It looks like any other mid-week football practice in any other small town in America. But there’s something different about this Mammoth Huskies junior varsity team this year.
As the team gathers around Coach Noel Looney after a rigorous two-hour session on the high school’s practice field, the players, one by one, take off their helmets, including the rugged and intense interior lineman in the middle of the pack.
Make that linewoman.
“I’ve been told that I’m the first girl who ever played Mammoth High School football,” said Elizabeth Martinez. “I feel really happy about that.”
Martinez is a 15-year-old 10th grader and has already seen action this season, against L.A. Baptist in the opener and Mission College Prep of San Luis Obispo. Tonight, she may see game action against Calvary Murietta in a 4 o’clock JV game at Gault/McClure Stadium.
If anyone on the Calvary Murietta squad takes her lightly, though, they do so at their own peril.
“She’s one of our best players,” said teammate Denis Orrick. “It’s actually pretty cool. We’ve got 26 players, and I’d say she’s in the top 13.”
Alex Hamilton, another teammate, just shrugged when asked if it was a bit strange playing on a team that has a girl on the roster.
“Maybe a little bit,” he said, “but to us, she’s just another player.”
No, she’s not just another player.
Martinez, whose full name is Elizabeth Martinez Rodriguez, said she does not play football just for the fun of it. Rather, she said she plays football to battle the demons that descended on her last August, when federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents swept away her parents in a sweep through Mammoth.
“Ever since my parents aren’t here any more,” she said, “I’ve got a lot of anger inside me. But when I play football, I get happy and forget about myself.”
For Coach Looney, who said he treats her like any other player on the field, he knows he’s got something special in Martinez.
“When I first met her, she was in tears,” he said. “For her to be out here at all is a testament to her character.”
Because Martinez had to scramble to find a new home in August, she missed most of the two-a-day practices before the school term began. Having secured a home with her godparents here in town, Martinez is now scrambling to catch up on the field.
“She’s learning.” Looney said. “She’s only been here for about a month. She’s got a way to go.”
On the sidelines, veteran varsity coach Tom Gault scanned the field, but he did not seem to pay any particular attention to Martinez.
“I don’t think the guys on the team give it a second thought,” he said. “I know I don’t. I say, if you want to play football, come out and play. I know she’s not going to get knocked around a lot.”
Maybe not on the football field, but life itself has knocked her around, more than a little bit.
Even so, Martinez is standing tall, even through the tears.
“It’s just really a bad feeling,” she said when asked about the immigration sweep and the loss of parents.
“But then, I can’t imagine what other children, who don’t have their parents here, are going through. For little kids at the age of five and 10, it must be even harder for them than it is for me.”