The Omaha North running back hauls himself upright, his eyes widen, his face in shock at what he sees looking back at him through the facemask. He looks around to see if his teammates noticed what just happened.
He was just tackled by a girl.
The Omaha Westside players get up, smack each other on the shoulder pads and helmets and prepare for the next play. Freshman Piper Zatechka lines back up with her hands on her knees and her ponytail bouncing between the No. 33 on the back of her jersey. She’s ready for whatever comes next.
After playing football for three years, she’s used to this look. In fact, she said she likes it.
“It kind of gives me an ego boost,” said the middle linebacker and fullback. “Just them knowing that they’re going against a girl and that there’s a girl who’s competing on the same level as them, that feels good.”
Zatechka isn’t the only female in Westside’s football program.
Junior Erin Mardi, a wide receiver on the junior varsity football team, said she is proud her skills and movements don’t make it obvious she is a girl.
“A lot of the times they’re pretty neutral about it,” Mardi said. “There are a couple of times they’ll be like ‘What? That’s a girl?’ but I haven’t gotten a lot of negativity from other teams.”
Females playing football is an upward moving trend across the country for all ages as the number of females playing high school football increased from 1,249 in 2009 to 2,404 in 2019, according to statista.com. An estimated 4,000 women play tackle football in organized leagues in the United States, according to American Football International.
When Jennifer Welter became the first female added to an NFL team’s coaching staff in 2015, assistant coaches like Katie Sowers, Jennifer King, Lori Locust and more are proving females can be successful in the sport. In college football, Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller became the first woman to score a point in a Power 5 football game in 2020.
For the love of the game
When Zatechka was in sixth grade, a stack of flyers on her teacher’s desk for the Jr. Warriors football team catch her eye. When she asked her teacher for a flyer, the teacher said there was only enough for the boys.
Zatechka got her hands on an extra flyer anyway and announced to her parents that she would be playing football in seventh grade.
They weren’t surprised. But taking up football meant she would have to quit the other sports on her schedule: volleyball, club swimming and dance.
Her teacher rejecting the request for a flyer because of her gender determined when Piper would start playing, not if, according to her father, Rob Zatechka.
“I don’t want to say she felt like she had something to prove, but I think it was something that she’d always had this interest in and that galvanized that interest,” Rob said.
Her mother, Jennifer Zatechka, said she wasn’t surprised by her daughter’s willingness to venture where not many girls had gone.
“Her sixth-grade report was on Ruth Bader Ginsburg and she’s watched the Ruth Bader Ginsburg story multiple times,” Jennifer said. “So the whole idea of ‘judge me not by my gender, but by what I can do’ was definitely her mantra from probably fourth grade on.”
Football is a large part of the Zatechka family. Rob played for Nebraska from 1990 to 1994, winning a national championship as co-team captain in his last season. Ryan, Piper’s older brother, plays at Westside on the varsity team. Piper’s uncle, Jon, played football at Nebraska and his son, Isaac, is currently on the Missouri football team.
So Piper, who Rob said was his child with the most interest, had many resources to answer her questions about football, and when Piper decided she wanted to wear football pads, it was her choice.
“It wasn’t because of my dad or my brother,” she said. “It was something that, in my mind, it just sparked and I wanted to try it. But they have definitely helped me along the way.”
Unlike Zatechka, Mardi is the first in her family to play football. She started playing tackle nine years ago at age 8 and hasn’t looked back since.
When it came to playing in high school, she didn’t do it to make a statement. She wanted to continue playing the game she loves, Mardi said. She had a lot of support from her teammates, friends and the Jr. Warriors’ coaching staff.
“I’ve had a lot of support. Coach (Garet) Moravec, he’s our kicking coach and our mental health coach,” Mardi said. “He’s been so supportive.”
She said Moravec told her, “We can’t wait for you to come up and play.” Mardi said his excitement confirmed her desire to join the team.
“I had a whole bunch of friends that were continuing to play. It was like ‘I’m sticking along with the ride.’ I love the sport, and I want to go as far as I can,” she said.
Westside Head Coach Brett Froendt said most players decide before freshman year if they want to keep playing tackle football, an increasingly physical game.
The physicality did not matter to Mardi.
“Erin’s never had that thought process,” said the head coach of 28 years. “She just always wanted to play football, and she’s all in every day.”
Not the first
Along with the men in Zatechka’s life, her mother also helped her learn the game.
