HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – The quarterback wore hot pink cleats and carried a tiger-print duffel bag.
Fashion choices aside, this is no ordinary QB. This is Holly Neher, a 15-year-old junior and the only female on the 2017 Hollywood Hills team.
Neher played the first intra-squad scrimmage of her tackle football career Thursday, and her first pass went for a 60-yard touchdown.
The result of the play looked prettier than the pass, which fluttered a bit before it reached its designed target on the right flank, Alexander Shelton, who made defenders miss en route to the end zone.
Neher didn’t react much to the completion, but once she realized she had her first touchdown pass in a full-pads scrimmage, she jumped and gave high-fives to the coaches standing behind her.
“My quarterback coach said, ‘Yea, Holly, you did it!’” Neher said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! I started jumping. I was so happy. I’m trying to fight for that starting position.”
If she reaches her goal, Neher would be the first female to become a starting quarterback in Broward County history.
However, barring injuries, the starting job appears to be a longshot for Neher, who is behind senior Ramon James on the depth chart.
Not that Neher doesn’t have supporters – in fact, she seems to have virtually everyone on the team rooting for her.
James confirmed that viewpoint when asked what it’s like to compete against Neher.
“It’s pretty hard,” he said. “Everybody favors her because she’s a girl. But she’s actually good. Y’all saw her play today. She has potential.”
That potential was not entirely evident Thursday as Neher finished 3-for-7 for 65 yards and the one touchdown.
Neher, who was not tackled or hit hard at any point during the scrimmage – she was basically bear-hugged to conclude a zone-read play in which she kept the ball – suffered two interceptions, one that would’ve gone for a pick-six in a real game. She also had a pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage.
The latter is to be expected due to her lack of height – she’s 5-foot-2 and 175 pounds.
Yet, despite those issues, her coach, Brandon Graham, said she is still in the running to start next week’s season opener at Fort Lauderdale Northeast, and her teammates have looked out for her, eager to help.
Shelton, who caught the touchdown, said he was aware when Neher was in, which was for the final 20 plays. She was used as the third and final Spartans quarterback of the day.
“I knew Holly was going to throw it a little bit behind,” he said. “Me and Holly work together. She’s like my little sister. We know what’s going to happen, how she’s going to throw the ball.
“I’m glad she’s part of this team. It would put a smile on my face if she were the starter.”
Neher’s mother, Paula, was diagnosed with breast cancer in March of 2009.
Paula, a single mother who also has a 12-year-old daughter, Victoria, lost her job and had both of her breasts removed during surgery.
Holly was just seven years old at the time, but she showed remarkable courage for someone so young.
“Holly was a pillar of strength,” Paula said. “She shaved my head when I was losing my hair (during chemotherapy).
“She kept me going and kept Victoria going. ‘The Climb’ by Miley Cyrus was our song. Holly kept singing it, and it kept pushing me.”
Paula, who has been cancer free for seven years, went back to college after she recovered from her ordeal, earning an associate’s degree in accounting.
Holly, meanwhile, made honorable mention All-Broward in flag football last season and has also managed to bench press 115 pounds with one repetition.
Paula said she has given no consideration to telling her daughter that football is too dangerous for her to try.
“I don’t want to put a limit on her,” Paula said. “She knows there could be consequences (in terms of injuries). But if I limit her, she will never grow.”
Neher has shown tremendous growth in school, where she has a 4.0 grade-point average. An aspiring attorney, Neher wants to attend Florida State.
That’s down the road, though, For now, she is enjoying herself in high school. Besides playing wide receiver and quarterback in flag football, she’s also a goalie in soccer.
“Ever since she was a little kid, the only toy she was interested in was a ball,” Paula said.
“If you would open up the shed we had, all these balls would come out. There are balls in her bedroom, balls in the trunk of my car. There are balls all over the place.”
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
After her sophomore year of flag, which is also coached by Graham, she asked him if she could try out for tackle football.
Graham, a first-year head coach who has inherited a team that finished 3-7 last year, gave Neher his OK.
She started doing offseason conditioning work with the boys in June, even though things didn’t always go perfectly for her.
Accustomed to the smaller ball used in flag football, Neher’s first throw with the boys back in June went straight to the ground.
“The boys said, ‘Holly are you sure you’re a quarterback?’” Neher said. “I said, ‘Wait. Give me time!’ ”
Neher had to make another adjustment once she strapped on shoulder pads for the first time in her life.
“On my first throw with pads, the ball went straight up, and both of my shoulders went up,” Neher said with a laugh. “My quarterback coach said, ‘Holly, do you need help?’ And I said, ‘Yes, please’.”
The determination was made that those pads were too big for Neher. Once she got fitted correctly, there was a huge improvement.
BROTHERHOOD PLUS ONE
The Spartans boys are protective of Neher, and that was proved this past summer in a 7-on-7 scrimmage against a rival school, Everglades.
“They started hitting on me (for a date),” Neher said. “They were probably trying to say something slick to get into my head.
“Boys these days are a handful. I’m just going to ignore it and beat them so they have nothing else to say.”
Neher said her teammates were ready to fight the Everglades boys in her honor, and Shelton confirmed that as fact.
“She’s family to us,” he said. “If somebody messes with family, we get down.”
Graham said he used freshman Emile Bien-Aime second in the quarterback rotation on Thursday even though he is likely ticketed for the junior varsity this year.
He put Neher in at the end, which is when he brought back his first-team offensive line and receivers.
“I wanted to see her with the starters,” Graham said. “I’m still trying to evaluate her, and she handled herself a bit better than I anticipated, especially with some of the interesting (high) snaps (in shotgun formation).
“We still haven’t named a starter. That will probably come on Monday. But she didn’t do anything to knock herself out of the competition.”
Graham said Neher’s habit of throwing without regard to the laces is something he can use.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Graham said. “But on the touchdown, she showed she can get the ball out of her hand quickly. She can sidearm the ball, and that impressed me.”
She no doubt impressed Paula Neher more than anyone.
After the scrimmage, tears flowed for Paula as she hugged her daughter repeatedly.
“I’m so proud and so happy for you,” Paula told her. “You are everything I can ever imagine and more. You always surprise me. I’m so proud of you, my love.”