Coryne DeMattio has heard her opponents’ whispers.
The 11 boys on the other side of the field can see the long locks of brunette hair, twisted in pigtails and hanging out of her blue and black Millbrook High School football team helmet, as she takes her place on the defensive line.
Rosalind Bendell has received similar reactions. Lining up on the field as a New Paltz High School wide receiver, she recalls the exclamation coming from the opposing sideline, almost in chorus:
“It’s a girl!”
It’s a rare sight, but not unheard of.
Across the country, the number of girls participating on high school football teams is slowly growing. In 2015, more than 1,900 girls played the varsity sport, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, which receives data from most, but not all states. That’s over 500 more than in 2010. According to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, 71 girls played football in New York last year.
Girls who choose to play the sport must overcome challenges, from passing physical tests to ensure safety, to committing to weight training and conditioning, to winning the respect of teammates of the opposite sex. For DeMattio and Bendell, their reasons for facing and overcoming these challenges, and their love of the sport, began with family relationships.
In many cases, girls have joined football teams as placekickers or punters — positions that don’t often require physical contact. But this past season, DeMattio and Bendell helped to break that mold in reserve roles for their teams.
At defensive tackle, DeMattio, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound sophomore, plays one of the most physically demanding positions on the field, wrestling for leverage on every play with offensive linemen who can be 100 pounds heavier.
And at receiver, Bendell, a 5-foot-7, 140-pound junior, must contend with tacklers, just like any other offensive player. She also is a blocker on kick returns and has had hard collisions.
“I think that’s a good thing,” New Paltz coach Tom Tegeler said. “If you love football, you want the sport to grow and interest to increase among all demographics.”
Both players were required to pass a physical examination to ensure they wouldn’t be putting themselves in danger, or have an adverse effect on others. DeMattio and Bendell have use of the girls locker rooms or a private restroom for games on the road. Opposing coaches are informed of their presence before games.
Because it is harder for female athletes to build and maintain muscle mass, trainers say they must stress weight training. And because there is typically a weight disparity between male and female football players, the chance of injury increases.
And, yes, there’s a degree of fear.
“I always get a little intimated when I go out there,” DeMattio said, “but you get over it quickly. On the field, your only thought is, ‘What do I have to do to make this play?’ You’re too focused to be scared.”
Teammates have embraced DeMattio and Bendell, and opposing teams, though sometimes surprised, have not treated either player differently.
However, Millbrook coach Sean Keenan said if an opponent “got out of line and went after (DeMattio), I’d trust that our players would look out for her.”
Getting on the field
DeMattio took the field in three games this fall, getting a few snaps when the scores were lopsided and collecting one tackle against Tri-Valley. She missed the last two games of the season with a lower back strain suffered in practice.
Bendell appeared in five games this season, mostly as a blocker on kick returns, and didn’t catch a pass. Next season, she said, she hopes to add placekicking duties and get more playing time at receiver. Catching a touchdown, she said, “would be the highlight of my career.”
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s mixed-competition rules allow girls and boys to compete in any sport for which there isn’t a gender-equivalent sport. For example: A girl wouldn’t be able to join a baseball team if her school offered softball as an option. But, since girls football isn’t a recognized scholastic sport, females aren’t restricted from playing it with boys. Likewise for wrestling.
But, that doesn’t make it easy for a girl to compete physically in the boys’ world.
“Because of the difference in hormones, it’s more difficult for girls to gain muscle mass than it is for an average high school boy,” said Brooke Delia, an athletic trainer at Arlington High School. “It’s very important to spend time in the weight room. A focus on neuromuscular control and flexibility could also decrease the risk of injury.”
Neuromuscular control, essentially, is the relationship between the brain and muscles, which allows athletes to maintain good posture, balance and flexibility to execute moves.
Delia added that for any girl playing football, in addition to a steady weight training regimen, she would recommend consulting a nutritionist to determine an ideal diet for the endeavor.
DeMattio, 15, passed the mixed-competition test last summer. The exam included running a mile, doing exercises and completing shuttle drills to gauge fitness and agility.
“We consulted her doctor for their opinion, got clearance from our school doctor and physical education teacher (Shawn Stoliker),” Millbrook Athletic Director Bill Blayney said. “She showed up to (organized team activities) over the summer and hit the ground running. She did everything she needed to in order to make this happen.”
That included participating in a 10-week strength and conditioning program last spring at NorthStar Sports in Poughkeepsie.
Still, defensive tackle? Teammates, initially, were just as stunned as opponents.
“The line is one of the toughest and most physically demanding positions in the game,” said fellow Millbrook lineman Conner Latimer, who is 6-foot-2, 280 pounds. “To my surprise, she did fairly well and stuck with it the entire season. She got pushed around a good amount in drills and (practice) and still came back for more. I give her a ton of credit.”
DeMattio has played defensive tackle since joining the modified football team in seventh grade. Despite her size, it’s the position that best suited her skills and “tenacity,” Keenan said. For what she lacks in raw power, which can hinder her attempts to shed blocks, DeMattio is able to compensate somewhat with quickness and technique in evading the blocks.