“We’d be at football games, and I would line up the M&M’s, and the blue ones are the guards, and the reds are the tackles. We did a couple of plays using colored M&M’s,” said Jennifer, who started learning more about football when she met Rob in college.
But Mardi was not the first female to play football at Westside. In the early 2000s, Kristen Casey became the first female to kick an extra point in Nebraska Class A football.
In Omaha, the Millard United Sports Girl’s NFL flag football league allows females from third to 12th grades on the team. Currently, 66 of the 1,400 participants in the YMCA of Greater Omaha’s flag football league are girls, according to the program’s director, Kyle Gay.
In Lincoln, the Lincoln Youth Football League allows boys and girls from fourth to eighth grade. Lincoln Recreation has teams for boys and girls from first to sixth grade. In July of 2021, Nebraska football players Ben Stille and JoJo Domann hosted a youth camp for boys and girls ages 7 to 14.
For adults, the Women’s Football Alliance, Women’s Tackle Football League and the Women’s National Football Conference have Nebraska Nite Hawks, a team based in Omaha.
Fitting in and standing out
At some point between the start of Mardi’s football career and today, she became “one of the gang,” Froendt said. Many Jr. Warriors players continued playing in high school and grew accustomed to playing with Mardi.
“Obviously, she has separate accommodations and things like that, but when the team’s around, she’s with us, and she’s always been a part of us,” Froendt said.
As for Zatechka, Froendt recalled a few issues with players being immature about getting beat or “ran over” by a girl.
“The coaches have talked to the kids and made sure Piper feels as comfortable and as welcome as any other player. A large majority of the players accept that, to our knowledge,” he said. “I think most of our experience has been positive with a couple of bumps along the road.”
“It’s a great team to play on,” she said. “I’m really lucky to have this opportunity to play at Westside where they’re supportive of me being a girl.”
When Zatechka and Mardi change for practice and home games, it’s in the girl’s locker room. Mardi said it’s just her, Zatechka and the volleyball team before practice. Both football players said other schools are also accommodating in providing them a separate space.
Froendt said the one thing they miss out on is the locker room camaraderie but still fit in well with the team.
They are both dedicated, determined and hard working, Froendt said.
“(Zatechka) is confident, determined and she wants to do great. That confidence is different,” Froendt said. “It’s different than a lot of athletes show, even the boys. So it’s good to see an athlete, girl or boy, show that kind of confidence. And Piper is, without question, confident in her abilities.”
As for Mardi, she dealt with many no-contact injuries during high school but was able to stay active this season, according to her coach. She jumps in on the varsity scout team and no one tries to move her out, Froendt said.
“She’s fully bought it and that’s all we ask our athletes,” he said. “We don’t get that from everybody on our team, boys and girls alike, but she’s been all in. She gets in there and competes and tries to make our team better.”
Froendt said he sometimes forgets that Mardi and Zatechka are doing something “unique and cool.”
“To be honest with you, we treat them as just another player on the team,” he said. “And maybe that’s wrong, but it’s just been so normal to me that if a person wants an opportunity, they come out and they get it.”
Going for it
In middle school, Mardi couldn’t help but notice another girl on the opponent’s sideline who never got the opportunity to play as she did.
“She ended up quitting because of how the team treated her,” Mardi said. “I took that personally because I knew that team, we had beaten that team multiple times. I heard about how hard she worked to play, and then she just felt horrible.”
Mardi and Zatechka both know some people don’t believe females should play football with males. They have a message to those people:
“It’s a sport. It’s a game,” Mardi said. “Just because the guys are bigger, stronger, taller, doesn’t mean that we can’t join in and have fun playing.”
“There’s no point in trying to get me to stop playing,” Zatechka said. “Whatever they have to say about me playing football isn’t going to have an effect on how I play or if I play or not. I’m going to play football no matter what they say, so there’s no point being rude about it.”
On the contrary, to the young girls who have a passion for football and an interest in playing, both Mardi and Zatechka say, “Go for it.”
“You wouldn’t want to look back and regret not going out for it,” Zatechka said. “The more girls we get playing, the more girls are going to feel more comfortable going out for football.”
Ultimately, it’s tough to fight stereotypes and labels but Froendt said he admires them for it.
“I just love that they’re sticking with it,” he said. “Because the most important thing in life is grit. And they’ve got it and whatever comes their way, whatever challenges have come their way, they dealt with it.”