May 28, 2024

WINCHESTER, Va. — More than a decade after her three-year run as a Washington Commanders cheerleader was over, Heidi Van Voorhis never lost interest in the team. A mother of two working in marketing, she’d take her young family to Jack Kent Cooke Stadium whenever possible. At home in their small Virginia town west of Washington, she’d find the time to watch the team’s games on TV.

She can close her eyes and still picture her daughter, a toddler, sitting on the floor and studying the sport on screen, growing more and more enamored by what she saw. Haley was always quiet, but one day she turned to her mom with a pointed question: “Why aren’t there any girls on the field?”

Heidi was at a loss.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

Heidi could have said that girls weren’t allowed, and it might have changed everything. But she didn’t, leaving open a path that would culminate in her daughter becoming a pioneer in the sport. On Saturday, Haley, a junior safety at Division III Shenandoah University, appeared in her first game, becoming the first woman in NCAA history to compete at a non-kicking position. She was in for one play, helping to force a three-and-out by getting pressure on the Juniata quarterback. The following day, Shenandoah coach Scott Yoder said he hoped her role would increase: “Yesterday was certainly a huge moment in her path, but her path keeps going.”

As a child, Van Voorhis was more surprised by the lack of girls playing football than discouraged by it. Looking back, Heidi said, “I guess she didn’t take it as if there couldn’t be any.”

There were other signs, like how one Christmas, Heidi’s parents gave Haley and her brother, Claiborne, a set of Washington uniforms — a football player’s and a cheerleader’s. They ended up giving away the skirt and pompoms.

“It still had the tag on it and never got worn,” Heidi recalled. “She absconded her brother’s football uniform very early on and wore it for years.”

Chandler, Haley’s father, remembers going to Washington games when Haley was a child and how she’d tell the family, “One day I’m going to be on the field as a player.”

“That’s always been in her,” he said. “I think part of this is just kind of who she is.”

It was always so matter-of-fact, the way Haley moved from flag football in elementary school to tackle football in the sixth grade. She became the first girl to play football at her high school, Christchurch. And when the boys hit their growth spurts, she responded by spending countless hours in the gym to get bigger and stronger. She knew that to have a chance to play in college she had to get faster, so her family hired a trainer to improve her speed. She earned all-state honorable mention as a junior in 2019 before seeing her senior season canceled due to COVID-19.

She wasn’t bothered when some boys refused to tackle her. Other parents would whisper about the little blonde girl playing such a violent game, but Heidi and Chandler didn’t pay them any mind. They didn’t buy into the notion that women were more fragile than men. Besides, they had neighbors who let their kids ride horses and every once in a while they read about someone who fell off and died; that seemed scarier than football to them.

All they wanted was for their children to find something they were passionate about — to find their dream and follow it. To see her put in the work to make that happen and earn a spot on a college team, Chandler said, “It’s the best feeling in the world.”

“Even the days I didn’t want to [train], I was like, ‘But if I don’t, I’m not going to get anywhere,'” Haley said. “Being the first made me do extra because I wanted it more than anything.”

BYRON MITCHELL WAS in charge of the shuttle station at a recruiting camp on a cold December day in 2020. The assistant coach from Shenandoah watched kids rotate in, darting back and forth, back and forth, between the orange cones.

There were about 150 prospects trying to capture the attention of coaches from Division II and Division III colleges. But only one player caught Mitchell’s eye.

“I don’t think it was her being a female,” Mitchell said of Van Voorhis, who played receiver and defensive back. “That’s what stuck out, her appearance.”

As in, how muscular she was.

If only Mitchell knew what it took to become the 145-pound ball of muscle he saw. Van Voorhis’ parents had watched in awe as their daughter turned into a workout warrior in high school. Then, when COVID-19 canceled her senior season, she became even more obsessed, training around the clock at home. She worked with weights and resistance bands in the garage, ran sprints in the driveway, did ladder drills in the backyard. She spent hours researching different diets online and how to add weight, lamenting that most were geared toward the physiology of men rather than women.