“Because of her size, I would be concerned about her being at the bottom of a pile,” Delia warned. “She would be predisposed to more injuries.”
As well, defensive linemen are often susceptible to knee injuries, contusions and concussions, Delia said. Still, she said, “I’m excited for her and looking forward to seeing how she progresses.”
DeMattio said she has been under a pile. While attempting a tackle in a crowd, a running back fell on top of her and an offensive lineman landed atop him, smushing her beneath a few hundred pounds. “It is a little scary and you definitely feel it,” she said, “but I came out of it OK.”
Tegeler said Bendell will work extensively on kicking this offseason and he plans to get her on the field more. “She might not be a starter,” he said, “but we want her out there more.”
Choosing to play
An obvious question is, why would these girls chose to put themselves at risk in a sport so violent? After all, DeMattio also plays basketball and softball, and she is a former cheerleader.
Bendell, who is a member of the track and field team, specializing in sprints and high jumps, gave football a try on a whim and fell in love with it. Her older brother, Chris, is a lineman for New Paltz and she followed in his footsteps. Her younger sister, Rebecca, followed in hers and now plays junior varsity football.
For DeMattio, the decision to play football was made in large part to honor her father, Richard, who died in December 2007.
Coryne DeMattio and her dad would hover around the TV on Sundays, rooting hard for the New York Giants, her mother Anna DeMattio said. It was their father-daughter bonding activity, along with playing catch in the backyard of their Union Vale home.
Richard DeMattio died of a heart attack at age 43, six days after Coryne’s 7th birthday. It was she who found him unresponsive in bed.
“It was horrible and I remember it vividly,” Coryne DeMattio said. “It’s still difficult when I think about it.”
The idea to play football first came to her in fourth grade, but that was quickly dismissed and she became a Pop Warner cheerleader. She gave that up in seventh grade and joined the modified football team.
The experience early on wasn’t pleasant, Coryne DeMattio said. She felt ostracized and “none of the boys thought I was serious or thought I could make it through the season.”
She didn’t. A concussion cut short her season and, in eighth grade, she rejoined the cheerleading team — this time at the varsity level.
“I didn’t enjoy it that much,” she said. “At that point, cheerleading was more a way for me to get to watch all the football games. I was cheering for the guys I now play with.”
She returned to football the following year, by then having befriended some of the players and having garnered respect for her refusal to give up.
“We all knew Coryne, but we weren’t sure how it would go because none of us had been on a team with a girl before,” Blazers quarterback Jacob Wright said. “To be honest, we didn’t think she would make it through the practices, but she proved us wrong. We’re really proud of her for that as a teammate. And as friend, we’ve all gotten closer.”
Anna DeMattio feared for her daughter’s safety and worried about how she would be received. She understood her reasons — “I knew Richard would be proud” — but was apprehensive.
“My fear has subsided,” said Anna DeMattio, who admitted she doesn’t know much about the intricacies of football. “I thought if given a chance, they would see how hard she works and respect her effort. That’s happened. Now I feel excitement when I see her out there. I know she’s doing what makes her happy.”
Bendell’s parents, Dan and Laura, have been supportive and her dad especially, she said, “was all for it.” It helped, too, that her big brother was a key member of the team. She was promoted to varsity before this season and helped the Huguenots win the Section 9 Class B championship.
“She’s been part of the program since modified in eighth grade and came up through (junior varsity) with a lot the other players,” Coach Tegeler said. “They knew her so it wasn’t a big revelation when she made varsity.”
Coryne DeMattio and Bendell met when Millbrook hosted New Paltz on Sept. 16 and the two spoke at length after the game, sharing stories and experiences.
“It’s great meeting someone who understands your perspective,” Bendell said. “It’s cool to see another girl playing football, especially as a lineman.”
Both girls said there have been a few awkward moments with the boys.
Once she is allowed to enter the locker room when everyone is changed into uniform prior to games, Bendell said teammates mostly act like themselves, so the language and subject matter doesn’t change much in her presence.
“They just think of me as another teammate, so they don’t bother filtering much,” she said with a chuckle. “I overhear a lot of gossip, and sometimes I’ll chime in with a joke.”
Coryne DeMattio said a few opponents winked at her between plays.
“But I wasn’t even annoyed by it,” she said. “Boys are so bad at flirting, when it happens, I just laugh.”
Coryne DeMattio said she doesn’t intend to play beyond high school. Her goal is to attend the University of Georgia — her favorite college football team — and major in neuroscience.
“I’m extremely proud of her,” Anna DeMattio said. “If you tell her she can’t do something, she tries to prove you wrong. She’s proof that if you put your mind to something and work hard enough, you can achieve.”
After her first game, a loss to Liberty on Sept. 2, Coryne DeMattio attended a friend’s Sweet 16 party immediately after.
Hanging in her locker was an evening gown. Off came the uniform and cumbersome pads — exchanged for a dark blue dress, with shades of gray and light blue patterning. Cleats were replaced by a pair of four-inch sparkling silver heels.
The big, bad defensive lineman.
“It was girly,” she said laughing. “But, hey, the dress was still in team colors.”
Stephen Haynes: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4