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HEATHER ANSWERS CALL OF GRIDIRON

HEATHER ANSWERS CALL OF GRIDIRON

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Heather Wilkinson, a 98-pound, strawberry-blond wide receiver and free safety, wants to know what all the fuss is about.

``I don't see what the big deal is about it,' she said. ``I just wanted to play.``I know I'm the first girl ever in Morehead history to play, but that doesn't impress me any. Football has always been set off like a boys' sport. I don't think that's right, and I wanted to show them that it's not. I'm going to show them that it's not right. I don't think there's anything wrong with girls playing.'

She has proven her point.

She made it through preseason practice, the grueling stretch of twice-daily sessions in the August heat that weeds out the weak. She has suffered no injuries beyond bumps and bruises. She earned a spot on the junior varsity roster.

She made it into the Panthers' first game for seven plays and, in keeping with Morehead's policy of inserting every junior varsity player into every game, she will keep playing.

As every football player knows, the hard part is behind her.

Wilkinson, a 14-year-old ninth grader, has always wanted to play football. She can't point to a role model or a time or an event that created an overwhelming urge. It was just there - always.

``I've always wondered what it was like,' she said. ``When I was little, I used to love to watch football on TV.

``I just tried out. I really didn't even think I was going to make it.'

Her presence at a spring organizational meeting raised eyebrows and sent coaches to her mother's house to raise questions. The concerns boiled down to one - the risk of injury.

``At first, I just absolutely said, 'No, you're not going to do it,' ' said Pat Hancock, Wilkinson's mother.

But Wilkinson, who is enrolled in the academically gifted program at Holmes Junior High, Morehead's feeder school, has turned a lot of nos into yeses.

``She convinced me that she's not any more at risk than any of these other boys are at risk,' Hancock said. ``How many of these boys' mothers are worried about them getting hurt?'

In that respect, Wilkinson is no different than any other undersized player. She has a few teammates of her approximate size and strength. Their impact on the team's performance is minimal and their prospects of making the varsity slim, but they are treated as team members. Enduring the torture of August guarantees that.

``It's a team sport,' Morehead coach Clayton Johnson said. ``We've got a young lady out here on the ninth-grade team, and the players have accepted her fairly well.

``She does what she can do, and we don't ask her to do something she can't do. We really haven't tried to run her off, and at the same time we really haven't tried to hide her. She's just been one of the players.'

Well, almost.

Boys being boys, Wilkinson says she has had to endure a certain amount of discouragement from her teammates.

``Some of them are really, really immature - they are,' she said. ``But they've been great to me, so I can't say anything.

``At first, they were really getting to me emotionally ... When they say things to you that really hurt your feelings, sometimes I think maybe I should quit. Then if I think about it, I think, oh, it doesn't matter if they hurt my feelings or not.'

The cure for the emotional pain is to endure physical pain - the kind that comes with the crack of bodies into bodies. As a rule, the smaller players receive the greatest punishment. But withstanding it - even learning to turn the tables and dish it out - changes perspectives.

``We don't have any problems with it,' defensive end Justin Cates said. ``I mean, we don't go out to intentionally hurt her.'

``If she wants to play, let her play,' linebacker Mike Jumper said. ``She should know how it feels to get hit.'

She does, by boys literally twice her size.

She must have a lot of guts.

``I believe I've done got 'em all squished out,' she said with a 98-pound laugh.

But she has done a little squishing, too.

``In the game, the guy didn't hit me hard,' she said. A long sigh followed, almost as if she was embarrassed for her opponent.

``I was hitting him harder than he was me.'

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