She signed up for a speed-training class, and when the neighborhood gyms opened back up, she seemingly spent every waking hour there. Chandler pointed to the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” as Haley’s inspiration, specifically the moment when a young Jordan is getting beaten up by the more physical Detroit Pistons and the decision he made to transform his body and take his game to the next level.

“That made an impression on her,” Chandler said. “If you had a camera in our house during that lockdown, you would have thought this was Gold’s Gym for 6-7 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Mitchell thought Van Voorhis had adequate speed but superb technique. “Almost picture perfect,” he said. While most players would finish the shuttle drill by pulling up the split second it was over, Van Voorhis would run through the line, which meant something to him.

During a break, a coach from Wagner sidled up to Mitchell. “You won’t believe who caught the ball better than anyone,” he said.

Mitchell knew. When the camp was over, he found Van Voorhis and handed her a business card.

And that might have been the end of it had Mitchell not felt compelled to ask a simple question: “What’s your goal?”

“It was her response that really triggered all this,” he said. “She said, ‘Coach, I just want to play Division III football.'”

Mitchell said most players he recruits don’t picture themselves in Division III. Some are modest enough to shoot for Division II, but most imagine themselves in the FBS, formerly known as Division I. When Mitchell tells someone he has a spot for them at Shenandoah, they usually hold out for a scholarship offer elsewhere.

“That just told me that she’s confident in herself, but she’s very, very humble,” he said. “She knows where she is and she knew where she fit in. And I thought the world of that.”

As Mitchell got ready to make the two-hour drive home, he stopped and looked Van Voorhis up on Twitter. He found her highlights and was impressed. If she wasn’t a girl, he thought, everyone would be recruiting her. He said he arrived at a conclusion: “Haley deserves to play college football.”

Mitchell wasn’t looking to make history when he followed up and invited her to campus. For a while, he kept his interest in recruiting Van Voorhis to himself.

But one day, he pulled aside defensive coordinator Brock McCullough to tell him about Van Voorhis. McCullough had been Mitchell’s position coach at Shenandoah and was about to begin his 18th season with the university.

“Why don’t you recruit her?” McCullough asked matter-of-factly. “I mean, are you not going to recruit her?”

Mitchell looked at him, surprised.

“Yeah,” he said, expecting an argument and instead getting a green light. “I am.”

McCullough nodded.

“I don’t see why not,” he said before moving on with his day.

A few weeks later, Mitchell stood in the doorway of head coach Scott Yoder’s office and explained what was happening — how Van Voorhis and her parents were on their way for a visit, and to be prepared.

Mitchell left and Yoder pulled up Van Voorhis’ highlights, agreeing with Mitchell’s assessment. He liked how she got up to top speed quickly.

The only question Yoder had was, “Why?” He wanted to know why football was important to her and whether she and her family were in it for the right reasons.

“They’re legit,” he said. “This is not some type of attention grab, because at the end of the day all I want to do is coach college football. I don’t want the circus, I don’t want the distractions, because at the end of the day we’ve got a team. There’s 115 kids on the team.”

Once Van Voorhis committed, the only thing Yoder had to figure out was logistics — what accommodations would need to be made to ensure her privacy. Yoder’s first thought was to find a room at the stadium for her to dress in, but Van Voorhis didn’t want to be removed from the team, which dressed at the football facility a half-mile walk from the field.

Symbolically, Yoder thought, that said a lot about Van Voorhis. Because the locker room was where connections were made. And it’s where, when it’s game time, the players gather to walk to the stadium — as a single unit, as a team.

Van Voorhis didn’t want to miss any of that. So she changed in a training room one floor up from the locker room; that way she could be nearby when it was time for the coaches to address the team and for everyone to leave for practice and games.

It’s all she has ever wanted — to play the game she loved, to compete and to be a part of something bigger than herself.

The media attention that comes with that isn’t what she said she’s after. If anything, she’s uncomfortable in the spotlight. Shy around strangers, she turned down a number of opportunities to share her story, even though in the age of name, image and likeness, she could have monetized her journey.

A blend of quiet and confident — “determined” is the word Yoder uses — Van Voorhis said she’s a doer and not a talker.

“I like proving it,” she said. “It’s really cool being the first, but there’s something inside of me saying that I haven’t done anything here yet.”

If she wanted to take the easy route, Shenandoah was not it.

