In recent years, women have slowly been making their mark in the world of collegiate and professional football as coaches, trainers, officials and players — with some making a name for themselves just in the last 365 days.
In February 2020, San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant Katie Sowers became the first female coach on the sidelines of a Super Bowl. Last November, Vanderbilt University student Sarah Fuller became the first woman to play in a Power Five matchup as a kicker during a collegiate football game. In January, Jennifer King was the first African-American woman to be named an assistant coach in the NFL following her promotion with the Washington Football Team.
And, in early February, three women made football history. Sarah Thomas, a six-season NFL referee who became the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl and Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant coaches Maral Javadifar and Lori Locust became the first female coaches to win a Super Bowl title.
But two decades ago on a grassy field in Riverside, 13-year-old Laura Enriquez was ahead of her time trailblazing a path for females in football — both as the first female player with the St. Mary’s Demons football team and first girl in the area’s youth football league.
Twenty years later, Enriquez has published her first novel, “Demons,” a sports fiction book based on her story as the lone girl player on a suburban youth football team.
A self-described tomboy, Enriquez was no stranger to football prior to trying out for the all-boys team.
On the days when she wasn’t playing two-hand touch football in the village’s parks, she was watching football at home with her family — particularly with her mother, a die-hard Chicago Bears fan who made sure the family never missed watching a game.
One day, Enriquez’s friend suggested she try out for St. Mary’s football program. Fortunately for Enriquez, it didn’t take much to convince her parents to go for it.
“Initially, I [tried out] because I just loved the sport,” she said. “It was something new for me to explore and learn the more technical aspects and unique intricacies. I also loved the physical challenges that came along with playing football.”
But for Enriquez, the first sign of obstacles as a girl in the world of football showed up on signup day for tryouts.
At first, she says, Demons head coach Frank Volpe (who ended up becoming one of her fiercest supporters) pointed her in the direction of the cheerleading table, not realizing she actually showed up to play football.
However, making the cut ended up being the easy part.
While she loved the physical challenges of football, what Enriquez wasn’t as prepared for were the emotional challenges that would come with being the only girl on an all-boys football team, including skepticism from some teammates and parents.
“In my mind, I was just playing a game, where others looked at it as ‘a girl playing the game,’” she said. “It, therefore, became a bigger deal than I thought it would be.”
Luckily for Enriquez, in due time, her skills and hard work during that first season were enough to prove herself to her coaches. She credits the combination of her grit, competitive nature and the naysayers with motivating her to persevere through the challenges that came with being a female football player.
“When you are the first female to play in a male-dominated sport, there’s added pressure to not just do well, but do better than anyone else,” she said. “You can make 99 good plays and one poor one, and the haters will only remember that bad one. So, I knew I had to give it 100 percent all the time in order to prove to others who doubted me that not just I could do it, but I could open the door for other girls who were interested in playing football, too.’
During the season, she played both offense and defense, led the team with the most tackles, was chosen to lead as team captain and guided the team to a 9-1 conference record and championship.
After playing for the Demons widget football team that first season, she came back for a second season in 2002. Unfortunately, three weeks in, she broke her wrist during a tackling drill and was sidelined for the season. But, Enriquez continued to show up for every practice and game to support her team from the sidelines.
The following season, she returned as a line coach for the pee-wee division, coaching the team for four years.
Following her graduation from St. Mary School, Enriquez attended Fenwick High School, where she shifted her athletic focus to softball. But she never forgot both the athletic and life lessons she learned from those years of involvement with football.
Now, in both her career as a teacher and an assistant girls varsity softball coach at Nazareth Academy, Enriquez has taken those lessons learned as a teenager and used them as teaching tools to demonstrate the importance of perseverance and not letting doubters get in the way of following your passion.
In addition, she decided to write “Demons” not only to show the conflicts females often endure in male-dominated sports, but also inspire young women and men to accomplish goals they thought were unthinkable.
“I knew that this story needed to be told to a wider audience, especially in today’s time,” she said. “In today’s society, we need more empathy and in order to get there, we need to educate others about various experiences so, even if they do not have these experiences themselves, they can have a better understanding of what others have gone through.”
Currently, “Demons” is trending at No. 1 as a new release for children’s sports fiction on Amazon.
Now back living in her hometown, Enriquez also hopes to be able to share her message, and book, with local audiences through public speaking engagements, especially in schools and with sports programs.