Caroline Pla has been playing football since kindergarten, and for the past two years, the 11-year-old has been knocking opposing players on their butts.
It never occurred to her that someone might need to protect her from the sport she adores.
Her playing time with the Catholic Youth Organization ended after last season when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia enforced its "boys only" policy for football, sidelining the All-Star guard and defensive end.
Inspired by her older brother, George, 14, Caroline started playing Pop Warner flag football at age 5 and was hooked. Once she got too big to play Pop Warner, she signed up to play tackle football with the CYO in the fifth grade.
Two games into Caroline's second season, head coach Chip Ross received an unexpected call from Jason Budd, deputy secretary for Catholic education for the archdiocese, who oversees the football program.
The 5-foot-3, 110-pound sixth-grader, Budd explained to Ross, could no longer play for the Romans because, according to the CYO handbook, football is a full-contact sport -- no girls allowed.
Unaware such a rule existed, Ross was shocked, he said.
"She should be allowed to play," said Ross, who also coaches football at a nearby high school. "Football is a sport that culls out the folks that can hang or not hang, and certainly, Caroline has been more than able to hold her own."
League of their own
Not wanting to disrupt the season or ostracize Caroline, Ross and her parents kept the news under wraps and pleaded with the archdiocese to let her finish the season. After a week of corresponding with Budd, including sending a letter of support from the family's church pastor, an extension was granted.
There are 46 football programs, each with junior varsity and varsity teams, under the Archdiocese of Philadelphia CYO. Of the nearly 2,500 participants, Caroline is the only female player.
The coaches waited until the end of the season to tell Caroline and her teammates that she was off the team because of the archdiocese's "boys only" rule.
"I was mad," Caroline said after learning she wasn't allowed to play, "just really mad that we don't get the same opportunity as boys just because we're not a boy.
"Not only am I not going to be able to play, but girls all over aren't going to be able to sign up," she said. "And I don't think that's fair."
Though Caroline says she's never been hurt -- and has laid her share of licks on the boys -- the archdiocese said in a statement that the decision to give Caroline the boot was for her and other girls' safety.
"The Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Catholic Youth Organization currently designates football as a full-contact sport for boys only. It is important to note that most CYO sports are designated by gender, with some sports offering separate leagues for boys and girls. These measures are taken in an effort to ensure a safe and appropriate playing environment for all participants," Archdiocese of Philadelphia spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin said in a statement.
"Traditionally, football is a boys only sport due to its full contact nature. Most parents and players have preferred this; some now disagree. An archdiocesan panel of coaches, parents, pastors and experts in the sports medicine and pediatrics fields will evaluate the current rule. Calls for an immediate change in the policy are premature and unwise without adequate consultation, especially given the potential safety issues involved," the statement continued.
According to the archdiocese, budget cuts and personnel changes allowed Caroline to slip through the cracks, but she actually should've been denied the opportunity to play when she initially applied in fifth grade.
She'll 'knock you on your butt'
When she first stepped on the field, the boys on Caroline's first CYO team were uncomfortable lining up against a girl, said her former coach, Jim Reichwein. Those concerns dissipated once Caroline showed she was tough enough to pop a lineman in the mouth just like the rest of her teammates.
"We didn't make a big deal about it," said Reichwein. "Anyone who went head-to-head with her ended up on the ground. After a week, (her gender) was laid to lest."
Reichwein, who is also Caroline's basketball coach and her best friend's father, said she embodies the character and sportsmanship that football coaches so often strive to instill in their players.
"This whole fight is for other people more than it is for her," he said. "She's such a caring, kind, well-rounded young lady who's able to put a helmet on, throw a switch and knock you on your butt."
Caroline's father proudly stands with his daughter. He said the ruling is outdated.
"Girls playing football is not something new. They're not going through uncharted water or pioneering something that hasn't been addressed before," George Pla said. "The sport will determine where's she's best able to play, if she is at all."