Bree Smith-Cheeks walks into the locker room at Wicomico (Salisbury, Md.) High School like any other prep athlete before a game.
But unlike many female athletes, Smith-Cheeks’ locker holds shoulder pads, gloves, knee pads and most notably, a football helmet.
As she places the gold and blue helmet on her head, the Wi-Hi junior takes a quick glance in the mirror, where she doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
To her, football is not a man’s sport — it’s an athlete’s sport, which is exactly what Smith-Cheeks believes she is.
“I just like watching football, so I wanted to play it for myself,” Smith-Cheeks said. “I thought about it a lot, but knowing it was a ‘men’s sport’ never bothered me — I just wanted to go out and play.”
In the spring of 2016, Wi-Hi head coach Brian Hanson was quickly assembling a team he believed could compete with the top squads in the Bayside Conference. As Hanson was hanging out in the weight room one afternoon, Smith-Cheeks walked in and began her journey toward a spot on the team.
“We were in offseason workouts lifting, and she started coming and she was very consistent and pretty naturally strong for not just a girl, but she’s probably stronger than the average guy,” Hanson said. “She liked the camaraderie of being around the guys. I always ask everyone if they’re willing to go against X, Y and Z, and she didn’t have a problem with it.”
Smith-Cheeks had no prior football experience, but was eager to prove herself to Hanson and the rest of the Indians’ squad.
Lacking numbers and wanting to give Smith-Cheeks a chance, Hanson approved the junior’s request to join the football squad, and hoped that having a female presence could benefit the team in more ways than one.
“She’s a football player when she’s out here, but we also have to learn how to talk better, and players have to learn we can’t talk certain ways in the community or in school, so I think having her here helps with those situations,” Hanson said. “You’ve got to have some physical stature to you as well, and she’s strong enough to compete with the best.”
With her strength and athletic ability, Smith-Cheeks was immediately thrown into the trenches to begin training camp. It was decided the 5-foot-8, 220-pound Wi-Hi junior would play on the defensive line, while also setting up on the offensive line in certain situations.
In 2017, the news of a girl playing on a football team has become more common.
But even Smith-Cheeks admitted that a female defensive lineman is a unique situation that football fans don’t necessarily see every day.
“I wanted to be a linebacker at first, but then (Hanson) put me a nose tackle, so I just stuck with it. It’s something different I guess, but it doesn’t really affect me,” Smith-Cheeks said. “I’m going out trying to win every game.”
Despite the addition of Smith-Cheeks, Wi-Hi remains business as usual when it comes to preparing for game day.
Practices are still run the same, coaches still scream if a play runs wrong and the goal of winning the Bayside Conference and competing for a state championship remains in the minds of the Indians players.
Josh Whittington, a senior defensive lineman, hasn’t taken much notice of the gender of Smith-Cheeks.
She is another teammate.
“We haven’t treated her any different. She’s fit really well into our team, and she’s pretty cool to have around too,” Whittington said. “Having her here, it doesn’t really make a difference to me. On the track team, you lift with the girls, so here it’s no different.”
Smith-Cheeks agrees the reception from her teammates has been positive and extremely encouraging.
The junior wasn’t sure what to expect when she first approached Hanson about trying out for the team, but after an offseason of practice and three regular season games under her belt, Smith-Cheeks can’t imagine what things would be like without football in her life.
“Just because they say it’s a male sport doesn’t mean girls can’t play. This is my family out here; these are my brothers,” Smith-Cheeks said. “The plays, it took me a while to learn, but I’ve gotten better at it, and I’m just glad to be here.”
When she’s not on the football field, Smith-Cheeks can be found with the Wi-Hi ROTC unit, participating in ceremonies and developing knowledge and experience for basic military skills.
Unlike football, the ROTC doesn’t practice tackling and touchdown dances, but the two do have similar characteristics that Smith-Cheeks feels has helped her excel at both activities.
“We learn discipline during ROTC, and you need discipline to play football, so it helps having both those,” Smith-Cheeks said.
As she continues to learn the sport, Smith-Cheeks currently holds a second-string spot on Wi-Hi’s depth chart. Although she isn’t starting, the junior defender says she prepares every day like she will get the call to play with the first-stringers.
Smith-Cheeks has one year of high school remaining after the 2017 season wraps up, but despite being two years away, she has already considered possibly playing the sport in college if the right opportunity presents itself.
“We’ll see — I’ve definitely thought about it,” Smith-Cheeks said.
But until that moment, Smith-Cheeks will spend her time doing what she can to help the Indians win football games.
Her head coach believes she has already left a mark on the local sports community by achieving what many may consider impossible.
“I think it tells girls that if you’re willing to get knocked down and get back up, and our boys have to deal with that adversity too, but if you’re willing to get back up and willing to compete, there’s a spot for you,” Hanson said. “It doesn’t matter your talent level, doesn’t matter your gender, if I get someone that wants to help us, it’s an open door with us.”
Even having her own locker room, being the only girl on the squad and seeing the lack of women currently playing the sport, nothing has fazed Smith-Cheeks.
When she runs out on the football field with her brothers beside her, the only thing that matters is getting the victory.
“That’s all it’s about. We’re going to win when we go out on the field,” Smith-Cheeks said. “I just go out and play football.”