Erin DiMeglio a football natural at South Plantation

PLANTATION, Fla. -- As Erin DiMeglio strides through the South Plantation High School gym in her purple Under Armour shirt and purple shorts on this Thursday afternoon, her helmet by her side and a girls volleyball game in progress, the hand slaps and waves, smiles and finger-points make it clear to anyone who has ever gone to high school.

This is not just another player.

This is the "BMOC," a little better sounding than Big Woman on Campus -- though, in truth, DiMeglio wouldn't mind that.

The girl is a rock; 5-foot-6, 156 pounds of solid, nearly 18-year-old jock; a gym rat who spends most of the year playing basketball in a state where, for girls, the sport hasn't caught on with the same velocity but is overflowing with ferocity.

But, right now, the girl is a quarterback.

Classmates, the principal, coaches, teammates, fans, even opponents, insist it is simply not that big of a deal. She is just Erin to everyone at South Plantation. But becoming the first female to play football's premier position in one of the sport's biggest high school hotbeds last week, for a team with multiple Division I prospects, clearly makes her story unique.

The natural

Grasping the offense was never a problem for a girl who has been enamored with the X's and O's of football since the age of eight. And Erin's parents, Kathleen and Tom DiMeglio, who first met at a Miami Dolphins game, have not been surprised by their daughter's journey to the field as a third-string quarterback.

This was a kid who competed with her big sister Amy with every bit as much sibling brutality as any two brothers. "Her older sister would definitely draw blood," says Tom, a cop in the neighboring town of Davie, just west of Fort Lauderdale.

There was also neighborhood friend Alex from across the street and cousin Wyatt and any number of kids Erin could find to elicit a little contact.

"At this park near my house, since we were little, we played tackle football. No pads, nothing," says Erin, now a senior at South Plantation. "And I was bigger than a lot of them. Girls mature a little faster, anyway, so I was always taller."

Jim Rassol/Sun Sentinel

Erin DiMeglio made her season debut as a third-string quarterback for South Plantation High School on Sept. 1.

Then there were the cousins. "We'd go out in the backyard and line up and just run and hit each other," she says. "We used to put a life vest on Wyatt's little sister, Morgan, tape pillows on each side of her, put her in the front yard and we'd tackle her. It was so much fun."

When the story is told in Alex's parents' presence, of their son rolling around and generally beating up his younger neighbor Erin in the street between their houses, all four parents smile and nod.

"I guess my parents were used to that," Erin explains. "But they wanted me to be tough. They didn't want me to be like, 'Oh, I broke my nail.'"

Tom remembers Erin's response every time it looked like she was injured. "She would yell, 'It doesn't hurt, it doesn't hurt,'" he says.

"At least now," Kathleen says, "she is wearing a helmet and shoulder pads."

When Tom would pick up Erin from an after-care program when she was in fifth grade, he was asked, "Can you please tell your daughter not to be so rough?"

"And that was from the parents of boys," Kathleen says.

All along, Erin had an instinctive interest in football. She wanted to hear her father break down plays while watching games on television, and when she began playing flag football in middle school would bring him plays she had diagrammed.

"And she has her own fantasy football team and has for years," says her mother.

Quarterbacking was simply natural.

Making a statement

At first, Erin didn't think about football. Well, not organized, anyway. Instead, as a freshman, she became involved with South Plantation football the only way she knew how, by serving as a manager/water girl/trainer's assistant for the varsity team.

"Me and my friend Marilyn liked to throw the football around," Erin recalls, "and when we were younger, like sophomore year, we said, 'We should go try out for the JV team.' But we never really actually did it. It just didn't seem realistic, I guess. I probably thought about it or wanted to do it, but I never did."

Her reality at the time was flag football, where lack of tackling apparently does nothing to prevent collisions, scratches and general peril.

"I ran into a girl before and she tried to fight me," Erin says. "They're dirty. This girl had nails. And girls' basketball is pretty tough, too. I broke my nose. I dislocated fingers. I've busted my lip open."

