You Go, Girl -- to Football Camp

Pads, helmets and jerseys are all typical items you expect to see in a football player's gym bag -- but sports bras and barrettes? Hard-hitting, aggressive tackle football is no longer just a guys' game -- girls are getting in on the action, and the NFL is lending a hand.

Going to football camp isn't usually on the agenda when teenage girls make their Saturday plans. But recently, over 150 girls chose to skip the mall and spend their weekend inside New Jersey's Giants Stadium, mecca of men's football, to learn how to play the game. Little did they realize they were making history.

The NFL has long been a supporter of youth football leagues. But until the recent joint venture with the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL), the Junior Player Development program was only for boys.

Andra Douglas, owner of the New York Sharks, an IWFL team, saw room for change.

"This is the first ever NFL camp for girls. There are a lot more women playing tackle football ... it's growing, and programs like this will raise people's awareness," said Douglas. "The availability for girls to participate is crucial and this program will hopefully open that up."

Forget About the Pom-Poms

While girls playing football may seem revolutionary, women have actually been playing organized football in the United States since the mid-1950s. By 1974, the renamed National Women's Football League had 14 teams, including the Tulsa Babes and Los Angeles Dandelions.

That league folded in the mid 1980s due to rising franchise costs. Nearly 20 years later, the IWFL was developed and now boasts a roster of 35 all-female teams.

But outside the pro level, opportunity is lacking for female football players. Today the only option is to join a boys team, but that worries parents. Most school-age boys are physically bigger and stronger than their female counterparts.

Bob LeClair started an all-girls league in York, Maine, when his daughter expressed an interest in football. He said the myths about injuries may cause parents to keep their girls off the field.

"Statistically more people get hurt playing basketball than they do playing football. Now if girls want to play they're all playing with boys," said LeClair. "I think putting girls on the field with girls, it's a fair game and I don't think we're going to have any more injuries playing football."

Linda Patterson's 13-year-old daughter Caroline is a member of LeClair's team. She said several of her friends have been hurt playing all-girls football, but that's just part of the game.

"One of my friends broke a bone in her ankle and Carissa, she's a really good football player, she broke her collarbone," said Caroline.

For the Love of the Game

The drive and passion many girls have for football helped launch the IWFL, but girls across the country are still facing challenges when trying to play the game before the professional level.

Sharks player Adrienne Smith said she never had the opportunity to play organized football until the pro level and even now must pay to play -- all IWFL players are unpaid and have day jobs.

"I played softball and basketball in school and college. I just didn't have the outlet so when I heard about the Sharks I was absolutely thrilled to hear that there were other women out there who wanted to play pro football," said Smith.

Lack of opportunity and availability is limiting awareness about girls football. Some girls at the camp had never heard of the IWFL.

"I've been interested in football but I've never had a chance to play," said newcomer Andrenasia Cherry. "It's a great sport and now I might be playing football more often."

But Smith hopes that raising awareness about the sport will not only teach girls about football, but build self-esteem at the same time.

"We're encouraging girls and showing them they can still be beautiful women, they can have a family and still live the normal life of a woman ... and still be an awesome football player and enjoy all the aspects and rewards football offers," said Smith.

Encouragement from the NFL is important for girls who want to play the game. Douglas hopes the program will help spawn girls' teams in schools nationwide, creating a feeder system for the game at the pro level.

"I think it's going to be a few years off, but with programs like this, and the NFL's willingness to open it up to women, I think we're going to see more girls playing football."

Caroline knows it may take time, but she's willing to fight for the right to play the game she loves.

"No doubt about it, I'm pretty sure there's going to be a girls football team because if not we're going to keep pressing for one," said Patterson.

For more information on women's pro football, go to the Fins Up! Foundation for Female Athletics Web site www.finsupfoundation.org or the New York Sharks Web site www.nysharksfootball.com.