By John Hill
The end of the NFL season and the 57th Super Bowl in Glendale inspired young viewers and ambitious football players to be part of the big game.
Hailey Mattson, an eighth-grader at Heritage Academy, is no exception. She played on the junior high tackle football team, but dreams of sitting in an NFL press box, describing the plays for viewers from a birds-eye view.
Assistant coach Mel Liggett said Mattson is smart.
“She knows that the best football commentators, those that know the game inside and out, are the ones that play the game,” he said.
Mattson started her athletic career in Heritage Academy’s Powder Puff flag–football tournament, an all-girl rivalry between classes.
She loved the thrill, the adrenaline of running down the field. It feels amazing, Mattson said, so much so that Mattson pushed to join the boys tackle team.
Some doubters thought Mattson’s try-out was a hail Mary, skeptical of a young girl competing in a male-dominated sport.
“They think I can’t do it because I’m a girl,” Mattson said. “But I show them I can do it.”
Not only did she make the squad, but Mattson became the starting tight end.
Yannick Gatlin, the student-assistant coach, said, “She’s 100% all in. Great player, lots of heart. They treat her as an equal.”
During weekly practices, the team runs drills with one player against two. Gatlin said most players chose to run toward Mattson, the assumed weaker player.
“But they learned quickly. The fact she is a girl doesn’t matter,” Gatlin added.
Mattson’s mom, Diedre, marvels at her daughter’s perseverance.
“Hailey is definitely a do-er,” Diedre said. “If she puts her mind to something, she will do whatever it takes to accomplish it. There is nothing this girl thinks she cannot do or won’t try.”
Mattson’s joy in the game is palpable and her impact goes way beyond her hits on the ball carrier. In every game she played, Mattson inspires other young athletes to follow their dreams.
“(I want) to show them it is not just a boy’s sport and that they can do it, too,” Mattson said. “I tell myself I can do it, and I can accomplish whatever I hold my mind to do. And so can they.”
Mattson’s persuasive essay for her seventh-grade English class was titled “Football Is For Boys AND Girls.” Her teacher plans to submit the essay to The New York Times student competition this spring.
John Hill is an English teacher at Heritage Academy Maricopa.