by Maggie Mertens
Like a lot of high school football players, Genesis Clark grew up watching her brothers play while throwing the ball around on the sideline. Clark also watched her family’s favorite team, the Ohio State Buckeyes, dominate college football, and preferred television shows about football. But Clark, a Junior at Foster High School in Tukwila, hadn’t gone out for the team before this year — her mom wouldn’t let her.
“She’s been begging me to play football for about three years,” Jenefeness Tucker, Genesis’s mother says. “I kept saying no. It’s too dangerous and she’s a girl, so I said no.”
But after a year and a half of remote school, lockdowns, and a lack of sports altogether, Jenefeness changed her mind and decided to give her daughter an opportunity to try something new.
She might not have asked at all and gone on playing basketball, running track, and playing golf as she has been for years. But a chance meeting with the head coach over the summer while shopping gave Genesis the idea to ask again.
She says she saw a man wearing Foster High School gear at the Ross in Southcenter; she asked if he went to her school. “Because I’m nosy,” she says, adding, “He said, ‘No I’m the football coach.’ And he said, ‘You should play. You look like a running back.’”
With the green light from mom, Clark showed up to practice and is starting this year on the offensive and defensive teams, as a Running Back and a Linebacker. In the first four games, she posted an 11-yard run, forced some fumbles, and made some tackles for lost yardage.
The 16-year-old is also the only girl on the team. Did that worry her or make her nervous? “No, not really,” she tells me, her voice filled with confidence.
Clark says the guys on her team were mostly her friends already so they haven’t given her a hard time about playing football, in fact, they help her learn plays at lunchtime. And some of her coaches didn’t even realize she was a girl until after she’d been practicing for a while. “Unless you’re looking, like, really close, you wouldn’t even know I was a girl,” she says. “So like the first two weeks some of the coaches thought I was a boy … and then Coach said ‘she’ and they all went, ‘huh?’”
While Clark might be the only girl on Foster’s team this year, she isn’t alone in deciding to give the traditionally boys-only sport a go in recent years. In fact, as the number of boys playing football is declining nationwide, the number of girls playing has been increasing.
Even at the highest levels, this has led to some change. Last year, Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score in a Power Five game, kicking two extra points for Vanderbilt University against Tennessee. In 2019, Toni Harris, a safety, became the first woman to accept a scholarship to play football at a four year college as a position player. Not to mention the dozen or so other women who have played in college as walk-ons, most of them kickers. In the most recent Super Bowl, we saw not only a female referee making calls on the field, but two female coaches on staff for the champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Slowly, the hyper-masculine sport of football has begun to see, it seems, that women — and girls — can have a place in the sport, too. But this isn’t actually news. The Seattle Majestics, part of the amateur Women’s National Football Conference, have been around since 2002 (they were originally established as the Tacoma Majestics), and women’s semi-pro leagues have been around in multiple forms since the National Women’s Football League began its decades-long existence in 1971 (for more on this fascinating and little known history, check out the forthcoming book Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League).
Clark’s mom, Jenefeness, thinks these changes are part of why Genesis hasn’t faced pushback to playing football this year. “I don’t think she would have been able to play football in the past,” she told me, explaining that she just doesn’t think it would have been accepted. But now? “The world is changing.”
For her part, Genesis is simply enjoying playing a game she’s always loved. This multi-sport athlete (and excellent student, her mother adds) hopes to go on and play sports in college too, but she says likely just basketball and track.
And in case anyone is still thinking that there’s some reason girls aren’t cut out for the rough and tumble play of tackle football, Genesis says she’s relishing playing a sport that allows her to embrace her naturally aggressive athleticism. “In basketball, I always get in foul trouble,” she says. “As a linebacker I can push somebody off of me and go tackle somebody and they don’t call a foul. In basketball, if you push somebody off you, you get a technical.”
Does she think more girls should play? “It depends … They just can’t be scared to get hurt or anything.” Then, after considering that statement for a minute, she adds. “But even some of the boys act like they’re scared to get hit and they’ve been playing forever.”
Maggie Mertens is a Seattle-based writer who covers the intersection of gender, sport, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, espnW, Glamour, VICE, and other publications.
📸 Featured Image: Genesis Clark (Photo: Jenefeness Tucker).
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