Girl Power at ILMS

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Sophie Johnson tackles the big boys – literally

By Julie Graham

Sophie Johnson’s first big football moment this season caused a fumble.
In a scrimmage against Camden, No. 36 Sophie, the safety, blew the runner back and knocked the ball loose with her shoulder. Her team went wild. After the game, the Camden players were surprised the big hit came from an eighth-grade girl.
“They were shocked. They were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, beaten up by a girl!’ They all shook my hand,” said Sophie, 12. “I don’t want people to underestimate me or not go as hard on me because I’m a girl.”
To the teammates and coaches of Sophie, Indian Land’s only female football player, the only thing different between her and boys on the team is the locker room she uses.
Through the conditioning and drills, patterns and pep talks, Sophie is a member of the football tribe. There have been no special exceptions or accommodations, except for that she changes in the girls’ locker room.
“The only way to tell I’m a girl on the field is the ponytail hanging out of my helmet,” said Sophie, who has dreamed of playing tackle football since her early elementary years.
During her after-school program’s recreation time, she played two-hand touch football with the boys. Sophie said she knew she was good because every boy wanted her on his team.
Middle school coaches saw Sophie throwing 25-yard passes last year and encouraged her to pursue her dream of playing tac-kle football. Her parents, Eleanor and Rick Johnson, reluctantly gave her permission to try out for the team.
“I love football. It’s my absolute favorite thing to do,” she said.
Sophie’s love of football has grown as she challenged herself with the goal of making first string. Her favorite day is Wednesday – game day.
This season, Sophie’s playing third-string wide receiver on offense and second-string safety on defense, where she takes her job very seriously.
“I don’t let anyone get past me,” she said.
Her team and school have been supportive and excited to watch Sophie play. Coach Daniel Mackey commended her dedication to the team on drills, practice and her own improvement.
“Sophie is tough as nails,” the eighth-grade football coach said. “She has not asked to be taken out of anything. She’s always on time. She listens, she learns and she does anything she’s asked to do.”
Sophie fits right into Mackey’s mission of team building and diversity. He strives to make his players into good people.
“Having Sophie around makes the guys on the team better,” he said. “They have no room to complain if she’s out there doing everything they are doing.”
Kelly Ewing, a counselor at Indian Land Middle School, has been astounded by Sophie’s hard work. She invited Sophie, a National Junior Honor Society student who loves science, to speak at last year’s iLead summit.
“She talked about how she wants to be a leader in showing girls they are capable of anything boys are,” Ewing said. “She is so passionate and humble and mature beyond her years.”
A role model for Sophie is kicker Becca Longo, who made history by receiving the first female football scholarship in college football. Longo plays Division 2 football for Adams State in Alamosa, Colo., and has her sights on kicking in the NFL.
“Sophie has been watching this girl’s story unfold and has the same goal of going to college on a football scholarship,” Ewing said. “I believe 100 percent that Sophie is capable of this.”
Sophie has accepted that boys her age will grow taller and stronger, and her time as a defensive playmaker is limited. Like Longo, she is working on kicking to stay in the game she loves.
“I want to be successful and do what I love,” Sophie said.