RACINE, Wis. — Laila Collier-White has a passion for football. Fueled by family support and her love of the game, the 9-year-old is excelling at the sport.
The only girl on her football team, Laila plays tight end and defensive end on the St. Catherine's Angels as part of Wisconsin Rise, a traveling youth sports organization.
The fourth-grader enjoys tackling, watching football highlights on YouTube and the Carolina Panthers.
"I can play whatever spot they want me to play," Laila told The Journal Times . "I like to watch and play football. It's just fun."
Earlier this month, Laila's team participated in a regional tournament in DeKalb, Illinois. The team placed second in the tournament and out of 20 players, Laila was chosen as the MVP.
"To be the MVP out of those 20 boys who started at the same point she did and be considered one of the best is quite astounding," said Troy Collier, Laila's coach and uncle.
At the beginning, Laila faced challenges because she was a girl playing a predominantly male sport. People, particularly girls, would often make comments about her playing football.
"They would say football is just for boys," Laila said. "But it's for everybody to play."
But the tune quickly changed after Laila's natural talent for football started to shine through.
"I think that first year, she realized her strength and her talent," Tasia White, Laila's mother, said. "Right away, she was making touchdowns and she played so phenomenally we couldn't believe it."
While White was concerned about Laila playing football at first, after seeing her daughter's talent and how happy it made her, she fully supported Laila playing.
"All my daughters have watched football, but I never imagined one of them would want to play," White said.
Collier was equally impressed by Laila's talents on the field.
"Whether she's a boy or girl doesn't matter," Collier said. "Her confidence is through the roof and I think that is what is propelling her to excel in football. She's a very fierce player."
Laila was inspired to start playing football by watching Collier play. He has served as Laila's coach during her three years in football. She even picked his number, 19, for her own jersey.
Collier, 25, a classroom aide at Mitchell Middle School, played football at Park High School. After high school, he played for the Racine Threat for four years and now plays for the Racine Raiders.
"He's always been very patient and he's the type of coach that builds kids up, gives kids opportunities and trusts them," White said. "Having a coach like Troy who is there to pick her up when she made a mistake, it's been amazing."
Laila and Collier aren't the only family members who enjoy football. Laila's grandfather Troy Collier Sr., her great-uncle Ollie Collier and her great-grandfather Hobart Witherspoon of Starkville, Mississippi, also played the sport.
"Football is a big part of our family," White said. "We've always watched Sunday football, we've always gone to football games, we've always watched my brother play football at Park. It's a big thing."
Laila's grandmother, who died before she was born, was also a football enthusiast, and her great-grandmother is also a football fan.
Despite the challenges Laila has faced playing in a male-dominated sport, she has no intentions of stopping.
"My teammates are good friends and they keep me going," Laila said.
And Laila's mother believes that football has been hugely beneficial in her daughter's life.
"Laila has become a leader on the field," White said. "She pumps up her team and she has a lot of fire. She gives 120 percent all the time. It really taught her a really important lesson to just be herself, being comfortable and being who she is."
Ultimately, Laila wants to make it in the NFL and become the league's first female player.
"I want to continue playing until the day I die," Laila said.
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Journal Times.