Lucky No. 13 sloshed in cleats across the football field at St. Bernard’s on a shivery cold Saturday, white game pants already a speckled, muddy mess.
“Comin’ at you, Haming!” Coach Henry Hunt yelled from the sidelines.
The sixth-grader locked eyes with the coach, helmet bobbing to acknowledge the play. But as a cornerback, the 11-year-old’s attention quickly turned to the team’s 6-2 defense and rival Holy Trinity’s quarterback.
And there’s the snap.
A Trinity Eagle charged down the sideline with the football but was pushed out of bounds before he could score. Haming trotted back to position, her blond, braided ponytail dangling from the back of her helmet — the only feature discernibly different from the boys.
Juliette Haming isn’t the first middle school girl to play on a boys’ football team in Kentucky. She isn’t even the first in Jefferson County. But she is the first to play in the Catholic School Athletic Association’s league — which governs 14 grade-school sports across the Archdiocese of Louisville — because of a decades-long rule saying football was only for boys.
“Everyone says that I wanted to prove a point or something,” said Juliette, who also plays volleyball, basketball and field hockey. “That wasn’t the main reason. The main reason was because I’d never done it before, and I want to play all the sports to see which one I really like.”
It almost didn’t happen.
Juliette, a student at St. Agnes, practiced four nights a week for three weeks this summer with Central Catholic (made up of players from a handful of archdiocesan schools) and played in the jamboree game on St. Xavier’s field, all with her coaches’ blessing. She’d chosen her jersey number — 13 — because that’s her idol, pop singer Taylor Swift’s, favorite number.
“The number 13 is an unlucky number, but Taylor Swift has made it the luckiest number it can be,” she said. “… Her favorite number has been 13, and it has gotten her all the way there. And I feel like if my number is 13 it will get me all the way there.”
But in late August, Juliette’s mom, Dina Haming, was told her daughter couldn’t play under CSAA rules because she’s a girl. The association had received calls of complaint and concern from parents.
But that initial denial was an oversight, explained the Rev. Tom Gentile, chairman of the CSAA board. In 2013, as part of a football handbook review, board members quietly voted to let girls play. Not because any had asked that year but because it had come up in another archdiocese, Gentile said, so board members decided to take up the issue.
“Traditionally, here, we had never let that happen, and I was like, ‘Guys, why?’ ” Gentile said. “… It’s rare. It’s not the usual. If a parent decides they want their daughter to play football, OK. Let ’em play.”
With that vote, it became a parent’s decision.
So after a three-day hiatus, Juliette was back on the field for Central Catholic.
Dina Haming said she was relieved because her daughter had been asking to play since fourth grade.
“It wasn’t going away,” she said, laughing at her daughter’s persistence. “I had a similar thing growing up that she had. I was always told, ‘You’re a girl. You can’t do that. You’re too small. You can’t do that.’ And I know how that feels. But you can do it.”
When Juliette’s classmates heard, some cheered her on; others, not so much. To many, she was a novelty. Even her own brothers thought she’d quit after two weeks.
“Some of the boys were saying, ‘You’re not strong enough. You can’t do this with us,’ and we never agreed on that,” Juliette said. “All of the kids at St. Agnes knew, but kids from the other schools were like, ‘Who is this girl?’ ”
And there was plenty of old-fashioned trash talk.
“When we started school they were like, ‘I could pound you.’ ” Juliette remembered with a smirk. “And I was like, ‘Well, you haven’t yet.’ ”
There was definitely an adjustment on the field, too.
For starters, Juliette, didn’t know a thing about how to play football. She had to learn the positions, the plays — 88 Pop, Wildcat, and 40 Jet Sweep. She had to learn her natural placement on the field at safety, the angles to take at cornerback and where to look for the ball at wide receiver.
“When she first started out she couldn’t catch — anything,” Coach Hunt said. “Obviously there are no girls’ sports where you really run and catch if you think about it. And particularly that size ball. So it’s a different thing to do. There’s a whole setup of how you have to get down into kind of a squat position. People don’t do that naturally. Tackling is not a natural thing for anybody. … But she can now catch. She can now run patterns. She can go out and block. She can now tackle people.”
Tackling was definitely a big hurdle — especially for some of the boys. Teammate Charlie Hale wasn’t sure he was allowed to hit her at first. And Stone Jackson decided to talk to his mom about it. But eventually they came to see her as just another teammate to tackle, albeit with a little pushing.
“You knock her down or I’m going to get everybody to knock you down,” Coach Hunt said he told the team. “It’s your job to tackle her. It’s a hard thing for a kid. And most of these kids have been taught, ‘Don’t hit anybody, don’t be mean, be polite.’ All those great things we teach them. And we’re out here teaching them … a totally foreign thing.”
Teammate Culley Walsh didn’t have much trouble.
“I thought it would be cool to have a girl play football,” he said. “If a girl can play that means basically anyone can play. If they wanna play with the boys, they can play with the boys.”
And that means hitting hard if she’s after his running back. In fact, he said grinning: “I drilled her last night at practice.”
Saturday’s game was not Central Catholic’s best showing. The team lost to Holy Trinity 18-0, and many of the players shivered in the 50-degree weather.
But Juliette had fun in the mud.
She has one game left in the season and hopes other girls play next near.
“Why would you listen to other people tell you you can’t do something when you can?” she said. “They’re giving you false information. Why listen to the people who don’t know their facts when you could be making the facts? … I feel like most people who think girls can’t play things are men because they think, ‘Oh, I’m a man. I’m so good at this.’ But really, that’s not reality. It’s all in the mind. If you’re a girl, and you think you can do it, you can.”
Juliette isn’t certain how long she’ll play. She knows the boys will get bigger as they get older, and she may not want to give up volleyball for football again. She plays because it’s fun, she said, not because she thinks she’s going to the NFL.
As for next season with Central Catholic, she’s undecided. She prefers to quote lyrics from another one of her pop star idols, Justin Bieber.
Never say never.
Reporter Kristina Goetz can be reached at (502) 582-4642 or [email protected]