“Ari, do you want to go cheerlead?” his teammate teased as the two walked across the sideline from the halftime huddle.
Ari Grimes lifted up his football helmet as if it were a pom pom, pretending to join the cheerleaders. “Cowboys in the house! Yell RMS!”
Football has historically been a male-dominated sport, but that hasn’t dissuaded an increasing number of nontraditional players across the country from joining the huddles.
Clarksville is no exception. In the military city where Sundays are filled with church and football, there were at least three middle school football players, born female, who just completed their season.
Two of the teens no longer identify with feminine pronouns, and the other has been bullied because of her gender.
Ari, 14, uses male pronouns at Richview Middle School and in public. As the starting cornerback, Ari felt more masculine, and the opportunity allowed him to express his gender identity.
“I don’t know anyone that’s like me to play football. All I’ve known is that there are some girls that do play football,” Ari said. “Me personally, I haven’t known anyone that was originally a different gender, playing as the opposite sex.”
Madisen Bryant, 13, was the starting nose guard for the Clarksville Academy-affiliated team in the Jr. Pro league and requested to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they,” in this article.
Elizabeth Cundiff, 13, was a female player on the Clarksville Academy team. She played a number of positions on the field and says she has been targeted for being a girl.
A ponytail in the helmet
Under the fluorescent lights of the Clarksville Academy practice field, a male teammate told Elizabeth he doesn’t want to hit a girl. The coach responded by making the player run laps, but Elizabeth didn’t miss a beat, promptly caught the pitch and was tackled by the next kid in line.
Only a few yards away, Madisen was completing tackling drills with the other lineman, facing any player who came their way. Standing at 5-foot, they hit low and knocked opponents off balance.
This was Madisen’s first year playing football after being recruited by Elizabeth in her personal quest for more nontraditional players on the CA team.
The three don’t see themselves as having done anything too special. They just played a sport they love — with uncomfortable helmets. Ari’s was too big. Elizabeth’s dug into the back of her head. Madisen’s was too tight.
In the Clarksville Jr. Pro Football league, sometimes one girl, maybe more, plays each year in the middle school level, according to New Providence and Kenwood Area Coordinator Scott Parker. However, in younger levels there are more girls playing.
“It gives every kid the opportunity to play football,” Parker said. There are no requirements for players joining the team other than proof of age and the desire to play.”