If all Yoder and the school wanted was to make history, they would have done it two years ago.

Van Voorhis needed time to get healthy and develop as a football player. Which is why she said she was so confident coming into this season. She felt herself improving and getting stronger between her sophomore and junior years. “Great things happen when you work hard,” she said matter-of-factly.

“At the core of this thing is a young person chasing their dream and earning an opportunity and taking advantage of an opportunity that they earned,” Yoder said. “If you asked anybody on our team, they might not use the same words, but they’re going to tell you she’s a great teammate. She does everything that’s asked of her — she’s in the weight room, she’s at practice, she’s working hard, she’s getting better.”

TRAMMEL ANTHONY, a former Shenandoah defensive back, remembers getting a text during the summer of 2021 about a girl joining their team. His response: “Bro, what position does she play?”

He was relieved when he found out she’d be playing safety rather than receiver, believing defense was the safer and more palatable option.

“Nobody is going to want to see a woman get hit over and over again,” he said.

He wound up following Van Voorhis on Twitter and watched some of her highlights that day. Then he sent her a direct message, welcoming her to Shenandoah. He thought the whole thing was “pretty cool.”

While Anthony admits that some of his teammates were in a sort of “wait-and-see mode” about Van Voorhis at first, their attitude changed quickly once summer conditioning began. The most grueling test was the 110-yard sprints — 16 sets with only 45 seconds of rest in between.

As a freshman, Anthony remembers struggling to keep up.

“If you’re out of shape,” he said, “it’s brutal.”

Van Voorhis made it on her first try. Competing among the skill players, who have the most difficult target time to reach, she was one of only a few freshmen to make her time on all 16 sprints.

Anthony was impressed.

“She went from the top half to the top third to the top quarter,” he recalled. “And her pace never changed.”

Yoder looked on.

“You knew she took it seriously,” he said. “That’s my moment when we came off the field like, ‘She’s prepared.'”

Not that it was always easy for Van Voorhis. She said she was nervous in the beginning. She’d been on campus only a few days and was thrown in the deep end — trying to learn the playbook while going against players 3-4 years older than her.

And like any freshman, she got burned. During one practice, two receivers were set to one side of the field — one ran an underneath route, one ran a post. Van Voorhis bit on the underneath route and watched helplessly as the ball sailed over her head for a would-be touchdown.

McCullough pulled her aside, reminding her to let the linebackers clean up the short passes. It was her job to guard the deep part of the field.

Two plays later, the offense ran the same play, Van Voorhis stayed deep and took away the post.

A few days later, on a similar play, Van Voorhis backpedaled, jumped up and high-pointed a pass, snatching it from the receiver. She landed hard on her back, securing one of the first interceptions of camp.

Mentally, McCullough said, “She’s elite.” She may be only 145 pounds, but he said that pound for pound, she’s among the strongest players on the team.

And she’s tough. McCullough noticed how she played through what he thought was a broken wrist as a freshman and never said a word to anyone about it.

“She just feels like one of the guys on the team,” Anthony said. “Like it’s nothing, no one special, just like she’s one of us.”

That’s all Van Voorhis could ask for. While her teammates acknowledge that she is a woman, she said, they never dwell on it. She credited their positive energy and the culture of the program for snuffing out any potential awkwardness.

“We fit perfectly,” she said.

Watching from the sidelines that first year, she said she learned about pulling through difficult situations and how the game takes more mental toughness than physical — “more than you would think.”

As a freshman, she was confident her time was coming. She just didn’t know when.

“Maybe not yet this year,” she said at the time, “but later if I keep working at it, getting more reps.”

TWO YEARS LATER, Van Voorhis came running off the sidelines and into the game for the first time.

Against Juniata on Saturday, with Shenandoah leading 21-0 in the first quarter, coaches called for No. 10 to go in. Van Voorhis popped in her mouthguard, lined up near the line of scrimmage and sprinted off the edge, making a beeline for the quarterback, who hurriedly threw an incompletion before getting wrapped up and tackled to the turf by Van Voorhis.

