Jackie Spinella seemed a little uncomfortable by all the attention. Asked if she felt like a trailblazer, she laughed. “I don’t know, I guess,” she said.
The truth is, it’s much simpler to Spinella than breaking a gender barrier. The Riverhead girl just wants to try playing football. Nothing more, nothing less.
Spinella, an incoming senior at Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School, said she enjoys watching the sport as a spectator on television or in the stands. Now, however, see is seeing football from a perspective that few girls ever do: as a player.
Spinella is trying out for the McGann-Mercy football team as an offensive lineman. She is the first girl in the school’s history to come out for football, according to coach Jeff Doroski, who played for the Monarchs himself in the 1990s.
“I kind of wanted to get the experience, so why not?” she said. “I don’t see a reason why a girl can’t” play football.
Spinella, who has a background in basketball, softball, and track and field, first approached Doroski this past winter about coming out for the team. Doroski said he asked her if she was sure, she said she was, and he told her she would need clearance from her parents, the athletic director, Section XI, the school doctor and undergo physical tests. Players heard talk in the spring that Spinella was going to come out for the team. When they saw her in the weight room, working out with them, they knew it was more than talk.
By the first preseason practice, Spinella was alongside the other players, ready to sweat through two-a-day practices and prove her courage, not only of the physical kind. She also had to have the courage to be the only girl in training camp, a one-girl team within a team. On top of that, her previous football experience was nil.
That can be scary for anyone.
“I’m nervous every day,” Spinella chuckled one morning last week after participating in the team’s sixth practice in four days. “Every day I try and tell myself: ‘Just pull yourself together and work at it. You can do it, you can make it.’ ”
Doroski said that knowing the type of person that Spinella is, he knew from the start that this wasn’t a gimmick or a publicity stunt. His players soon discovered that as well, watching her do every drill they did.
“She’s hitting as hard as us,” said Colin Ratsey, a senior lineman. He added: “She’ll get knocked down. She’s just like any other guy. She gets right back up, no problems. She’s got to prove herself out on the field, and she did, definitely, so far.”
Doroski has continually offered his encouragement. He said Spinella does not receive special treatment and is viewed as just another one of the players.
“She’s been very committed, and she stepped up to the challenge,” he said. “She hasn’t asked out of any drill. She hasn’t asked out of any conditioning. She’s done everything the guys have done.”
“I think our guys have just accepted her as being a part of the team,” he continued. “… She’s earned the respect by what she’s done.”
Pat Rossi, a senior who plays middle linebacker and guard, said his teammates have been supportive of Spinella.
“We encourage her, but at the same time, we don’t give her any special treatment,” he said. “She’s out there, she’s with us, she’s doing all the same things we’re doing. She’s one of us.”
Little boys are taught at a young age not to hit a girl. That is an inclination the boys on the team have had to overcome during drills. Rossi said players may have been reticent about hitting Spinella too hard in the first days of practice, but after a while they tend to forget that she is a girl. Football is a fast-moving game, with helmets, pads and uniform numbers flashing by in an instant, with little or no time to determine who is hitting who.
Last Thursday morning the linemen went through one-on-one contact drills. “I got knocked down a few times,” Spinella said. “It’s going to happen a lot.”
Spinella, who is the school’s Student Organization president, has naturally drawn curiosity from friends, who ask her what practice is like. She tells them it’s hard.
“I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy, because I think it’s really hard,” she said. She added: “It’s a different experience. I never dealt with something like this before. It’s really different.”
Doroski said Spinella has done a “great job” on the field. “This would be tough for anybody,” he said. “To come in and do what she has done up to this point, I give her a lot of credit.
“My thing to her is I said: ‘Stick with it. It’s hard. This is really the toughest part of football. You got to get through these next two weeks. You made it this far, you might as well keep it going.’ ”
The mental part of the game is no breeze, either, especially for a newcomer who has to learn a new language with football terms like inside zones, boots and waggles. Even so, Doroski said Spinella is ahead of some other players in her understanding of schemes and Xs and Os.
When the prospect was raised of her being in uniform for the team’s season opener on Sept. 12 at Shoreham-Wading River, Spinella’s eyes lit up.
“Being there, just like in itself, I think that [would be] awesome,” she said. “Even if I’m not playing, I think supporting the team is awesome in itself.”
If things continue the way they have been going, it sounds as if there is a good chance that Spinella will be wearing a helmet and pads that day.
“She’s going to wear a uniform,” Doroski said. “She’ll be part of our program. You know, obviously, I’m not going to put her on the field just to put her on the field. I’m not going to use it as a gimmick. She’s going to have to earn the right to go out there and play just like the rest of our guys, and if we have opportunities, and she earns the right, and we can get her in some situations, sure, I’m going to do that.”
When the school year starts, it seems likely that Spinella will become the talk of the school, the girl who plays football. With that may come a mini-celebrity status, but it is not something she is looking for.
“I don’t really think it’s that big of a deal,” she said. “I think maybe it will be something for a week or two and then it will die down, hopefully.”