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Sports Saturday

Lesson at Payton College Prep: A girl on the gridiron is no longer a novelty when there are two

Isa Katz and Andrea Reyes are out to show that girls can play football.

Andrea Reyez (13) and kicker Isa Katz (2)
Defensive back Andrea Reyez (13) and kicker Isa Katz (2) are breaking norms as teammates on an otherwise-male football team.
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Isa Katz contemplated one question when she was considering going out for the Walter Payton College Prep football team: “Would I think twice about playing if I were a boy?”

The answer was a resolute no. So she showed up to the team’s first meeting of the year, held over Zoom. There, she was surprised to see another young woman.

Andrea Reyes, like Katz, had grown up playing football for fun, starting unofficially in middle school with her friends at recess. It wasn’t organized — they’d just throw the ball around. But Reyes loved it. She began playing flag football in eighth grade as one of two girls on the team. Her coach encouraged her to keep playing once she got to high school.

“But there’s no team,” she recalled telling him. She meant no girls team.

By the start of her sophomore year, she decided to give tackle football a shot. She had no idea Katz was going out for the team, too. When she logged on to the Zoom call and saw her, a sense of relief washed over her. Immediately after the meeting, they messaged each other on Instagram.

Football is a no-cut sport at Payton College Prep, but that in no way means the team isn’t competitive. This season, the Grizzlies are 5-2, and coach Craig Knoche isn’t in the business of participation trophies. The best players are going to play.

Reyes is a defensive back but usually gets her game minutes with special teams. Katz is the starting kicker, a role she was promoted to in Week 5.

“There are a lot of stereotypes that get in the way of girls playing football,” Reyes said.

Stereotypes such as football being a sport for men. Football being too rough for women. Coed teams having no chance of being successful.

Reyes and Katz are helping to close the book on those ideas. In Payton College Prep’s last game against Back of the Yards, Katz went 7-for-7 on PATs. She’s now 11-for-11 on the year and 1-for-2 on field-goal attempts.

Reyes remembers the exact moment she felt welcomed as a member of the team. She was running out to the field for practice when one of her male teammates, without saying a word, tapped her helmet a couple of times — a symbol of camaraderie and friendship.

There’s less encouragement when it comes to opponents. The Grizzlies have faced seven teams this season, but Katz and Reyes haven’t seen another girl on the field.

“I remember one time I was walking out of the locker room and the other team yelled, ‘Is that a female on the team?’ ” Katz said. “They all laughed. But we won that game, and I proved them wrong.”

Neither Katz nor Reyes deliberately set out to do something against the grain. Both are multisport athletes, and football was just another sport that intrigued them. Now, Reyes is stopped at school a lot by peers who want to know more about her experience. Most of the time these are other young women questioning whether they should or could go out for football.

“A lot of my classmates have said they’ve always wanted to play, but they just didn’t have the courage,” Reyes said. “I always say, ‘Don’t let other people’s opinions get in your head. It’s definitely possible.’ ”