The quarterback faked a hand-off and ran into a crowd of defenders, some 30cm taller and twice her weight. After she gained a few yards, a big lineman in the 300lb (136kg)range wrapped her up in a bear hug, prompting the end of the play. Holly Neher, diminutive at 152cm compared to her opponent shrugged off the “tackle” with a smile. But she wanted more. “When I ran the ball there, I was really hoping they’d just hit me,” Neher says.
Neher, a junior, is one of three quarterbacks on the Spartans’ roster who is competing to be the team’s starter, a battle still undetermined as the team heads into the final week of preparation to begin their season. Neher is currently the second-string quarterback behind senior Ramon James.
Last week’s intra-squad scrimmage at Hollywood Hills High in Florida, US, was the first tackle football game experience for Neher, who has been a quarterback for the girls’ flag football team the past two seasons. She has been working and training with the Spartans throughout their off-season programme. The regular season begins next week, and Neher can’t wait for the real thing.
“She doesn’t treat this as ‘I’m a girl on a tackle football team’. She sees it as ‘I’m a quarterback on the (Hollywood Hills) football team.’ That’s something I really appreciate that about her,” says first-year Hollywood Hills coach Brandon Graham.
Other girls have played football, such as South Plantation’s Erin DiMeglio, who saw action in 2012 and became the first to play in a game in Florida. Pine Crest’s Sofia Caro played running back and linebacker last season. And others across the US, such as Samantha “Sami” Grisafe, who was the first to play quarterback in a varsity game in California in 2000, have become pioneers for girls dreaming of playing the sport.
But should she be named the starter at any point, Neher would become the first high school female to start at quarterback in Dade or Broward, Florida County, and it is believed she would be the first in state history. Graham has considered her capable since she first took the field earlier this summer.
“Just that no fear, the grit to be able to drive a team,” Graham says. “She probably came out here in the summer with the best mindset of all the quarterbacks: just being able to handle criticism, handle an offense, and really handle a bad throw and come back and keep going.”
Wearing her bright pink cleats and carrying a tiger-print bag containing a custom-version of the team’s playbook she wrote up on the second day of summer workouts, Neher was one of the first players on the field for the Spartans.
All For One
All summer at Hollywood Hills, Neher practiced and participated in every activity with the boys. And they have grown to care for her like family. “She’s like my little sister,” wide receiver Alexander Shelton says. “It would put a smile on my face to see her be the starter.”
Neher’s mother, Paula, raised Holly and her younger sister, Victoria, as a single mother. When Neher was seven, her mum was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. Paula was given a very slim chance of survival and underwent surgery to remove both breasts in September 2009. The procedure saved her life, something Paula says doctors called “a miracle.”
Paula says Holly learned the determination and independence that’s helped her accomplish what she has in school and in athletics by helping her through her road to recovery. “Holly took over taking care of Victoria for me while I was going through (chemotherapy),” says Paula, who has been cancer-free since the operation.
“She made sure she was OK. She stood by me, held my hand. She made sure everything was good. She shaved my head when I went through chemo. She helped me every step of the way. She was very strong. She has always been very independent, just like me and my mother. That’s something she’s had since she was born. She always wants more.”
Holly is the goalkeeper on the Hollywood Hills soccer team, a 4.0 GPA student and a member of the National Honor Society. Her dream is to become an attorney and practice criminal law, which she hopes to study at Florida State University.
Going All Out
Holly and her mother see the risks of playing football as far less dangerous when compared to what they have already overcome so far. “If she does get hit, we’ll go right through it together,” Paula says. “I don’t want her to second-guess anything. I want her to do everything the best she can.”
Last week at practice, Graham let Holly run 20 plays, which is about the equivalent of a full quarter. The best of those plays was a screen pass to Shelton that he caught and ran 55m for a touchdown. “My coach was like, ‘Yeah, Holly, you did it,’ “ she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I started jumping. I was so happy. I’m trying to fight for that starting position.”
Neher completed three of seven passes for roughly 65 yards, the touchdown toss and two interceptions in the scrimmage. Graham likely won’t name a starter until later this week, but says Neher didn’t do anything last week to play her way out of the competition. “I wanted to see her with the starters,” Graham says. “I’m still trying to evaluate her, and she handled herself a bit better than I anticipated.”
Neher hugged her mum tight on Thursday after the practice was over. Paula cried tears of joy as her daughter took another step toward living her dream. “I’m so proud and so happy for you,” Paula says. “You are everything I can ever imagine and more. You always surprise me. I’m so proud of you, my love.”