11-Year-Old Louisiana Football Player Breaks Down Gender Lines

PHOTO: 11-year-old Kayla Johnson made waves this year as a right guard whose punishing blocking style earned her the nickname "Icebox" and disabused anyone in her path of the idea that girls arent tough enough to roam the gridiron.The Times-Picayune
In this photo provided by <a href="http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2012/03">The Times-Picayune</a>, 11-year-old Kayla Johnson made waves this year as a right guard whose punishing blocking style earned her the nickname "Icebox" and disabused anyone in her path of the idea that girls aren't tough enough to roam the gridiron.

Her coaches call her "Icebox": Just like a refrigerator, you can't move 11-year-old Kayla Johnson, they say.

"They're just amazed I'm a girl," said Kayla Johnson, 11. "They said, 'Girls can't play football,' so I said, 'I'm going to show you better than I can tell you.'"

Kayla, who plays right guard for the Harrell Rams youth recreation league team in St. Bernard Parish, La., is one of a growing number of girls mixing it up with the boys on the football field, but she stands out for her success.

She was named offensive player of the year at a youth sports banquet this week.

Her coach, Derrick Henderson, said after a game in the Richmond Bowl, a state-wide tournament for the the best teams from each division, another coach asked him what boy had blocked his MVP "so brutally."

"I hate to tell you, coach, but that was a girl," Henderson said he told him.

Kayla said the recognition is helping her break the stereotype that girls can't play football.

"I felt like girls were ignored, like we didn't have rights," she said.

Kayla, who at 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds is among the biggest players on her team, became the talk of the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission when she entered the league for 10 and 11 year olds when she was just eight.

This past season, which ended in January, she dominated on the field and was named MVP at various tournaments on the way to winning offensive player of the year honors.

"The way she blocks, wow," Henderson said. "It wasn't a normal 10-year-old. She hit the ground running. It's like she's been doing it for years. "

Henderson said having Johnson on the team doesn't just help the other players on the field, it also helps them learn valuable life lessons as well.

"Wherever we go to eat, the boys have to hold the door for Kayla,'' he said. "Whenever we play away, she's the first one to load the bus. It gives me an opportunity to teach the younger boys respect for females."

The number of girls participating in youth football is growing, according to a spokesman for Pop Warner, a national non-profit that offers football and cheerleading programs.

Though he did not have specific numbers, Pop Warner spokesman Josh Pruce said that all together, there are about 10,000 children crossing the traditional gender lines -- girls playing football and boys taking on cheer and dance.

"On average we believe a couple percent of our program is girls playing football," Pruce said. "I can tell you that it's trending upwards a little bit. We've seen more of it over the past 10 years, even in our own national championship."

The most common ages for girls to try out helmets and shoulder pads are between age 5 and 7, Pruce said.

"People are exploring all the options to play sports on that younger level," he said. "We've seen the girls hit harder than the guys sometimes. Really, it's fantastic to see them playing football together."

Kayla's mother, Yolanda Maize, says Kayla's love of the game comes from playing with her two older brothers, Calvin and Kardell Johnson.

"We're all football fanatics and girls in our family have always played football for fun," Maize said. "She roughs around with them and they show her how to do certain things on the field."

Kayla's first year on the field she played with Kardell.

"He played left guard and she played right guard," Maize said.

Kayla said her favorite team is the New Orleans Saints and her favorite player is Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamulu.

Though she's in the middle of basketball season, she's still trying to decide whether she'll play football next year.

Regardless of whether Kayla decides to keep on playing, Maize said she's proud of her daughter.

"She's something special, that's for sure," Maize said.