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Just One of the Boys

Sara Rathbun wasn't looking to blaze any trails. But when the La Canada High School football coach asked the athlete to join his team, she thought it might be fun.


"Gentlemen," the head coach says. Spaghetti-twirled forks freeze. Sixty high school football players snap to attention.

On game days like this one, the varsity players wear ties and shirts with collars under their gold jerseys. That morning, defensive back Sara Rathbun put on her father's $16 tie and had him knot it for her. She's wearing his black Levi's, her No. 35 jersey and a tucked-in white Oxford shirt. Coach Rich Wheeler hates it when his players walk around with shirttails out. This team will not look sloppy.

Tonight, we'll see what La Canada High School is made of. See if it can play with the Big Boys. In five hours, Wheeler will put on his lucky game cleats, and La Canada will take part in what amounts to a league championship showdown. La Canada hasn't been this close in a dozen years. Now the Spartans face a homecoming crowd at Monrovia High School, No. 1 in the division with a star tailback. ("Every Division I school after him . . . gained 463 yards in one game. . . .")

"You have a chance to do something that hasn't been done here in 12 years," says Wheeler, 49. His tone is conversational. "Let's get serious about it. Let's take a moment."

This is Wheeler's second season at La Canada, after 24 years of coaching in the Midwest. In 1997, he led the Spartans to their first winning season in years. Of course, he wants to win. But not with a bunch of thugs. This team will have guts and grace.

Sara, a 17-year-old senior, stands up with the team and bows her head. As a reserve, she knows she might not play in tonight's nail-biter between the league's two undefeated teams. But she's not here to rack up game stats.

Sara is no Billie Jean King. She is a post-feminist athlete--not a crusader, not a groundbreaker, but a competitor in a sport charged with testosterone. She's a longtime soccer player and varsity track-and-field athlete, but nothing pushes her, enthralls her, like football. Nothing else makes her feel like she's a part of something colossal.

La Canada football is not 95 boys and one girl, with a freshman, junior varsity and varsity squad. La Canada football is 96 players. Anybody who survives the seven-hours-a-day summer practices is in.

Sara--5 feet 8, 138 pounds--dragged herself through Hell Week like everyone else. In 112-degree heat, she ran until she dry-heaved alongside the boys by the chain-link fence. She lifted weights until her arms shook so much that she couldn't drive home. She charged until guys twice her weight crashed into her and she saw black blotches and stars. If she messed up, the defensive coordinator shook a finger in her face and screamed, and she took it like a football player.

Why shouldn't she be part of this team?

The players look up at the sound of Wheeler's voice.

"Any questions?" he asks.

"No, sir!" the team chants.

The players turn to leave, but Wheeler isn't finished. He points to a few plastic foam cups left on a table and puts a boom in his voice that could stop a bear.

"This is unacceptable," he yells. "Un-acceptable."

She Wanted Fun and Camaraderie

The Spartans know what the other teams say about them: Buncha rich kids. Brains. Not a football school. Still, football is like no other sport at this small school, with 1,345 students and the stunning backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains. Football defines school spirit, brings people together in a way that Sara never dreamed.

Oh, boy, game time is cool: You jog out of the locker room and, for luck, slap the Spartan mascot above the door so hard that the plaster crumbles. You trot alongside guys dubbed Opie and Cheeseburger through the cheerleaders' outstretched banner (it usually says something like,"Go, Boys!"). The team packs in tight at the goal post for Spartan jacks: "S!" jump-jump, "P!" jump-jump. . . . Under the stadium lights, you roar with the cheerleaders, the band, the crowd--like everyone is in one big noise bubble.

"That's what I wanted," Sara says, "and that's what I didn't quite get [in girls' sports]. . . . There was, like, something missing. Now that I've got football, it's like everything combined. I saw them on TV, the pro guys, hugging each other in their big shoulder pads, and that's what I got. I almost thought that I wasn't going to get it, being the outsider and the girl and everything."

High school girls have been eligible to play football since 1972, when Title IX gave them equal opportunities in sports. Nationwide, Sara is among 779 female players, according to the National Federation of State High School Assns.

In this area's CIF-Southern Section, which covers 507 high schools, about 20 girls play varsity football. Most are kickers or receivers, says Bill Clark, the section's assistant commissioner. They kick field goals or run and catch but don't tackle or block. In 19 years in the section, Clark doesn't remember another girl playing defense. (Sara decided to play defense because she knew the defensive coordinator, who had coached her in track.)

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