Hitting Her Goals
Writer Amanda Christmann Larson
As players hustle into position, sweat drips beneath facemasks down young faces, their brows furrowed in intense concentration. Ready for scrimmage, the quarterback calls out and the center snaps the ball. Tackles, ends and guards clash as the quarterback focuses on his wide receiver. He pauses for a moment, suspended in time as his line is held. He cocks his arm and delivers the ball to its target, and Number 84 frames the toss. The ball is caught and tucked, precious cargo for the receiver, who darts and dodges down the field, a blond ponytail swinging rebelliously from below a sleek black helmet.
As the wide receiver crosses into the end zone, the crowd cheers – partly because of the score, and partly because that blond ponytail belongs to a player who the coaches, parents and the rest of the team have come to respect.
Anna Henshaw, 12, isn’t afraid to gear up with the boys, and she doesn’t cry when she gets knocked down. She plays wide receiver and defensive end, and she’s earned her spot on the AYF Junior Jags’ lineup. Anna started playing at seven years old after watching the Giants vs. Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl.
“I saw the game and I wanted to play,” said the Giants fan, matter-of-factly.
Dad Gary Henshaw was hesitant to let his daughter take the field at first. “She wanted to play tackle in the beginning, and I said, ‘Why don’t you try flag football first?’” Anna was up for the challenge, and Gary and Anna’s mom, Michele Celentano, took her to sign up.
At seven years old, many of the boys didn’t think it was unusual for a girl to be on the team. Parents and coaches, however, sometimes did double-takes.
Once she’d laced up her cleats, Anna stood out on the field for reasons other than her gender, taking some people by surprise. “I think the dads were more surprised than anyone,” said Gary. “Girls aren’t supposed to play football. They were all supportive though, especially once they saw she had skills.”
Anna played flag football for three years, and then once again asked her parents if she could put on pads and play tackle. She’d proven her mettle, so they conceded. Gary took her to sign up for Wolfpack football in 2011. “They called me after sign-ups because they thought I checked the wrong box on the form,” Michele said with a grin. “They thought I meant to sign her up for cheerleading.”
Once again, Anna proved she could not only keep up, but she could be competitive. She won the local and regional rounds of the NFL’s Punt, Pass & Kick competition. The final round, held on the field at the Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium, was fierce. Anna came in second by just inches on her kick.
She’s also held her own on the field. As a member of the AYF Junior Jaguars, she’s “one of the boys” when she takes her position – with one exception: “I can always tell where she is by her ponytail,” said Michele. Other than that, there is little that separates this tough athlete from her teammates.
Her coaches have taken their own liking to the spunky little player. While they call the boys by their last names, Number 84 is simply “Anna.” Michele wondered why her daughter was singled out in such a way. “I asked her coaches why, and they told me, ‘Because we want the other team to know that’s our girl out there!’” said the proud mom, beaming from ear-to-ear.
“It takes a lot of courage for her to walk out there on the field as the only girl on the team,” said Michele.
“I’m more proud of her for never once crying,” Gary added.
Michele agreed. “She’s never once broken down on the sidelines. She’s maybe gotten tears in her eyes when she’s taken a hard hit, but she’s never cried.”
As for injuries, Michele, a competitive runner, and Gary, a hockey player, considered the risks. “I’ve seen Anna get more bumps and bruises playing basketball, or even softball,” Michele said.
Gary continued, “I think at this age, it’s weight-classed so we’re not really worried about her getting creamed by a 200-pound linebacker.”
Of course, that may change in high school competition. Anna will have to field that pass when she gets there, and she does have back-up plans in mind. “In softball, I played first base this year and short stop last season. In basketball, I’m point guard,” she said. The honor roll student also enjoys math and wants to be an engineer when she grows up.
But for now, she likes the gridiron. “I’m cool with it,” she said. So are her friends. “Three of my friends play volleyball. I play football, and they’re cool.”
Recently, Anna’s video story garnered 540 votes on the NFL’s “Together We Make Football” contest. Both the video and the written version, which received 320 votes, were submitted by Michele, who wanted to share Anna’s story and inspire other girls to follow their own dreams. If Anna is a finalist for the competition, and the top prizes are all-inclusive tickets to this season’s Super Bowl XLVIII.
Even without the judges’ nod, Anna’s already a winner in the eyes of her teammates and the supportive Anthem football community, and she has already paved the way for other girls to join the league.
“This is what she’s passionate about,” said Michele. “It’s what she wants to do, and she’s good at it. Even if she goes out there and gets hurt and decides she doesn’t want to do it anymore, we’ve got to let her try. We’ve got to let her go after her goals, whatever they are.”