A quarterback? A long snapper? Yes, and evidence that girls can play football

The Powderpuff games taking place as part of the homecoming festivities this fall represent the solitary football experience for most girls in high school. Not so for juniors Heidi Barber of White Bear Lake and Jess Eykyn of Mankato East, young women who contribute to their respective tackle football programs.

College football players serve as either powder coaches or spectators. Barber opted for the latter. Eykyn, meanwhile, led her classmates to victory against the senior Cougars, some of whom didn’t relish facing a ringer.

“They called me a cheat code,” Eykyn, left, said with a laugh. “When the girls were complaining, I would say, ‘What’s stopping you from playing football?’ “

More than participants in football, Barber and Eykyn are distinguished by their respective positions. They are not football players, like Blaine senior Kendall Stadden, moonlighting as kickers. Barber shares junior varsity quarterback duties and took his first varsity snaps earlier this season. Eykyn handles the Cougars’ lengthy college duties. On the JV, she plays slot receiver.

Both Barber and Eykyn started playing football in elementary school and saw no reason to stop, although both excelled in other sports. Softball is Barber’s focus. Eykyn’s first love is hockey.

Football appeals to both girls for its intensity and extraordinary passion. They also enjoy the acceptance of their male peers, an aspect that surprises outsiders.

“People always say, ‘Aren’t they going to like you because you’re a girl?’ “, Barbier said. “But I’ve played with most of them since fifth year, so they’re used to it.”

Said Eykyn, a football player since the third year: “We grew up together and they support us a lot. They grew a lot since we were younger, so I had to work harder. I’m always giving 100% , and they give it back to me directly.”

Examples to follow

A former lineman and tight end, Barber became a quarterback in the eighth grade. She followed the path of her father, Justin, who played center at Upsala/Swanville.

She grew up more a student than a fan of her favorite players. Barber took note of quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees for their pocket balance, progressing their routes rather than leaving to run. Barber’s insight followed her through high school.

“Quarterback is not an easy position – no one will understand it’s the hardest until they play it – and she handled it very well,” said Gavin Knutson, senior starter of the Bears. “When we’re in our offensive meetings, she’ll step in. She knows what she’s doing. She’s got the brains for it, and she can throw the ball really well.”

Barber’s first college snaps came late in a 38-7 win over Roseville. His first two pieces were transfers. On the second play, the running back fumbled the ball. Barber picked it up and tried to get the game going with his legs.

“My coaches weren’t fans of that one,” Barber said with a laugh. “In the back of their minds, it’s in their nature to think, ‘We don’t want a girl getting hurt. But they trust me enough to put me there. That’s all I can ask for, to trust myself enough and know that I’m not afraid.

Older sister Chloe, a Star Tribune first-team All-Metro selection as a softball pitcher last season, said of her catcher, “Our dad always says, ‘If there’s one thing that he lacks, it’s not confidence.’ She truly believes she can do anything she puts her mind to.”

Beyond high school

Laura Brown, owner and president of the Vixen women’s football team in Minnesota, hopes to see this passion continue in all female athletes. Founded in 1999, the Vixens are the oldest women’s soccer team in the country. The final trials for the 2023 season are Saturday, but Brown has already seen an increase in players with tackle football experience.

“When I started with the team in 2013, it was mostly athletes who loved football but didn’t fall into the sport until adulthood,” Brown said. “This year we have 13 players who played tackle football at high school or youth level and another nine who played flag football. That’s a huge difference.”

Brown, 49, remembers begging her mother to let her play football at Robbinsdale Cooper – even if it just meant kicking. These days, young girls have access to flag football opportunities such as the Minnesota Vikings Women’s Soccer Academy, Rosemount High School’s Go Girl League, and the Edina Girls Athletic Association. The Vixens are in the early stages of launching a “Girls of Fall” program to connect interested football players with team members.

“I didn’t come into football to be a shining light to other women,” Brown said. “But as I got older I don’t think I realized how important it is to have role models in women’s football. I look now and wonder if there would have been that example for me as a child, maybe I could ‘I got into it.”

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