Ella Wood, the lone girl on the Sequoyah School flag football team, plays… ( Michael E. Stern / buildabetterphotograph.com )
All Ella wants is to play a little football, an American birthright if you're a boy but still a bit of a privilege if you're not.
She just turned 13, a good age for almost anything, but especially for running around in the fresh air of fall, trying to snatch the flag off an opposing player's hip. Given their druthers, how many kids today would just as soon spend all afternoon with a video game, as their waists grow prematurely thick?
Not Ella Wood. Ella would rather play a cover 2 than a PlayStation 3.
This past fall, she played for the Sequoyah School in Pasadena, a private, progressive little place that's been around for more than 50 years. Not exactly a football factory, Sequoyah. Better known as a place where children, K-8, develop a strong sense of self.
"It's kind of a hippie school," Ella says with a smile.
So, when Sequoyah's players showed up for Foothill Sports League games, with their ragtag uniforms and a girl at linebacker, the other junior high teams didn't exactly tremble with fear.
Then the games began and Sequoyah, perhaps buoyed by its free-thinking nature, more likely buoyed by some pretty good talent, trounced the competition.
Before the season was over, Sequoyah would go 8-0. No wait, make that 0-8. Because even though Sequoyah outscored all of its opponents, it was forced to forfeit every game.
The reason? Ella.
"We got a call from the school saying Ella can't play because girls aren't allowed to play," says her father, Luke.
"I told Ella and she was devastated," her mother, Sophia, recalls. "It was a bad weekend."
The back story reads like this: As the season began, the league voted against allowing a girl to play. If Ella played, it would mean a forfeit, even though the games could still take place. And Sequoyah would be banned from postseason play.
Ella's teammates didn't blink.
"All the boys felt the same way, that if she didn't play, we wouldn't play," recalls parent-coach Anthony Orona.
Last fall, when Ella told her story at a school assembly, her fellow students gave her a standing ovation.
"I just went up and told them what happened and I told about how we had to forfeit," she explains.
By all accounts, Ella is a scrappy, talented athlete, with good hand-eye coordination. Not stunningly quick, but successful enough to be the only girl to make the all-star basketball team in her coed rec league.
"This was a really good team," recalls Orona of last fall's roster. "There were 11 players and Ella was not No. 11."
So when football season began, there was no doubt. Ella belonged, even though having her on the roster meant a forfeit every time.
"All the parents and teammates were super supportive," her father says proudly.
Ella's shining moment came in a rainy game against the eventual league champ. Ella tipped and intercepted a pass; after the turnover, she caught a touchdown pass that secured the victory.
The team's plight became a bit of a rallying point, her coach says.
"There was never blame on Ella," Orona says. "There was resentment against the league over not being able to continue in the playoffs. When you're winning, you just want to keep going."
Today, Ella's football career stands at a crossroads. The school has decided to form a girls' team for spring, but only two have signed up. Those close to the program fear there won't be enough players.
That would leave Ella at the mercy of the Foothill Sports League again. Sequoyah's first year was probationary, and the league must now vote on whether the team can come back. Ella's potential presence heightens the stakes.
You'd think we'd gone beyond this kind of stuff by now. In high school, girls wrestle against boys; they play on tackle teams. At the Super Bowl, a 9-year-old girl — a tackle football sensation from Utah — sat with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Still, 40 years after Title IX, double standards persist.
"Men still seem very uncomfortable with girls playing football," Ella's father notes.
The league says that there will be no changes.
"The league has decided to stay with the status quo, as we offer all genders the opportunity to play basketball, volleyball and flag football," said Jorge Avila, president of the league.
Best case, it's fear of a kid getting hurt. Worst case, it's a remnant of good-old-boy sexism.
Ella doesn't care.
All she wants to do is play a little football.