Girls on the Gridiron

We're excited to partner with the National Football Foundation's Football for All initiative again this year to share about the amazing women and girls playing the sport.

Girls and women were meant for football. Give us the ball, and let us play!

So sayeth Milly Pineda, former professional football player, and current youth coach. Today’s football landscape proves to us that Pineda is right. Girls and women were meant for football as easily as boys and men. Football truly is for all.

Image of girl in tackle football uniform, waiting to go into gameTraditionally, football has been a heavily male sport, from coaches to players. But not anymore, my friends. The number of girls playing tackle football is on the rise, and girls’ flag football teams are flourishing nationwide.

A Wholesale Change

Pineda has watched this transformation from the inside as a player and coach. At age 10, she was the NFL Punt, Pass, and Kick Oregon State Champion, earning her the opportunity to compete against the highest qualifiers during an NFL halftime. She was the only girl competing in her age bracket, and she remembers her mom running on the field to tell the Chargers linemen that someday her daughter might be playing in the NFL. 

Her mom wasn’t far off in her prediction.

In high school, Pineda played starting right guard for two years. And eventually, she joined the professional women’s team, Portland Shockwave (now Portland Fighting Shockwave), playing both sides of the ball: center, special teams, and defensive tackle. She loved all of it!

After retiring from professional football, Pineda turned her attention to coaching and helping more girls join the football world with confidence and enthusiasm. She became the first female head coach in the Tualatin Valley Youth Football League and recently helped kick off the first season of an all-girls flag football league here in Oregon. Her players love knowing she was a pro football player, and they take pride in having a female coach.

Pineda and her colleagues are passionate about creating a space for girls to play the sport many of us have been watching our whole lives. They provide a platform for girls to build their football knowledge and skills without limitations, bringing them off the sidelines and into the game. And they aim to do all of this with fun and a sense of community and belonging for everyone who wants to participate as a player or coach.

And as the mom to three young children, Pineda can’t wait to give her kids the chance to play, too. Her motto? Let your girls show you they can before you tell them they can’t.

Image of young girl walking onto the football field with her flags attached for a flag football game.Inclusion Throughout Youth Football

In the Portland suburb of Aloha, the McCullah Family lives and breathes football with their daughter, Lexi. Amanda McCullah says that her daughter was “practically born on the football field,” thanks to having three big brothers who played for years in the Aloha Youth Football program.

Amanda and her husband, Justin, note how much has changed since their sons played. It used to be almost all boys playing and all men coaching while the women were Team Moms. Now, however, more girls are playing at all levels, and each flag football team in the organization has a female coach.

Justin also expressed how this rise in the number of girls and women has had a direct impact on the style of coaching, too. He sees a significant difference in the dynamic and relationship between coaches and players. It’s less authoritative and more collaborative, with a problem-solving approach. The Aloha program embraces the idea of Ohana, family, at all levels of the organization.

Beyond the fact that Lexi is a girl in a traditionally male sport, the McCullahs also shared other examples of inclusion. Lexi recently received a diagnosis of ADHD, and her neurodivergence can make some parts of the game very overwhelming. 

The cheering fans or loud music can be a lot for her to navigate, but her team and coaches are patient and compassionate when she needs a moment. They handle the situation with care, not frustration. 

Furthering this conversation, Amanda and Justin also shared that one of their sons is transgender, and he was female-presenting when he played the sport. Their football family has been welcoming and accepting of his identity, creating a safe place of belonging. Justin says, “Everyone is so supportive. It’s mind-blowing to watch.”

Football Translates to the Outside World

If you ask most parents what they hope for their children, happiness, confidence, and community are likely to top the list. Pineda and the McCullahs shared that these are the precise traits football has given them and their families.

Pineda says, “Throughout my sports career, I had many coaches that empowered, inspired, and elevated me to my fullest potential. I want that for all young athletes, especially girls.” Pindeda currently serves as the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Dutch Bros. Her football lessons translate perfectly into her corporate role of creating an empowered sense of belonging for all. 

Lexi McCullah in uniform before her tackle football tournament.And Lexi’s parents say they have seen those same traits develop in their daughter. She’s a bold leader who encourages her teammates to do and be the very best they can. Amanda says, “The amount of confidence that our daughter has…I’m so blown away by it. She has realized at such a young age that she’s a badass.”

Today’s coaches also prioritize hard work in school for their student-athletes. Following the cues of the National Football Foundation, coaching staffs are diligent in supporting their players’ academic efforts for lifelong success. Tackling the books in class is just as critical to them as tackling opponents on the field 

Football Is for Everyone

Football today is inclusive and empowering for anyone who wants to play. From flag football to tackle, co-ed or single-gender, football offers a place for everyone eager to join. 

Parents around the country have access to clubs for their children, both boys and girls, and are excited to sign them up to take advantage of everything the sport offers. You can find a local organization for your child through the Future for Football League Finder

And as Pineda says, these opportunities allow players to “have fun and compete as athletes – not as ‘girls in football,’ but simply as football players.” Music to our ears.

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Kristin Ratten is passionate about seeing moms and entrepreneurs succeed. As the mom of four teenagers, she understands the ups and downs of parenthood in all its stages and the unique challenges that come with running a business while running a family. And as the owner of Little Lambs Christian Montessori School, Kristin has 30+ years of teaching and parent coaching experience. Kristin also owns Kristin Ratten Content Services, where she spends time creating high-performing content and strategy for small business owners. She is a vocal advocate for small businesses and supporting local economies. When she’s not teaching/writing/parenting, Kristin is an avid reader, making her uniquely suited to the rainy days of her native Pacific Northwest. She and her husband are embracing this stage of parenting that involves being called “Bruh” on a regular basis.