MATTHEWS, N.C. (WBTV) — Tessa Westover is 13 years old. Something happened near the end of the school session last year that sparked a passion in the teen, who also plays goalie on a soccer team.
“Our old assistant athletic director… I was in P-E and he said who wants to kick and I said would you let a girl do it? And he said of course I would let a girl do it.”
This school year – now an eighth grader – Tessa decided she wanted to play football for her school – Covenant Day School. It’s the first time the school has a junior varsity team.
“The athletic director was great, the coach was great and everybody was open to trying out,” said Tessa’s mother, Veronica Westover. “Let’s just see where it goes. So she did and we were practicing.”
Before long, Tessa made the team.
“The coach – everyone was so supportive of her,” Tessa’s mother said. “He was very eager to get her fitted.”
Tessa making the roster evidently didn’t make a lot of people happy.
“My coach just told me people were complaining that they didn’t want people to hit me or that they thought it was unfair for them to hit me. Just play kicker” she said her coach told her.
“I see some of the concerns” Veronica Westover said. “Some people – some of the comments raised – we raise our boys not to hit girls now we’re turning around to tell them hit a girl.”
“We thought she was going to get removed from the team and then it was she can kick and nothing else so we were appreciative.”
Tessa became the starting kicker but the Westovers said leaders of Covenant Day School placed restrictions on her.
“I’m not allowed to basically hit or touch anybody in practice and they’re not allowed to hit or touch me in practice,” Tessa said. “And I can’t like hit somebody if they break through the line. I just have to watch them go by. I just do kickoff and after we score – like make a touchdown.”
The Westovers believe Tessa isn’t getting to play the game instinctively.
If an opposing player returns a kick and is about to get in the end zone – Tessa said she isn’t allowed to go near that player.
“The first time that happened I ran and I barely missed the guy. The second time that happened I didn’t move. I just froze. I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there,” she said. “I’m afraid of getting in trouble or them saying maybe I can’t play because I tackled.”
Tessa said it’s not easy playing that way.
“I’ve gotten better. I wasn’t okay at first but now I’ve gotten better with it because it’s still really fun to kick,” she said. “I wish I could do a little more but I’m playing a lot more than I expected I would be playing at the beginning of the season so that’s good because I didn’t think I was going to ever kick because there were two other kickers that were trying out so I thought I was going to be the back up backup. So I’m happy that I’m getting to kick for the beginning of the game and after we score.”
But for her parents watching from the sidelines – their daughter’s limited role on the football field is tough to swallow.
“I don’t know if she’s getting all out of it that she can as far as being taught the sportsmanship, being taught the game,” Tessa’s mother said. “She’s so scared all the time to get in trouble. That’s her big thing. She’ll come off the field and say am I in trouble.”
“My biggest fear was when the kick was returned and Tessa stood there. And that’s not Tessa. She’s definitely my charge go-getter and to sit on the sideline and see my little girl stress of going like this… she’s looking what do I do, oh my gosh.”
“For Tessa to experience football and figure out if she doesn’t want to play, she’s gotta to play. We’ve had boys injured. It’s not that I want anything bad to happen to my daughter but sheltering her – not letting her getting a good lick from someone- doesn’t teach her I don’t want to play football,” Veronica Westover said. “I mean she wants to prove herself and hold her own so she doesn’t want any special accommodations. I don’t want any. So that means I want her to get what she can get and see how far she can play and then take a step back.”
“She’s definitely being treated differently and we understand where it’s coming from” Veronica Westover said. “But I think that some effort has been made to keep her in the back, keep her secret a little bit – that unfortunately the football team is so amazing there could be probably be even more exposure for the team.”
As of this week, Covenant Day School is 4-2. There are at least two games remaining.
“The guys on the team are really supportive,” Tessa said. “After I make a good kick, and high 5’s when I’m running off the field and they’ll always be sure to tell me good job after the game.”
But her mother said it wasn’t always that way.
“I’m walking up there and sometimes spending two hours with no one but the coaches saying a word to her,” Veronica Westover said. “It was lonely at first which is why it has been so great that the team has accepted her so much.”
Tessa said “I have great teammates that are really supportive and stuff and my coaches are, so that makes the team like really fun.”
“And it’s just fun to do something that nobody thought that a girl would do. I feel like I’m making history just because my school has never had a football team but I also have a lot of sixth grade girls come and talk to me about how they wanted to play football and that they think it’s awesome that I’m playing. I think that’s really cool that I’m inspiring them to do what they want to do.”
Now, her days on the team are numbered.
In a statement to WBTV, school officials said “Covenant Day made a decision to designate all sports as male or female. Regarding football specifically, it will be a boys’ sport beginning in the fall of 2017.”
School officials did not elaborate on why football will be a boys only sports next season.
“If they make that rule, no other girl is going to do what they want to do on the football team for our school,” Tessa said. “I got to do my dream but they don’t get to do theirs so that was kinda made me a little sad but made me a little happy that I got to represent them and got to show them we can do this and stuff.”