Felicia Perez didn’t suffer any injuries while playing football for Brandywine High School last season. Unless you consider broken fingers to be injuries, which she does not.
That fearless attitude and a ceaseless work ethic have made this 4-foot-8 battering ram willing to smash her nose into any situation a hit with the Bulldogs.
“Felicia is tough as nails,” Brandywine head coach Isaiah Mays said last week. “The best way to describe it is she would much rather be the hammer than the nail. She definitely works hard every day, and she has no quit in her.”
Delaware has seen several girls play high school football over the last few years, but most have been kickers or safeties. Perez is a middle linebacker and fullback, which puts her in the pileup every time she’s on the field.
She wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“When I put the helmet on, and they put the helmet on, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “If you’re going to hit me, I’m going to hit you twice as hard.”
Perez began playing football at age 7, but had to stop when she sustained facial fractures after being hit by a fly ball in a baseball game two years later. She stayed active through swimming and frequent trips to a gym, but when she entered high school the thirst for football returned.
“I like to be the dominant person,” Perez said. “Other females follow other females. I’m not a follower. I’m a leader. So I decided I was going to play a predominantly male sport.”
So last season, before her sophomore year, she sent an email to Mays stating her desire to play. Then she made a memorable first impression.
“She showed up and she was short, only 4-foot-8,” the coach said. “But she goes to shake my hand, and I noticed from that moment, the firm handshake she gave. Once she did that, I thought she might be a heck of a ballplayer for us. Since that moment, watching her through weightlifting and everything, she’s been awesome.”
Football is Perez’s year-round passion. She doesn’t play any other sports at Brandywine, choosing instead to participate fully in the Bulldogs’ offseason conditioning, weight training and 7-on-7 programs.
“I know what I want to do,” she said. “If I do other things, football’s just not going to happen anymore. I know I’m littler than everybody else, so if I don’t do what I need to do, I could get injured.”
Her mother, Andrea Perrin, gave her some valuable advice when she resumed football.
“She said, ‘You know the boys are going to be bigger than you. You’ve just got stay safe, keep your head up and eat a lot. Keep the weight on,’” Perez said. “So I get to eat a lot.
“I like chicken. Lots and lots of chicken. And salad. And protein bars. And Chick-fil-A.”
Perrin – the only Philadelphia Eagles fan in a house full of Dallas Cowboys fans – knew Felicia would gravitate back toward her favorite sport.
“She eats, breathes, sleeps football,” Perrin said. “She always has. She grew up watching high school on Friday nights, college on Saturday and professional on Sunday.
“I was a little concerned last year, going into high school. When she played Pee Wee football, it was a bit different. But high school, I was a little nervous. But I know her team, they’re like a family and those boys definitely have her back.”
Perez has earned her teammates’ respect with her toughness.
“She’s got the most heart of anybody out here,” Brandywine quarterback Jack Russell said. “In our Concord scrimmage last Saturday, she took a hit, probably got blasted back like 6, 7 yards. She just got right back up. Anybody else probably would have stayed down.”
That’s because she has become accustomed to big hits. At times early last season, she felt targeted by opponents.
“I wasn’t aware of my surroundings,” Perez said. “Everybody would just blindside me. They would say, ‘Oh, there’s a girl on the field. So why not go and attack her?’ As the year went on, the guys became more frustrated, as I did. They began to have my back.”
Perez mostly played on the Bulldogs’ junior varsity team last season but did see some varsity action as an offensive lineman on the punt team. The JV team went 0-8 but showed progress in its final game, a 25-14 loss to Mount Pleasant. Their middle linebacker showed progress, too.
“They decided they were going to run the ball twice my way,” she said. “I stopped it both times. They didn’t do it anymore.”
Running in the sun
This year, Perez is competing for more varsity time during preseason workouts. She’s willing to do whatever it takes, including spilling her guts when the Bulldogs embark on 10 250-yard runs at the end of practice.
“The toughest thing is the conditioning,” Perez said. “All of the running in the sun, that’s what kills me. … Every practice, I throw up. I don’t know why. I’m used to it, but I don’t know why.
“But you’ve got to keep going. You never quit. You just keep running.”
The dedication has paid off. The Bulldogs ran a timed mile during Tuesday’s practice, and Perez shaved a full three minutes off her time from last year.
“When I’m about to send her off, she’s like, ‘Coach, I threw up. I feel much better now,’” Mays said. “She’s tough.
“She’s getting stronger. She’s lost some weight, but she hits harder.”
Last Tuesday’s final drill went from goal line to goal line, stopping every 5 yards to run in place for 10 seconds and hit the field for a push-up. Perez was the first Bulldog lined up, yelling, “C’mon, tempo! Let’s go!” to her teammates. And while some struggled near the end, she finished strong.
“When they see Felicia, undersized and a girl in a man’s sport, out here working harder than them, it really makes them challenge themselves,” Mays said. “It allows them to say, ‘If she’s going to do that extra 5 yards, I’ve got to do that extra 5 yards.’”
Her mother has seen Perez give extra effort in other areas, too.
“It has definitely taught her a lot about teamwork,” Perrin said. “A lot of discipline. The team does everything together all year long. It has definitely kept her grades up. I think it has all around made her a very good, solid child.”
Perrin never misses a game, and she’s thrilled to see how Perez interacts with her teammates. The Bulldogs’ coach is, too.
“She’s definitely a one-of-a-kind person,” Mays said. “The team has learned to accept her. She just one of the guys out here. She fits in, and she really does help make up our family.”
The family wouldn’t be the same without her.
“Felicia is always trying to get everybody hyped,” said Russell, the quarterback. “She’s a girl playing a man’s sport. It just shows that anybody can do whatever they want if they put their mind to it. Felicia is just a great example of somebody who tries as hard they can every single day.”
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