But flag football was where Doug Gatewood, South Plantation's varsity football coach, discovered an arm and a fierceness he had previously recognized in only the best male athletes. Moonlighting with the girls' team as a way to make up for the income lost when he paid his assistant varsity coaches out of his own pocket after their salaries were cut, Gatewood has the no-nonsense yet droll personality he surely must require to also survive six geometry and algebra classes per day.

ESPN/ABC

South Plantation varsity coach Doug Gatewood didn't simply see a girl in Erin DiMeglio; he saw an athlete who could help his football team.

"A lot of people try to make it like we were trying to make a statement, Erin and I," says Gatewood, a father of three and husband to the equally level-headed and good-humored Bethany, a ninth-grade English teacher at the school. "Literally, we were walking off the field one day and I was like, 'Hey, why don't you come out and throw a little bit with the boys?' And she said, 'Sure,' and it was just step by step by step from there.

"I read that 'Princess Quarterback' thing, that she had to go before the school board, and I was like, I didn't even ask anybody. We literally didn't think about it. Did you have to ask somebody?"

("Quarterback Princess" was the Hollywood moniker for Tami Maida, a JV quarterback from Oregon who fought "everyone from her coach to her next-door neighbor" to play, according to the plot summary for the 1983 made-for-TV movie based on Maida and starring a teenage Helen Hunt.)

And Erin almost accidentally found a champion in Gatewood, who while trying not to make a statement, has made a major one with his laid-back, common-sense approach.

"We talked about it a couple times," Kathleen says. "This would not have happened when we went to high school. It would not have been acceptable for a girl to walk out there. And the fact that a girl can, and these boys are saying, 'Oh, all right, she can do this, great,' it wouldn't have gone anywhere without Coach Gatewood's support of it. He had to be open to it."

Gatewood is the guy who teaches math all day during the week and 10 hours of Drivers Ed on Saturday -- one of those workhorses a school knows it can ask almost anything of and never get turned down. When Gatewood speaks of Erin, he deflects any credit, saying she had earned her place through her own reputation as one of the hardest working and most talented athletes in school; and that is why she has elicited little to no jealousy, resentment or disapproval from the student body.

"I'm telling you, nobody here cares," he says.

But a mother still needed convincing, and Kathleen only felt comfortable after one recent conversation with her daughter.

"As a mother, one of my concerns after she initially started going everywhere with the team and [playing], I said 'Erin, nobody is saying anything inappropriate, are they? There are no sexual references?'" Kathleen recalls. "And she said, 'No, coach wouldn't accept it. He wouldn't tolerate it.' For a mother, that was [comforting]."

Yet, the question remained: How would a girl survive, even as a third-string quarterback, even a kid as tough as Erin?

"Football is a perfect microcosm in that if you can't succeed, you won't survive," Gatewood says. "If I could find someone better than Erin, I'd do it. If my first two quarterbacks get hurt, I'd have to call the game off without a third."

But, as coach and player took things step by step, Gatewood admits he wondered if Erin could play in pads, take a hit and withstand the pressure. Her parents did more than wonder.

"I said [to Gatewood], 'I know some of these guys are going to be teeing off on her,'" Tom says. "And he said, 'Trust me, I would never put any of my quarterbacks in jeopardy.' And I knew in talking with him that he was genuine, he was looking out for his players and he was going to put them in the best possible position."

There was still the matter of learning how to absorb a tackle, however.

Gatewood never worried that Erin was too fragile -- "I have 10 kids smaller than her," he says.

(When told that Tami Maida wore knee pads as chest protectors, Erin looks incredulous. "If I got hit right there, yeah, it would hurt more," she says, "but guys have a spot where it hurts more, too.")

But how do you teach a quarterback to take a hit when they are playing a position where you don't want to be hit?

