More girls in Michigan playing tackle football to 'show the world what females can do'

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Dust floats off the practice football field at Berkley High School and works its way into the lungs of Marcella DePaul, who is too busy racing around the worn-out grass to worry about her asthma.

Marcella instead is focused on one thing: getting faster as a player on the Berkley High varsity football team.

A 5-foot-6 former softball player, Marcella had preferred to play catch with a football at middle school recess. That was until last spring when the 15-year-old girl asked to play football on the boy's varsity team.

Berkley High School student Marcella DePaul,  who plays safety on the team's varsity football team, stretches with her teammates during a recent practice.

Marcella, who had no prior organized football experience, says she saw a post on Instagram from a girl at another high school proclaiming she was going to play football on her school's team.

"I said that would be so fun," said Marcella, now a junior. "I will regret it if I don't do this. So I asked when tryouts were."

Marcella's place at the Michigan high school teams comes at a time when no women play in the NFL and few are on college teams. Yet nationally, more girls are playing tackle on 11-player football teams in high schools.

According to Chris Boone of the National Federation of State High School Association, 2,404 girls played 11-person tackle football on high school boys' teams last year. The number the season before was 2,237.

"There are more girls playing baseball and football," Boone said.

Berkley High School football safety Marcella DePaul catches a football during practice.

No high schools in America offer girls tackle football, sports experts said. Girls who want to play football have to go out for the boy's teams.

Title IX requires males and females be provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports. It does not require institutions to offer identical sports but an equal opportunity to play.

Michigan ranks eighth in the nation in the number of girls playing tackle football, with California, Texas and New Jersey having the most. In Michigan, girls are playing tackle football at high schools in Ecorse, Detroit and other districts.

Geoff Kimmerly, a spokesman for the Michigan High School Athletic Association, said last season, 112 girls played on an 11-member tackle team among 750 member high schools across the state. 

Berkley High School football safety Marcella DePaul, left, gets instructions on where to stand from head coach Sean Shields during practice

The number was 121 girls the year before, and most have been kickers, he said.

"There are just a number of girls who really enjoy the part, and they feel they have an opportunity to be a part of it," Kimmerly said.

High school football, despite a decrease in participation of students of 4.3% last year, remains the most played sport in Michigan with 35,412 participants, according to MHSAA stats.

In Utah, the nonprofit Utah Girls Tackle Football League formed the first all-girls tackle football league in the United States in 2015. The league has a 5th/6th-grade division with eight-player teams and a 7th/8th-grade division and a high school division with 11-player teams.

Michigan, meanwhile, is home to four women's tackle football teams, including the Detroit Dark Angels, which all play in the Women's Football Alliance, the largest women's tackle football league in the United States.

'Nothing is really 'hard' about it'

Janay Lakey, 17, plays offensive guard and center for Ecorse's high school football team. Her coach, Jovan Olafioye, said Lakey approached him after playing on the Southwest Detroit Little League team for years.

Lakey, a junior who wears No. 76 on the field, said she fell in love with the sport after playing it with her male cousins for years.

"So I been playing since seventh grade, and I’m now a junior," Lakey said. "But I asked to join the high school to show the world what females can do."

Lakey, who has played in two games this season and is expected to play in four more, said she hits other players during the game and gets hit by other players.

At 5-foot 8, Lakey trained over the summer with the team and is working on different steps for the offensive line.

Ecorse high school offensive guard Janay Lakey tries to push her way past a teammate during practice, August 13, 2019.

"Nothing is really 'hard' about it," Lakey said. "I’m getting used to everything, and they (the guys on the team) treat me like a little sister. But when it comes to really putting in work, they guide me and make sure I’m straight all the time."

Azia Isaac, 16, is in her second year playing football for Detroit's Southeastern High School.

A starter for the team, Issac plays running back this season and is in her second year with the team, which went 8-4 last season and won two state playoff games to win the district championship.

