Nation takes notice: Utah girls football show their skills at NFL’s Pro Bowl
Jan 28, 2020 03:01PM
● By Catherine Garrett
The Utah girls football all-star teams pose at the Pro Bowl Jan. 26. (Photos courtesy Brent Gordon)
By Catherine Garrett | [email protected]
The nation’s first all-girls football league is in its sixth year here in Utah and the National Football League has not only taken notice, but they invited an all-star contingent to their Pro Bowl, Sunday, Jan. 26 in Orlando, Florida. The Utah Girls Tackle Football League (UGTFL) took 22 players and six coaches to showcase the state’s talent and trailblazing efforts in an 11 vs. 11 scrimmage during halftime of the NFL’s own all-star matchup.
“It was so amazing!” said Mountain Ridge High junior Sam Gordon, who made a name for herself eight years ago as a viral sensation for her little league football highlights. “Getting to go out in front of the crowd and prove girls can play football was an awesome experience. The crowd was super into it and this is a day I’ll never forget.”
Early on in the second half of the Pro Bowl, NBC’s sports broadcasters Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland commented about the girls halftime scrimmage, particularly noting the “execution on offense and tackling on defense,” saying that it “was a treat to watch.”
Bingham High’s Ambrea Kunkel, who plays right tackle and defensive end, said she had a mixture of nerves and excitement at the opportunity. “I still can’t believe that I got to play at the Pro Bowl. I didn’t realize how loud a stadium could get when you are on the field and how exciting it is to hear people cheer you on,” she said. “I am so happy with support of the NFL and how welcoming the fans were. I feel like we are getting one step closer to showing the world that girls have a place in football.”
The opportunity came up in mid-January when the NFL called Sam’s father, Brent Gordon, co-founder of the UGTFL in 2014 along with Crystal Sacco. So, Brent, UGTFL president Shawn Goetz and coach Jason Dixon hurriedly selected 22 players from 17 high schools to represent the league and the state. “We were looking for fantastic players who have demonstrated commitment to the league as it was our opportunity to show the world some of our best,” Brent said. “On every single team, any girl from our league can explain what playing football means to them and they express themselves in such a compelling way that they are really our best ambassadors.”
Also on the 22-member all-star team that competed at the Pro Bowl were AAI’s Grace Lamoreaux, Bingham’s Syd Sessions, Copper Hills’ McKell Collotzi, Corner Canyon’s Rylee Taylor, Herriman’s Ellie Bisquera, Hunter’s Anapesi Tofavaha, Jordan’s Kammi Bilanzich, Juan Diego’s Jonna Tucker, Lone Peak’s Aysha Burke, Mountain View’s Cassidy Lindberg, Mountain Ridge’s Kloe Garcia, Murray’s Olivia Green and Naliyah Rueckert, Pleasant Grove’s Erica Afualo, Riverton’s Ella Morgan and Megan Perri, Summit Academy’s Lauren Dixon, West Jordan’s Laura Goetz and Westlake’s Hope Brennan and Tila Malungahu.
Brent Gordon, Dixon, Goetz and Sacco along with Christian Lambert and Eddie Ruiz coached the squads.
In its first year, the UGTFL had 50 fifth- and sixth-grade players sign up and the program has continually risen in interest and players with 460 girls competing last season in grades four through 12.
“We’re trying really hard to expand opportunities for girls and pushing to allow girls to play traditional sports,” Brent said. He has filed a lawsuit against the Utah High School Activities Association to require Utah high schools to offer girls-only football teams. “These girls are good and the response to our league has been fantastic with a complete upward trajectory.”
Sam Gordon, recipient of the NFL’s inaugural Game Changer award who also appeared in a 2019 Super Bowl commercial, said she is grateful to the NFL for their support of girls football. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to look back and see the greater effect that this has had and it’s incredible that the NFL uses their giant platform to be so supportive of us,” she said.
Kunkel said she has been taught so many life skills through playing football, including teamwork and dedication. “It’s important for us to show that girls can play football and we appreciate those that support our desire to play,” she said.
Registration is open for the volunteer-run Utah Girls Tackle Football League, for those in grades four through 12, which will begin with practices in March. Teams are formed based largely on location in Salt Lake and Utah counties and will play six Saturday games before two weeks of playoffs are held. A flag football division for grades first through eighth will also be available.