The public address announcer called out Van Voorhis’ quarterback hurry and the crowd lit up in applause. Van Voorhis hustled back to the sideline, where senior safety Quante Redd waited to congratulate her, along with a handful of other teammates on defense. David Agyei, who helps coach linebackers, walked over and gave her a high-five. She didn’t play the rest of the game.

It didn’t hit Yoder right away what had taken place. He was too preoccupied with the flow of the game, which was affected by a storm passing through the area.

“I knew she was in,” he said, “but it didn’t really register with me until after everything happened and the energy from the crowd and our players’ reaction on the sideline. I was just like, ‘Wow, that just happened.'”

It didn’t register to Van Voorhis at first, either, because at the end of the day she said she was doing something natural: playing the game she loved since she was a child. But then it dawned on her what she’d done.

“Not just for my team but for the whole community of people behind me,” she said. “Nobody’s ever done this before, so it’s just cool to be able to do something so big that can impact so many people after you, and just make history.”

After the game, Van Voorhis found her parents outside the stadium. Dad gave her a big bear hug. Mom clenched her jaw and fought back tears. “So proud,” she said.

“You don’t have to cry,” Van Voorhis replied. “It’s not that emotional.”

Mom wasn’t having that.

“It’s a big deal,” she said. “It’s a long road.”

Van Voorhis and her parents knew two years ago that it might take time to get here. What they couldn’t know was how difficult her freshman season would be: how she’d contract COVID and miss 10 days; how she’d be sick on and off for weeks after that; how she’d find out that the wrist pain she was playing through was actually a torn ligament that required surgery. Recovery took months, knocking her out of spring practice. And by the time she was cleared, she’d lost so much muscle that it felt like she was starting from scratch in the weight room.

Truth be told, Van Voorhis said, she felt cursed.

“It’s a lot,” she explained, “because coming in, just being the only female, it’s probably enough adversity.”

In the grand scheme of things, she acknowledged that injuries are normal.

“But it’s just stress added on when you don’t need it,” she said. “And that’s the situation: Everyone’s waiting for you to quit or give up.”

It wasn’t something anyone specifically said or did that made her feel that way. Van Voorhis reiterated that her coaches and teammates have been great. Shenandoah, she said, is home.

But even though she stays away from social media — she has a grand total of four Instagram posts — she knows there’s negativity lurking online. She saw what Sarah Fuller went through at Vanderbilt, becoming the first woman to score a point at the Power 5 level as a place-kicker in 2020, and the white-hot microscope she was under.

Asked what advice she’d give to little girls who want to do what she has done, Van Voorhis said they should not expect it to be easy.

“You can’t even expect it to generally be hard,” she said. “It’s going to be hard-hard. Like extremely hard, mentally, because everyone can be physically prepared for something. But when you go into something and you’re not the same as anyone else, it adds pressure. You’re noticed everywhere you go. There’s a lot of pressure to not only live up to your own standards but the ones around you. From my experience, you have to have a new level of mental toughness to be able to go through that pressure and play football.

“Because you can’t take plays off. And, honestly, you can’t mess up. In my opinion, it’s like you can’t let the girl mess up one play because then everyone knows. But if a guy messes up, mistakes happen, it’s fine.”

Van Voorhis said there’s nothing wrong with shooting for perfection. It’s just a lot to deal with.

“My best advice is, just don’t hold back anything, make the most of the opportunity,” she said.

McCullough called Van Voorhis a “pioneer.” He said he has a teenage daughter who is interested in football and inspired by Van Voorhis’ journey.

“It’s really neat to see,” he said. “You know it’s coming. In 10-15 years from now things will be a lot different.”

Case in point: In the past year, Yoder has had two football coaches reach out who are recruiting women. If they’re as genuine as Van Voorhis and her family, Yoder said, they’ll be fine.

Now that the not-so-small matter of making history is out of the way, Van Voorhis is moving forward.

“Now that I’ve hit a goal, I have to make my next one,” she said. “I mean, that’s what it’s always been. It’s always just striving to be a better football player. Once I play, I want to play more.”

She wants to get better.

She wants to get on the bus as part of the travel roster.

She wants to keep playing football this year and next year and however long it lasts.

“I mean, at the end of the day,” she said, “I’m just doing this because I love the game.”

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