Breaking barriers: Female Swain student wishes injury had not kept her from participating
As the Swain County high school football team marches towards another state championship, amid the fanatic cheers of the hometown fans who live to see the hard-hitting Maroon Devil boys take the field, there is another story unfolding.
It’s about a girl who wants to play a boy’s sport.
Sitting on the sidelines at the Maroon Devil’s 40-10 blowout against the West Wilkes Blackhawks on Nov. 9 was Rachel Burdick-Hanks. The 18-year-old has been playing football ever since she was old enough to get her hands on one. It’s her first and last season with Swain County. And yes, she’s a girl.
“Ever since I was a little baby, I loved it,” said Burdick-Hanks, recounting an infancy of nerf footballs and catch.
She has every making of a blue-collar, small town football player — all except the y-chromosome.
She comes from a military family: her grandfather was a Marine drill sergeant killed in Vietnam. She plays with a cause: her older brother was born with a brain tumor that left him unable to walk, so Burdick-Hanks plays for him. And, she’s the first family member, male or female, to make varsity; so she plays with pride.
But this season, which is the high school senior’s last year of organized ball, Burdick-Hanks witnessed the culmination of all her hard work, dedication and practice — dating back to third grade peewee league — fizzle before her eyes. She was injured in practice in late September, tearing cartilage in her knee and bulging a disc in her back while working on special teams.
It happened the week just after head coach Neil Blankenship had given her a shot playing in a live game, and the very practice when he decided to give her a shot to expand her role from defensive line to the special teams squad.
So as her team notched another victory last Friday night, bringing their winning streak to 24-0 and advancing to the next round of the playoffs, for her, it was bittersweet. She said she cried at the start of the game.
“I don’t get to play anymore,” she said. “I can’t believe this is the last time.”
Injuries aside, however, being a female in a male-dominated sport has never been particularly easy. And in a small, Western North Carolina town dominated by prep football, one can imagine it’s not any easier. Although some teams are more accepting than others, there is usually some level of misunderstanding, said Burdick-Hanks.
“There will always be somebody there that doesn’t want you there,” she said. “I want other girls to know they can still do it, but it won’t be easy.”
She begged her parents to let her play at a young age, and they were supportive.
However, even her first season of peewee football when she was 8-years-old, children already had the notion, perhaps passed down from their parents, that a girl wasn’t supposed to be playing; that it wasn’t right.
She recalls every opposing team telling her teammates they would lose because they had a girl playing with them. But, that wasn’t the case. Her team went undefeated except for one game and won the peewee super bowl. She stuck with the sport for each season afterward.
There were also moments that were comical, being a girl in the sport. While playing for a high school in New York, Burdick-Hanks would paint her nails the team colors before every game. One time, while lining up for the snap, she assumed the three-point position, knees bent and fingers stuck in the turf. The opposing team’s center noticed something strange right away.
“Dude, your nails are painted,” he said, before one of Burdick-Hanks’ teammates could explain that “he” was a she.
The culture in her New York high school was generally accepting of a girl football player. She said there was only one incident during her single season on the junior varsity team in which she was taunted. And the coach dealt with it swiftly, threatening to cut any player who discriminated based on sex, religion or for any other reason. She played every game for her team in New York as a dependable second-string defensive line-woman.
Transferring to WNC was not so easy.
She started out at Cherokee High School as a junior in 2011, and according to Burdick-Hanks, being the new girl in the new town, and also the new girl in town who played football, made school life difficult.
Burdick-Hanks’ mother, Renee Kocher, talked about how difficult it was to see her daughter returning home every night crying after practice. She said she was frequently bullied at school.
“It’s still a boys’ sport in a lot of people’s minds,” Kocher said “The older generation doesn’t think girls should be playing, and they pass those beliefs on to the children.”
Kocher discouraged her daughter from quitting, and instead, the following semester, Burdick-Hanks transferred to Swain and went out for the football team for the 2012 season.
One of the first things Burdick-Hanks noticed at Swain was how hard the practices were. She ended each one sore and covered in blisters. But, again, the most difficult challenge in Swain ended up not being football-related at all, but instead the politics surrounding the game and the preconceptions about who should be playing it.
Swain’s coach would not comment for the story, and neither would a spokesman for the school, citing an ongoing, internal investigation into certain incidents surrounding Burdick-Hanks involvement with the team.
Burdick-Hanks and her mother said they didn’t want to go into detail about some of the events and confrontations that have unfolded while she has played for Swain this season. Instead, they wanted to allow the team, which Burdick-Hanks still feels very much a part of, to focus on its next state title. Burdick-Hanks wanted to send a message to any girl who was thinking about playing football.
“Don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t do something,” she said. “Life’s going to knock you down — but it’s about how much you can take and get back up.”