MOSSES, Ala. — The Central High School linebacker runs around with speed and spouts smack talk to teammates with zest, happily enjoying a practice session as much as anyone should.
When blocked, an offensive lineman chides the sophomore with the banter that is all too normal between friends.
But there’s one thing that makes the exchange a stark departure from what you may expect. This varsity defender, the one who decided to play only in early August, who has since moved into the starting lineup and who averages about six tackles a game, has one quality the rest of the Lions do not.
She is a she.
“I thought it would be way harder,” Swanique Gordon says of the sport, which she had dreamed of playing since she was small. “That first game, I admit I was scared.
“Someone gave me a little love tap and pushed me down, but I thought, ‘That wasn’t that hard.’ After that, I was fine.”
Gordon grew up in Lowndes County and had played tackle football in the backyard with friends since she was little. Those were “no-mercy” games that allowed no quarter based on gender.
She and her mother moved to Texas last year but returned this summer and, at Central’s first day of classes, she learned the Lions were seeking players.
Her best friend, freshman Roosevelt Simpson, had decided to play, so Gordon decided to play, too.
“When she first said something to me about it, I said ‘no,'” Simpson said. “She’s a girl. Girls are not made for football.”
Oh, but Gordon has since converted the Lions.
First, she did well enough that Central coach Martez Graham made her a starter. Second, she didn’t back down when the Lions teased her. Third, though many may not have realized Gordon was a girl, she hasn’t backed down from other teams, either.
“That first day, I thought she was just joking,” junior running back/linebacker Malik Hill said. “When she became a starter, I knew she wasn’t.”
Graham said he didn’t think about Gordon’s gender when deciding she should start. Simply, she deserved the role, despite any history her gender may entail.
“She knows a lot about football, has a high football IQ, and she cares,” Graham said. “It means something to her.”
There haven’t been any issues on the field.
Most other teams, the Lions said, haven’t noticed that one of Central’s inside linebackers is female.
“They don’t notice,” senior tight end/defensive end Diamonta Johnson said. “If they do, they’re as shocked as we were.”
Graham said he always tells the officiating crew about Gordon, just in case something arises, but nothing has. One crew complimented Gordon to Graham late in a game.
“They gave her props,” Graham said. “They said, ‘Tell her to keep doing what she’s doing.'”
There haven’t been any issues in the locker room, either.
Generally, Gordon shows up at the football complex already dressed. She just needs to put on her shoulder pads and helmet, a process that anyone can do in public.
If not, she’ll wait outside while her teammates dress. Then, they wait outside for her.
“She is great,” said sophomore Triffivca Williams, a member of Central’s flag line. “She’s the first girl to ever play football at Central, and she’s good at what she does.
“When she told me she wanted to play, I said she should do it. All those boys out there, and she’s out there, too.”
Gordon admittedly had to work around a massive obstacle to her football dream.
Her mom was “absolutely” against the idea, she said.
Johmenia Rudolph was adamant that “you’re not going to play and you’re not going to try out. Period,” Gordon said.
“She asked, ‘Are there any other girls?’ I didn’t answer,” Gordon said.
So, Gordon did what many teenagers do when faced with such a conundrum. She went without permission.
Two months later, Gordon’s grades are high enough that Rudolph has allowed the football to continue. The rest of the family has warmed to it, too.
Great grandfather Jerome Muall asks Gordon every week how many tackles she had. Grandmother Linda Muall is just as excited.
Gordon is even able to easily tell when Rudolph has made it to a game after getting off work.
“I’ve told her, ‘You didn’t want me playing football, but you’re cheering louder than all the parents,'” Gordon said.
There have been highlights. She made 10 tackles against Calhoun, including a sack that still brings a smile to Gordon’s face.
“Oh, they didn’t like that,” Gordon said.
There have been lowlights. Covering a kickoff against New Brockton, Gordon was sizing up the returner that was heading her way. She never saw the blocker.
“I got blindsided,” she said. “Now that hurt.”
But there’s one lesson that Gordon hopes the rest of her school has learned — and the rest of her gender, too.
It’s something that she’ll take into basketball season and even her favorite sport, softball, where her goal is 25 home runs. It’s even something she takes into the classroom.
“I can do it just as good as anybody else,” Gordon said. “You can’t tell me ‘no.’ Take ‘no’ and throw it away.
“I hate ‘no.'”
Because of Gordon, next year’s football tryouts at Central-Hayneville are expected to be crowded.
“Now,” Graham said, “all the girls say they want to play.”