between now and college, Harker might also try out for the Tigers’ wrestling team.
But that’s all in the future. Right now, the Tigers’ football team is 5-3 with two games left on its schedule. And Harker’s focus is on helping her team win.
“Brooklyn is very graceful,” Marsh said. “She doesn’t want the spotlight, she’s just happy to be out here – and we’re happy to have her.”