“I get targeted (by opposing teams), but to me, that’s beneficial to our team because they’re too focused on me, and not what’s going on in the game. So it leads to us having bigger plays.”

Isaac says she plays without fear "because if you’re defeated mentally, you’re going to be defeated physically."

Detroit Southeastern High School football player Azia Isaac and teammates listen to instructions during practice Thursday.

"You can’t beat yourself up when everyone is already expecting you to fail," she said. "Take that failure that they’re trying to throw at you, and use it as motivation."

Head football coach Courtney Dinkins said Issac comes to workouts every day and is tough.

"I asked her if she had football experience, and she said, 'No, I just want to play,'" Dinkins recalled of the conversation. "I don't know if more girls are playing because of the lack of boys or if it's because girls believe they can do what boys can do.

"Either way, it's fair game."

Marcella an 'inspiration'

After a short conversation with Berkley football coach Sean Shields, Marcella dove into training in the late spring, spending mornings and evenings weight training, practicing outside for hours in the heat and attending camp days.

On her own time, Marcella, who has played in four of the team's five games either as a free safety or wide receiver, printed the team's playbook and studied it. She watched games on YouTube and downloaded an app called Hudl to watch film.

"I am focusing on my running," Marcella said. "... It's a lot of effort and time, and I like being challenged."

Marcella, a reserve player on the 35-member team, had one tackle in her first game and engages in hitting drills during practices. Wearing No. 42, Marcella said the guys on the team treat her like one them.

Hunter Kiesling, team captain, is in his 12th year of football. Kiesling, 17, a senior, said in the past, the high school team had a girl kicker, but Marcella is the first for the current team and she works hard. 

"She hits with everyone," Kiesling said. "Yeah, it's nice. It shows she is a warrior for being out here. Honestly, she is running around. ... She does all the conditioning. She is inspiring."

Berkley High School football safety Marcella DePaul waits for instructions from head coach Sean Shields during practice.

Over the summer, Marcella lifted with the team Mondays through Thursdays and attended team camp and skills camp. She also does weight training and 7-on-7 passing leagues.

"She’s been one of my few that hasn’t complained about a single thing," Shields said.

Shields said it is unusual for a student to play varsity football who did not previously play football on an organized team. 

"Us being Division II, we are seeing kids who are going on to play Big Ten football," Shields said. "We were worried at first about her health and safety. More and more, she has shown she can hold her own out there."

Marcella, whose long ponytails stick out of her white helmet, is working on basics skills at the moment. Shield said she is not the fastest player, but when it comes to safety learning coverage and calling out defense, Marcella is a powerhouse.

"She has been phenomenal. Anytime we do a new installment, she is trying to pick up the game," Shields said. 

Marcella has her own locker, but once everyone is dressed, she joins the boys in their locker room, and they all begin their pre-game prep.

"They are listening to music, trying to get into the right headspace," Shields said. "Coaches do pregames speeches. It's like a family in there." 

Shields says having a girl on the team hasn't changed anything.

"At first, the guys were all wondering. It was different," Shields said of Marcella joining the team. "It was strange to all of them. Ever since she has shown she is willing to work, she has outworked a lot of the other boys."

Berkley High School football safety Marcella DePaul, center, listens to head coach Sean Shields address the team at the end of practice.

DePaul's mother, Lisa, said at first she told Marcella no about playing tackle football.

"It's not because she was a girl," DePaul said. "If I had a son, I would say the same thing. I am concerned about safety and getting injured.

"It surprised me she wanted to play. She has a good arm and can catch is not afraid of the ball."

Marcella was used to competitive sports on her travel softball league and had a regular weight training schedule, DePaul said, so she agreed.

"She gives 110%. The guys have a lot of respect for her. It's hard. It's really hard. The guys struggle, too," said DePaul of the rigorous conditioning.

DePaul watches from the stands at Hurley Field in Berkley where the Bears play their Friday night home games.

"It's nerve-racking, and I'm proud of her for following what she wants to do," DePaul said.