In some ways, Erin Bellucci is just an ordinary high school girl — she likes Kit-Kats and painting her nails and singing in her school's select choir, and she's busy applying to college. But Erin Bellucci is also a kicker for her high school football team, making her the only girl on the team. She recently spoke to Bustle about her love of the game and her experience playing — and as one of the relatively few girls across the country who are slowly breaking into the male-dominated world of football, she's breaking down barriers and forging ahead a bright and shining future for women in sports.
When you think of football players, you almost always think of men and boys. Few if any high schools have a girls' football team, and while it's slowly becoming more common to find girls playing on boys' teams, they are still few and far between. Of the over one million high school students who play football each year, fewer than 2,000 are girls — meaning girls make up less than half of one percent of all high school football players nationally. For many girls, even those who already play sports, the idea of trying out for football might never even occur to them. But some, like Erin, go for it.
Erin's interest in football goes back years — her father is a high school football coach, and her uncle coaches for the NFL; and when she was younger, she wanted to be the first woman in the NFL. After playing soccer for three years in high school, she decided to try out for the football team as a kicker. Like punters, kickers can still be tackled, but the positions are generally far less physical than most, making such positions ideal for girls who are looking to get onto a team. In Erin's case, she made the Hall High School Warriors with some help from her dad. "My dad taught me how to kick," she explains to Bustle, "so I definitely have to thank him for teaching me and not giving up on me."
So far, she's loving it. "My favorite thing about playing high school football is the team," she says:
We do things like have team dinners either at school or we all go out, take silly pictures together, have dress up days where we either all where our jerseys or a shirt and tie (or dress!) depending if the game is home or away, make up intricate handshakes, let others borrow socks if they happen to forget them...and jam out to pump up music before games. On the field we push each other to run faster and get stronger. You can hear our weight lifting sessions from a mile away because everyone is screaming and cheering each other on.
Women have made great strides in the world of sports in recent years, but when it comes to football, progress still lags far behind. Unlike sports such as soccer or basketball or hockey, there is still no professional women's football league — at least not if you define "professional" as a league in which the athletes are paid. There are several leagues for adult women looking to play football, including the Independent Women's Football League, the Women's Football Alliance, and the Legends Football League (aka Lingerie Football). None of them pay their players.
Given that football is by far the most popular sport in America, this is surprising. There are people who are so invested in football they're willing to watch a full day of the NFL draft — enough people, in fact that ESPN broadcasts it every year. It seems impossible that those same people wouldn't be willing to watch women actually play football — but we haven't had a chance to find out yet, because no one managed to put together a significant women's league. Is it that there are just fewer players interested at the professional level? Or is it because of something else?
Under Title IX, high schools and colleges are required to provide an equal number of sports teams for both boys and girls, which most high schools and colleges do by having male and female equivalents in most sports — baseball and softball, men's and women's basketball, etc. Typically, a girls' volleyball team and a boys' football team round things out. Title IX also mandates that in the absence of a girls' equivalent for a particular sport, girls must be allowed to try out for a boys' team, meaning girls can try out for football; however, the fact remains that football is coded as something that is "for boys." Thus for many girls, the possibility of playing football doesn't even occur to them.
This is why it's always encouraging to see girls not only try out for their high school football team, but actually play on it. Because the more girls play, the better.
For Erin, football isn't the only thing she's passionate about, but it is something she enjoys enough that she'd love the chance to play more than just this one season. "If I were given the opportunity to continue playing after high school, I most definitely would!" she tells Bustle. In the meantime, she's just enjoying the season and enjoying being part of the team.
"At the end of every drill," she says, "we do cheers like 'Warriors on three' or 'Hard work on three.' My favorite one is 'Family on three,' because it truly describes what the Hall Football Program is all about. We’re a family on the field and off."
It's clear that the adults in Erin's life have a big hand in making her success possible, and that she's grateful for all the support. Her coaches, she explains, are a big part of what makes playing football great for her. "All of this would not exist without our dedicated coaches. Our head coach, Coach Rob, makes every player who goes through his program a priority and we couldn’t be luckier to have him as a mentor on and off the field."
Football isn't the only thing in Erin's life; she's applying to college, and she enjoys hanging out with her friends and cheering for her two sisters who participate in swimming and dance. She also sings in her school's select choir, The Choraliers, which is another big time commitment. "I definitely couldn’t pull it off without my mom," she says. "She definitely makes it all happen."
She also loves watching sports, especially baseball, hockey, and, of course, football, which she watches with her dad. "We both love the sport and you can find us every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday watching the NFL games," she says. In addition to coaching Erin, her father is also a football coach at a nearby high school — and in an interesting twist, the two teams recently went up against each other, which Erin says was actually pretty neat.
"Hall vs. Hartford High was ... such a unique and cool experience," she says. "How often does a dad play his daughter's team in high school football? It was a really good game too, and we won, 34-20!" Erin scored four points during the game.
"There might have been a little bit of smack talk, but all in good fun," she recalls.
As for role models, Erin says that she looks up to her uncle, who once played high school football himself and now coaches in the NFL. She also looks up to NASCAR driver Danica Patrick. Says Erin, "She went into a male dominated sport and proved that she not only belonged, but that she could succeed on a professional level. She may only stand at 5’2", but she doesn’t let that stop her, either."
Much like Patrick, Erin has also not let herself get scared away from participating in a male-dominated sport, and hopefully more and more girls will be following suit. For any girls out there who might be considering going out for football, Erin says the most important thing is to practice. "The best way to prepare for a tryout is to continually work at whatever position you’re going for," she explains. "For me, that meant spending my Saturdays on the turf kicking over and over again. It’s not easy, but it will pay off!" And beyond that, her advice is, "Go out and do what you love. If you love football, go out and contribute to the team. Trust yourself and your ability to follow your heart, even though it might not be the norm."
As time passes, girls will hopefully only become a bigger and bigger part of football, and no girl will feel intimidated or awkward in trying out — not only in high school, but at the college level as well.
In the mean time, though, Erin is just enjoying being part of her team. She says her least favorite thing about being on the team is knowing that, "at some point, this season will come to an end. We’re already halfway through the regular season! What? I can hardly believe that."
Images: Courtesy of Erin Bellucci