I don’t know how curiosity may divert you in your job, but here’s how it works in mine.
A news colleague sends an email that says one of her sources has a cousin whose daughter is on the roster of the Pella High School football team that just won the 3A state championship.
“I love the girl-on-the-kick-ass-team angle,” the cousin writes. “I can’t help it.”
I agree that to see more girls join traditionally male-dominated sports is a worthy trend — particularly with American football so enshrined at the center of our culture. It doesn’t take many beer commercials to figure out where women are supposed to fit in this world.
So immediately I wonder: Is Pella senior Vanessa Chapman — all 110 pounds of her 5-foot-6-inch frame at either wide receiver or safety — the first girl in Iowa to play on a state championship team?
I seek the wisdom of Chris Cuellar, my colleague who covers the high school football beat. Turns out he and veteran sports reporter John Naughton have discussed Chapman. The Dutch have won the title twice in a row: In a pair of undefeated seasons they beat the same team, Norwalk, in the championship game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
Chapman, 18, isn’t the only female football player this fall. West Branch is among a handful of other teams with girls on their rosters.
My next phone call is Bud Legg, the information director at the Iowa High School Athletic Association in Boone who’s a walking historian of high school sports.
His swift research reveals that Chapman is perhaps the second girl on a championship high school football team.
Back in 1988, Angie Lantz was a freshman on the Schleswig team that defeated Preston 10-7 to clinch the Class A title. I dive into our microfiche archive and even find a photo from the game that shows Lantz’s then-9-year-old sister, Johnna, cheering from the bleachers.
I reach Lantz on the phone.
Lantz, who turns 42 later this week, now is head volleyball coach at St. Albert High School in Council Bluffs.
Has she kept her old football jersey (No. 42)?
Of course, she said.
Why play football in the first place, I wondered?
“Why not?” she tossed it back at me. “I loved the sport growing up and played it at recess.”
Fair answer. That echoes the sentiments of Chapman, the second of seven siblings. (Her younger brother, Dalton, a sophomore, also is on the Dutch football team but broke his leg earlier this season and must wait until next year to get back on the field.) Her parents, Jason and Jamie, both graduated from Pella 20 years ago. Jason also played football on the high school team and has loved to toss the pigskin with his children.
So it felt natural for Chapman to begin playing flag football on the boys’ team in fifth grade. She was nervous, “thinking about what others would say,” but decided to go for it.
Jamie had her own trepidation and lingered at the first practice to watch.
“As a mom, I was nervous about how the boys would react,” Jamie later wrote in an email after our initial conversation, “and Vanessa just jumped right in.”
Mom also conducted covert surveillance four years later at her daughter’s first high school practice.
“I parked up the street and secretly watched her practice from a church parking lot,” Jamie wrote. “As a parent we always encourage our children to reach for their dreams. Even when we are worried, we have to let them find their own paths.
“Vanessa is beautiful because she is strong. She is true to herself which is one of the things I admire about her the most.”
That line from mom gave me a lump in my throat. I also was touched by Chapman’s overwhelming sentiment for her team that to her “feels like a family.”
“They got each other’s back and they lift each other up,” she said of her teammates, “and it’s awesome to see and it’s awesome to be a part of that. They’ve never treated me any different from any of the other guys out there.”
Of course Chapman uses a different locker room than the boys. And she didn’t play in this year’s nor last year’s championship game. But the sight of the UNI-Dome erupting for the top two teams — the cheering and waving fans, the twirling towels, the pompoms — is an electric atmosphere she never will forget.
Legg and his association don’t yet have statistics on the number of female high school football players in this most recent season. But there were as many as 88 girls on 17 teams in 2012, followed by 30 girls on 11 teams in 2013 and 32 girls on 11 teams in 2014.
Next fall Chapman plans to study construction management at either Iowa State University or the University of Northern Iowa. She didn’t talk about college football. But football has given her a lesson that she intends to carry forward.
“If in any circumstance, if anyone has a goal they want to achieve, with hard work and dedication they can reach those goals,” she said.
If that’s playing football — or life — like a girl, sign me up.