Jupiter powder puff football game avoids sack

Posted at 9:11 AM, May 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-27 11:31:35-04

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) -- The senior and junior girls at Florida's Jupiter High School scoffed when administrators, fearing for their safety, canceled a 50-year tradition - what may be the nation's last tackle powder puff football game. The girls say they don't need protection - many have already had sports injuries - and are willing to take the risk.

Lexus Sheridan cracked her cheekbone playing lacrosse. Line drives in softball hit Haley Osborne in the face, twice. Brianna Hockman broke three fingers playing flag football and Caitlyn McLoughlin cracked her hip bone playing volleyball. Caitlin Walsh rides horses, knowing her sport carries the risk of spinal injury, or even death.

Every fall, they see male football players hobbling through hallways with broken bones and other injuries, but no school official would dare stop them from playing.

"Why do they not care that the guys get hurt, but they care about the girls?" said Lindsay Leicht, an 18-year-old senior.

So the girls went to work and saved their game, which is now expected to draw a large and loud crowd to their high school stadium Friday night.

They convinced the Jupiter Town Council to take over as sponsors, borrowed helmets and pads from a local youth league, bought liability insurance ($470, donated by one player's dad, covers both squads for up to $2 million) and agreed to the town's requirement that they go through weeks of practice and conditioning drills.

They were willing to do about anything to keep their alma mater from becoming just one more of the thousands of American high schools that play flag powder puff, a no-contact version in which girls stop opponents by pulling flags off their belts, rather than wrestling them to the ground.

They found an easy ally in Jupiter Mayor Todd Wodraska.

He coached his class's girls - his future wife played on the opposing team one year - when he played football at Jupiter High in the 1980s. He didn't want to lose the excitement and sense of tradition the tackle game brings to the suburb of 60,000 in Palm Beach County.

The annual game usually fills the high school stadium, something the boys' team rarely does. It is traditionally accompanied by pep rallies featuring boys in drag and a freshmen vs. sophomore tug-of-war, although these elements were lost this year because of the original cancellation.

Wodraska said the town commission takes the risk of injury as seriously as the school board did, but thinks it can be mitigated.

"My colleagues agreed that if the girls go through safety procedures and the girls and parents are willing to acknowledge the risk, then we can host the game," he said.

At practice this week, 16 senior girls ran drills with enthusiasm and occasional cursing in the humid Florida heat. They practiced tackling and blocking as their coaches, boys from the varsity squad, badgered them to stay low and keep their feet moving. The girls ran plays, razzed players for their flubs, and cheered Megan Mendoza, a weightlifter, when she won the one-on-one blocking tournament.

It looked and sounded like a miniature boys' practice, with some notable exceptions: The players braided each other's hair to help stuff it under helmets. They talked about boyfriends. One admitted to another that she had pulled up on a hit, saying "I didn't want to hurt you."

"This game brings us all together," said Megan McDowell, 18. "I have never felt so close to all these people."

The school's withdrawal of support also could affect next year's boys' team. Hockman, the junior girl who broke fingers playing flag, has signed up, saying she wants to prove that girls can play football right alongside the boys.

"I'm not as good as some of them, but I put in just as much work," she said.