"The JV was doing a tackling drill about two weeks ago and I thought, 'Well, I've got to put Erin in it,'" Gatewood says. "I didn't call over [starting quarterback] John [Franklin] or my other quarterback Brian [Connerton] because I wouldn't think to ever have to teach a quarterback how to run through a tackle and stuff like that.

"The first time, she just stopped running and moving her feet and went down in a pile. And I said, 'Erin, you have to run through contact. You can't just let your feet stop.' So, the second time, she ran through it and because I held the kid back a little, he went down, so he caught a little [grief]."

At one point, Erin was begging for a little practice in getting hit, even sneaking into a kickoff return drill.

"I was like, 'Erin, get off the field. What the hell are you doing?'" Gatewood recalls. "And she's said, 'Nothing. No one will hit me.'"

Alex "Buddha" Collins, a senior running back who was last year's Broward County Player of the Year and one of Erin's closest friends on the team, says he would gladly oblige.

"If I was given approval, I would," he says. "And she's OK with it. Every once in a while, I'll come out of nowhere and hit her to get her used to contact. I don't want it to be a surprise to her if she actually scrambles in a game. She can take it."

And she plays to her strengths out on the field.

It's great if I'm bringing positive attention. I just never intended to have this happen. I just wanted to play football. I just like playing and being part of a team.
South Plantation third-string quarterback Erin DiMeglio on the attention she has received since taking the field this season

While Gatewood encourages Franklin to take off running because he runs a 4.3 40, he doesn't encourage Erin to do the same, "not because she can't take a hit, but because she's relatively slow. So I want her to stay in the pocket and make the pass."

The coach puts her in a shotgun formation, not to protect her, but because "she's 5-foot-6 and my left tackle is 6-foot-6 and my offensive line averages 6-feet-2. If she was under center, she couldn't see anything. That's why I put her in shotgun, based on her skill set."

Beyond the skill set is simply a born quarterback.

"The reason I like playing quarterback and point guard is that I like being the leader on the field," she says. "And also I like reading things. As a point guard, I love making great passes. Drive down and no-look pass and someone scores, I love that. And I love doing that on the football field, as well."

Says Gatewood: "That's the remarkable part of all of it for me, that a quarterback has to command the huddle, and there are 10 big, strong boys and she goes in there and they all shut up and they all look to her."

And this is in Class 8A Florida football, which is roughly the equivalent of Division III in many parts of the country. Collins is rated one of the top backs in the nation and has orally committed to Miami but also has offers from Florida State and Wisconsin. Franklin has 15 Division I scholarship offers on the table and wide receiver Hordly Seide has an offer from Memphis. "And I'll probably wind up with three more [scholarship players]," Gatewood says.

Just as significant is South's opposition, which includes three teams that have played on ESPN telecasts. "Every team we play is going to have one or two Division I players," Gatewood says. "This isn't Montana and eight-man football."

The fact that Erin was a girl did not appear to be a positive or a negative.

"When you get to your backups," Gatewood says, "they don't always know the entire offense because you don't get to spend as much time with them as you do your starters. Erin, because of her intense desire to do this, knows as much as the starter. My point is, she knows more as a backup than most backups. So I have three real quality quarterbacks."

In her first competition with her future teammates in a 7-on-7 tournament in Tampa, Fla., this past summer (with no tackling but a sack rewarded if the quarterback doesn't get the ball off in four seconds), Erin threw five touchdown passes. In a preseason jamboree on Aug. 24, she completed two passes against Seminole Ridge.

In her football debut Sept. 1, she handed off twice late in South Plantation's 31-14 victory against Nova in the season opener, making history as the first female quarterback to play in a regular-season game in Florida high school football history.

"Most young kids," Gatewood says, "when they finally get in, you can see the fear in their faces like, 'Oh my God, I have to play?' With her, honestly, I forget she's there. It's just another day."

Jim Rassol/Sun Sentinel

'I just wanted to play football'

According to the Florida High School Athletic Association, just 36 girls played football in the state last year. More than 700 are currently playing nationwide, according to the Women's Sports Foundation.

