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Naliyah Rueckert went through a hard time after her parents split up. But at age 13 she found an outlet for her anger in an unlikely place: on a field, playing tackle football.
An all-girls full-contact tackle football league had recently started near her hometown of Midvale, Utah, and Naliyah’s mother, Renica Rueckert, thought the sport would be good for her.
“I was naturally an aggressive and angry girl, and football sparked something in me,” said Naliyah, now 19 and a community college student.
That first season, in 2015, about 50 girls registered, snapping up every spot in the league just three days after sign-ups opened, said Renica Rueckert, who played in a women’s tackle football league and helped coach her daughter’s team. The girls’ league, which was initially open to only fifth- and sixth-graders, now has more than 650 players and includes girls up through 12th grade.
“Naliyah took to football like I did,” said Rueckert, 39. “It gave her a sense of sisterhood and camaraderie. I watched my daughter grow and become strong physically and emotionally because of football.”
“I had a lot of hardships, but football became my therapy,” Naliyah added. “When I was on the field, I didn’t need to worry about what was going on at my house.”
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Naliyah’s story is among many in “First Down,” an 11-minute documentary about the girls’ league team that has been making the rounds at U.S. film festivals this year.
In it, one of the players describes the team in part by saying, “We all come from backgrounds that are rough.”
Producer and director Carrie Stett said she hopes the film will challenge the belief that girls shouldn’t play football.
Stett was a Dallas Cowboys fan when she was growing up in Shreveport, La., and said she often wished that girls had the same opportunity to participate in her favorite sport.
“I played tennis in high school, but there was a wall for women when it came to football, and there is still a wall there now,” said Stett, a filmmaker in Los Angeles.
Two years ago, when she realized that June 2022 would mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX, Stett said she decided to look into how the federal civil rights law has affected girls in school sports. The 1972 law prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.
During her research, Stett learned about a Utah girl and her father who had sued several school districts in 2017 for Title IX violations, because girls’ tackle football wasn’t available as an interscholastic sport.
Brent Gordon and his daughter Sam lost their lawsuit in 2021, but Stett was intrigued by the success of the Utah Girls Tackle Football League the Gordons had started with Utah occupational therapist Crys Sacco.
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Tackle football leagues for women have existed for years, but the Utah program was believed to be the first full-contact league for girls in the country when it started seven years ago, said Stett, noting that the league has three age divisions: elementary, junior high and high school.
Stett contacted the Utah league and arranged to travel to Salt Lake City in early 2020 to make a short documentary about one of the teams, the West Granite Quakes — nicknamed the Underdogs because of their losing streak.
The film was accepted into several festivals in 2021 and 2022. Outfest, the Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival have already screened the film, and it will be shown later this month at the Salute Your Shorts Film Fest in Los Angeles and Cinequest in San Jose.
Stett said she is hopeful that the film will show people a window into the game and the girls who play it competitively.
Youth football has become a controversial sport, as many parents have not allowed their children to play for fear of head injuries. Last year, legendary former quarterback Brett Favre warned parents not to let their children play tackle football before age 14, saying youth football can greatly increase kids’ risk of eventually developing the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE.
Tackle football injuries, including concussions, top the list of injuries in high school sports, and a 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that youth tackle football athletes had 23 times more significant head injuries than flag football players.
Stett said that shouldn’t be a reason for girls not to play.
“Yes, there are injuries, but like boys, the girls are taught proper tackle techniques,” she said. “A risk of concussion has never stopped football. Why should that be an excuse not to play the game?
“My goal is to help raise awareness about the need to have more equality in sports,” Stett added. “Football is an outlet for young girls to feel empowered and have a community, and why shouldn’t they?”
For years, girls have played on boys’ teams in high school and a few have played tackle football in college. Olympic soccer player Carli Lloyd attended a Philadelphia Eagles training camp in 2019 and said earlier this year she she’s open to opportunities to kick for an NFL team.
But for the most part, female players can’t take their football aspirations beyond the Women’s National Football Conference — a nonpaying league with 18 teams that was founded in 2018.
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“To have a successful pro system, you need a feeder system,” said Stett. “You need girls who grow up playing. That’s why we need more leagues like the one in Utah.”
For the girls on the West Granite Quakes team, football became more than a sport.
In “First Down,” several high school members of the team talk about personal challenges they have faced, from difficult home lives to body image issues and a feeling of not belonging.
One girl identified as Giselle says in the film that she went home and cried after her first practice with the team because she had finally found a place where she felt her weight and body was accepted.
Another player, Liz, talks about how football helped her forget, at least temporarily, the daily frustrations she endured while she was growing up poor in what she called a “house of eviction.”
On the football field, the teens found a way to channel their anger and learned how to work together, Stett said.
“They’re from an area of town that is challenged, and they don’t have many of the same opportunities as some of the other girls in the league,” she said. “But on the field, they could leave all that behind.”
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She said she also found inspiration in Sacco, the occupational therapist and league co-founder and coach. During filming, Sacco was in the process of transitioning from female to male.
Sacco, 40, said he was initially terrified to tell the team that he had changed his first name to Crys.
“They embraced who I am, and we moved on to focusing on football,” he told The Washington Post. “When I first took on this team, they hadn’t won a single game or scored a single touchdown. But one day at a time, we built up their confidence.”
Although the girls featured in the documentary have graduated from high school and are no longer on the team, Sacco is now coaching a new crew of players, including Lilliana Knotek, 15.
Lilliana’s father, Allen Knotek, is a single father who has helped coach the West Granite Quakes.
“Lilli definitely gets banged up in football — everything from cuts and scrapes, bruises and cleat marks on her legs,” said Knotek, 36.
“After a game in April, she came home like that, then went to the prom four hours later,” he said. “But she loves football as much as I do, and I’m her biggest fan.”
Lilliana said that practicing her tackle moves in the front yard with her dad is among her favorite activities.
“We practice for hours and I love it,” she said. “Some people were surprised at first when I started playing football — they thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it or that I’d get hurt.”
“I proved them wrong, and I’d really like to be on a national team someday,” she added.
Naliyah Rueckert said she can relate.
Her mom was a linebacker for the Utah Falconz, one of the teams in the Women’s National Football Conference.
“I want to play with the Falconz,” Naliyah said. “Just like my mom.”
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