Powderpuff games taking place as part of homecoming festivities this fall represent most girls' lone high school football playing experience. Not so for juniors Heidi Barber of White Bear Lake and Jess Eykyn of Mankato East, young women making contributions to their respective tackle football programs.
Varsity football players serve as either powderpuff coaches or spectators. Barber opted for the latter. Eykyn, meanwhile, quarterbacked her classmates to victory against the Cougars seniors, some of whom didn't appreciate facing a ringer.
"They called me a cheat code," said Eykyn, with a laugh. "When girls would complain, I'd say, 'What's stopping you from playing football?' "
More than football participants, Barber and Eykyn stand apart for their respective positions. These are not soccer players, such as Blaine senior Kendall Stadden, moonlighting as kickers. Barber shares junior varsity quarterbacking duties and took her first varsity snaps earlier this season. Eykyn handles the Cougars' varsity long-snapping duties. On the JV, she plays slot receiver.
Barber and Eykyn started playing football in elementary school and saw no reason to stop, even as both developed into standouts in other sports. Softball is Barber's focus. Eykyn's first love is hockey.
Football appeals to both girls for its uncommon intensity and passion. They also enjoy acceptance from their male peers, an aspect that catches outsiders by surprise.
"People are always like, 'Are they not going to like you because you're a girl?' " Barber said. "But I've played with most of them since fifth grade, so they are used to it."
Said Eykyn, a football player since third grade: "We've grown up together, and they are very supportive. They've gotten a lot bigger since when we were younger, so I've had to work harder. I'm always giving 100 percent, and they give it right back to me."
Examples to follow
A former lineman and tight end, Barber moved to quarterback as an eighth-grader. She followed the path of her father, Justin, who played under center at Upsala/Swanville.
She grew up more a student than a fan of her favorite players. Barber took note of quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees for their pocket poise, progressing through their routes vs. taking off to run. Barber's insight followed her to high school.
"Quarterback is not an easy position — no one will understand it's the hardest until they play it — and she's handled it really well," Bears senior starter Gavin Knutson said. "When we are in our offensive meetings, she'll chime in. She knows what she's doing. She's got the brains for it, and she can throw the ball pretty well."
Barber's first varsity snaps came late in a 38-7 victory against Roseville. Her first two plays were handoffs. On the second play, the running back fumbled the ball. Barber picked it up and tried to advance the play with her legs.
"My coaches weren't a fan of that one," Barber said with a laugh. "In the back of their minds, it's their nature to think, 'We don't want a girl getting hurt.' But they trust me enough to put me out there. That's all I can ask for, to trust me enough and to know that I'm not scared."
Older sister Chloe, a Star Tribune first-team All-Metro selection as a softball pitcher last season, said of her catcher, "Our dad always says, 'If there's one thing she's lacking in, it's not confidence.' She truly believes she can do anything she puts herself into."
Beyond high school
Laura Brown, owner and president of the Minnesota Vixen women's tackle football team, hopes to see that passion endure in all female athletes. Established in 1999, the Vixen are the nation's longest continuously operating women's football team. Final tryouts for the 2023 season are Saturday, but Brown has already seen an uptick in players with tackle football experience.
"When I started with the team in 2013, it was mostly athletes who loved football but didn't fall into the sport until they were adults," Brown said. "This year, we have 13 players who played tackle football in high school or at the youth level and another nine who played flag football. That's a huge difference."
Brown, 49, remembers begging her mother to let her play football at Robbinsdale Cooper — even if it meant just kicking. These days, younger girls have access to flag football opportunities such as the Minnesota Vikings' Girls Football Academy, Rosemount High School's Go Girl League and the Edina Girls Athletic Association. The Vixen are in the initial stages of launching a "Girls of Fall" program to connect interested football players with members of the team.
"I did not get into football to be a shining light for other women," Brown said. "But as I've gotten older, I don't think I realized how important it is to have role models in women's football. I look now and wonder if there would have been this example for me as a child, maybe I could've gotten into it."