Like Erin, Montana Paley, a senior placekicker for Glenbrook North in Northbrook, Ill., began playing flag football in middle school.

"I think it's awesome that [Erin] is out there and good enough to play quarterback," says Paley, who has been guaranteed a spot on Colorado College's soccer team next year. "I can't fully imagine how it must be."

Paley said she has not confronted any "rude" behavior, just the occasional "Hey, it's a girl" from surprised opponents and fans. And, like Erin, who hopes to earn a basketball scholarship, Paley said it can't hurt to have football on her college applications.

"It's definitely something that I'd think catches a coach's attention," Paley says. "Even if you don't end up playing [sports], it's something applicable for college and a good life experience that's definitely not a typical high school experience."

For Erin, the outside reaction has been mostly positive. The most touching moment so far, say those who were there, came after the jamboree at Seminole Ridge, where she caught the crowd by complete surprise when she took her helmet off following the game. After an audible gasp, the opposing fans started to cheer, the sound growing louder and louder as Erin walked off the field.

"I got goose bumps," Bethany Gatewood says. "And Doug told me later he choked up. It was that big a moment."

At home games, Erin's South Plantation classmates chant her name.

"I think everyone in school wants the best for her," says South senior Justin Sguros.

"It takes guts to be out there," says senior Dustin Birchall. "I wouldn't want to be."

"It's motivational for every girl here who doesn't think she can do something," says senior Arielle Colegrove.

As South Plantation junior Carissa McGrath put it, "Erin's doing big things and changing the way everyone thinks."

Even Collins, who would normally be getting the majority of press clippings, seems to enjoy the attention Erin is receiving.

"With so much publicity, more people can see how good our offensive line can block, how good the running backs can block, how good the receivers can catch and get open for her, so it's really a win-win situation for everyone," he says. "And she's not arrogant about it. She just really wants to be part of a team."

And as a role model, South Plantation principal Christine Henschel raves, "She's the total package and she takes it all in stride. There's no arrogance at all. It's refreshing."

More than that, she says, it is a positive example.

"Statistics show that kids successfully involved in sports are more successful academically and the numbers are three times greater for girls, which is staggering," she says. "And we don't even know how many little girls out there are hearing about Erin and saying to themselves, 'Maybe I can do that.'"

Erin has had success off the field, as well. She has a 4.2 GPA, and is taking three classes this semester at nearby Broward College as part of a magnet program that will have earned her nearly a full year's college credit by the end of this school year.

But Gatewood can't help himself. Despite the positive letters and phone calls, he still finds himself checking out the random crackpot comments on the Internet.

"Whatever anybody wants to take away from this, they can," he says. "If they want to be negative, then that's on them. I can't stop it. [The attention] wasn't what I was intending. I didn't mean to offend anybody in the process."

Even those who seemingly mean well still strike the wrong chords.

"I was in Starbucks," says Kathleen, "and a woman stops me and says, 'I saw you in the paper. I was so surprised your daughter is really pretty. I thought she'd be a little more dikey-looking.' I was like, 'OK, I'll have a venti latte, please.'"

Sometimes there can be no adequate response. And, for this story, no encore. After this, Erin will simply move on to basketball, where she hopes her new weight-training program (the girls don't have one) and the skills she needed to make the football team will help her earn a college scholarship. She also hopes she remembers she's not playing football anymore.

"I'm afraid I'll run a girl over for no reason," she says. "I went to this basketball camp in Pensacola and played a little scrimmage and when I cut to the basket and got a pass, I tucked it in like a football. I didn't charge her because she was moving, but I ran her over and I was like 'Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry,' but I didn't even think about it because I was practicing football all spring."

South Plantation seems to be enjoying the national attention foisted upon their school. For Erin, though, it is still all a little hard to grasp.

"It's great if I'm bringing positive attention," she says. "I just never intended to have this happen. I just wanted to play football. I just like playing and being part of a team."

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