Utah’s Girls Tackle Football League will play at the Pro Bowl

(Alex Vejar | The Salt Lake Tribune) Murray High’s Olivia Green catches a pass during a practice of the Utah Girls’ Tackle Football League on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020, at the Zions Bank Training Center in Herriman.

Herriman • Laura Goetz reacted with such excitement that she couldn’t help but cry.

The West Jordan High School sophomore had just been told she was one of 22 girls from the Utah Girls Tackle Football League chosen to showcase her talents during halftime of the NFL Pro Bowl on Sunday in Orlando, Florida.

But her emotion may have come from a deeper place. Since joining the girls’ football league at 10 years old, she, like other girls who play the sport, has gotten some pushback from people saying girls can’t or shouldn’t play. ‘It’s a boys’s sport’ or’ Girls aren’t tough enough’ are the common refrains.

Even on her own high school team — where she is the only girl — she often feels isolated.

“My team doesn’t like me,” Goetz told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I actually feel like boys from other teams treat me better than my own teammates.”

But it’s different in the girls’ league, Goetz said. Initially, she wanted to play with girls to gain enough experience to compete with and against boys. She ended up doing both, but thinks playing with the girls is “so much better.”

“These girls, we’re an actual family,” Goetz said. “We’re friends, too, not just teammates. So we can talk about school or boys or anything that we want to. It’s just a mutual feeling that goes around.”

Twenty-two girls and various coaches and league officials were scheduled to board a plane to Orlando on Friday. Once there, they will watch a Pro Bowl practice and participate in other activities. The two teams will also conduct a practice before Sunday’s showcase.

The girls, who are split into two teams of 11, will play for seven minutes during halftime. Each team will run a majority of six plays, and keep going until time runs out. There won’t be huddles or kickoffs after touchdowns.

“We’re just trying to get in as much as we can in the seven minutes we have,” said Sam Gordon, a junior at Mountain Ridge High School.

The halftime showcase will not be televised.

The 22 girls were chosen by coaches and members of the league’s board out of the 11 teams in the high school division, league co-founder Crystal Sacco said. Seventeen different Utah high schools will be represented at the Pro Bowl as a result. But the choices weren’t easy.

“There were some broken hearts,” Sacco said.

Many of the girls have never played together before and the two squads will only get a few practices in before leaving for Florida. But they’re still considered the best players from the high school age group and also vary in length of time in the league.

“It was honestly kind of our best players, as well as ones that have been here to support us the most so we can put our best game out there,” Gordon said.

The league started in 2015 as the brainchild of Sacco and Brent Gordon, father of Sam, who is arguably the national face of girls’ football. Since a YouTube video of hers went viral several years ago, Sam has won the NFL’s inaugural Game Changer Award and appeared in a Super Bowl commercial last year.

Since he league’s inception, it has grown from 50 players to nearly 500 in about five years. It started with girls from fifth and sixth grade, and now includes grades five through 12.

“It’s mind-blowing how big this league has gotten,” Herriman High School senior Ellie Bisquera said. “I just am so glad that we at least have the NFL to support us, if no one else.”

The Gordon family has filed a Title IX lawsuit against the Utah High School Activities Association and several Utah school districts aimed at making girls’ football a sanctioned sport. The Pro Bowl invitation for the Utah league represents another step in the push to make girls’ tackle football more visible and accepted not just in Utah, but across the country.

“It kind of just brings more attention to this effort of getting girls to play football,” Gordon said. “Even though this league has been going for five years, a lot of people still don’t know that it’s a thing and still don’t know how big we’ve gotten. So I think the more exposure we get, the better.”

But it’s not just about exposure. In Sacco’s mind, it can also be about growth. She thinks girls’ football leagues will start showing up all over the country in the next three years. With Utah’s example, Indiana started one in 2016.

Sacco also feels the Pro Bowl opportunity can help teach young girls everywhere that any sport is available to them.

“They get to show that anybody can do anything that they want as long as they put their mind to it,” Sacco said.