Whether you root for the Dawgs on Saturdays, the Falcons on Sundays or catch Friday night fever pulling for your local high school, football is a part of life in the South.
Ashlee Jeter, a sophomore at Duluth High School, is no exception. She grew up watching her brother play football but now she has a chance to put her own skills to the test thanks to a new program in Gwinnett County.
The county is the first in Georgia to have a girls’ high school flag football league. While the game is traditionally tackle, not much else separates this league. The girls practice, the coaches critique and instruct, and the goal is still the same: win.
“It’s like you know I’m going to try something new,” Jeter said. “And growing up I was always playing football with (my brother) in the yard and stuff like that.”
A few days before their season opener, Duluth High School’s girls’ team ran out on the field to practice in weather hovering above 85 degrees.
While not all of the girls have experience playing football, that doesn’t change the expectations coach Brett Wilson has for his team.
“Every girl out here is athletic,” Wilson said. “A couple of them might not have grown up necessarily playing football with their big brothers every week. But they understand running, throwing, catching.”
While Gwinnett — the state’s largest school district — is the first county to offer flag football to its female students, it wasn’t necessarily their brainchild. The Atlanta Falcons are sponsoring the league, which means it comes at no cost to the players or school.
“Last year, the dream was that hey, maybe hopefully we can get 15 girls per school,” said Chris Milman, a representative with the Falcons. “When we had tryouts, we had about 400 girls in Mill Creek who tried out for the team.”
However, there are only 20 roster spots at each school.
And at Duluth High, a staggering number of girls wanted to join their team: more than 50 showed up to an informational meeting. That forced Wilson to make some tough cuts.
“I had 20 more just email me and say “Hey, I'm playing softball. I'm playing volleyball. Can I come out a little bit later?’” Wilson said. “So, I got about 70 girls that want to play but I don't have enough spots.”
Jeter, one of the players who secured a spot on the team, said having an NFL team’s support means a lot to her.
“I appreciate that they did this for us,” Jeter, who wants to play wide receiver, said. “You know it's a big opportunity for us. It's like, ‘oh my gosh, the Falcons did this for us.’”
Even though this is just a sport, and it’s just a game, Jeter said having a chance to play just like boys her age matters.
“It’s very important to me because I'm doing something that boys are doing too,” she said. “It's not like a one-gender sport thing.”
But the league is about more than just another sport for high school students to play in the fall and winter.
Kimberlee Mankin, a coach at Collins Hill High School, said she hopes it speaks to the larger narrative of equality.
“You know we always tell our kids the sky's the limit,” Mankin said. “But then we put limits on them when girls can't play guys football, so yeah, I think this is huge,”
And after seeing such widespread interest in Gwinnett, Falcons officials say they hope to expand the league next year in a number of other counties across the state, both in metro and rural areas.
Until then, if you’re looking to scratch your football itch, games in Gwinnett happen on the gridiron on Tuesday nights.