From locker rooms and tackles to dating and gender bias, Pacific Lutheran University’s first female football player navigated the waters of a male-dominated sport and shares how she did it.
As an eighth grader, Annika Smith-Ortiz participated in a distance kicking competition in class. The group moved down the field dropping off as they missed, but she remained, hitting her mark and outshining girls and boys alike. The gym teacher was also the high school football coach and noticed her talent.
From there, Smith-Ortiz played four years of high school ball and, without thinking she would, found a spot on the Pacific Lutheran University team.
After seeing her profile online, Coach Jud Keim reached out to ask if she was serious about playing and would consider playing at PLU. “I consider myself just so lucky to get to continue playing,” she said.
In the transition from high school to college football, Smith-Ortiz finds the Lute family much more welcoming.
“They explained what Lute means in one of our discussions, each letter stands for something and the ‘U’ stands for uncommon,” Smith-Ortiz said. “That’s kind of my role; I’m definitely the ‘U’ in Lutes.”
She feels welcome; she wears the same uniform, attends the same practices and sits in the same team meetings as the men.
Welcoming doesn’t mean babying.
Navigating the waters of being a female in a male sport conjures questions across the board: uniforms, dating and injuries are obstacles Smith-Ortiz learned to overcome.
Her pants fall down if she isn’t careful. It’s just a fact: female football clothes aren’t common and they aren’t cheap. She wears the same uniform and pads as every other Lute. The only difference is she has to hike her pants up to her waist and carefully tie the belt extra tight.
Being tackled was another obstacle in her high school career. For a while, Smith-Ortiz played on the offensive line and everyone was too afraid to tackle her. It seemed like coaches were babying her, she said. But, there was one coach in high school that let her get rough. And she liked it.
“That was some of the most fun I’ve had,” Smith-Ortiz said. “The experience of heads hitting and tackling… It’s great when they care less about you just being a girl.”
Just being a girl is a mentality Smith-Ortiz overcame in high school. If she got injured, a male kicker would replace her –– maybe even permanently. She would often play through the pain out of fear that the team would find a male kicker with the same skill and choose him instead.
Smith-Ortiz simply said no to dating in high school. Dating a man on or off the team was something she didn’t want to risk.
“There’s a team dynamic and if you date someone on the team it could really ruin it,” Smith-Ortiz said. “You also don’t want everyone to know all of your business.”
Eventually making her way from “just a girl” to “one of the guys,” Smith-Ortiz noticed a shift. Her male friends started asking her out, but she didn’t let dating affect her team or her future.
“You feel so much gender bias in high school, you have to be careful,” Smith-Ortiz said. “A lot of those what-if’s and tricky situations kept me on guard.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the best player at all,” she said.
From meetings in the morning, to practices in the afternoon and late-night classes, Smith-Ortiz is fully immersed in pre-season training with the team.
“This team is very different,” Smith-Ortiz said. “Everyone here plays for the heart.”
PLU is a new ballgame for her. More than ever before, Smith-Ortiz feels welcomed and a part of something special. “There are guys here that could have been amazing, D1 athletes,” Smith-Ortiz said. “But they chose to stay here and be a part of this real legacy team. It’s so great.”
Right now, football and training fill her days. Once the semester starts, she’ll be balancing football, ROTC and a pre-med major. Smith-Ortiz hopes to become an Army surgeon one day.
“I just think, I get to go to this school and do all of these amazing things and the only reason I get to is because there are people fighting to keep me safe and give me that right.” ◼︎