On the night of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute’s homecoming dance, junior Jacey Lee will be far away from the school cafeteria, where many of her classmates will sway under dim lights.
Members of the varsity football team aren't supposed to attend Friday night’s dance. The Poly Engineers’ coach expects them to get a good night’s sleep, so they’re ready to face off against their foes of more than a century, the Baltimore City College Knights.
Jacey, 16, is no exception. And she believes she has to be extra focused: When she runs out at M&T Bank stadium Saturday for the noon game between the two city high schools, school officials say it will mark the first time a girl takes the field in the storied Poly-City rivalry.
While she isn’t a starter with guaranteed playing time, this is the game Jacey has always dreamed of playing in.
She knows she has to bring it.
Coaches and teammates say that's what she's been doing for years, ever since she first tried out for the junior varsity football team as a freshman. The next year, she was named a JV captain. She's now the first girl ever to make Poly’s varsity squad.
"At first, it was a big deal," said Jacey, who’s barely 5-foot-4. "But since I've been here three years, everyone just knows, ‘Yeah, Jacey’s on the football team.’”
Boys’ participation in high school football has been steadily declining in recent years, which some attribute to widely publicized revelations about the dangers of repeated blows to the head. But while thousands of boys step back from the sport, girls are increasingly signing up to play, albeit in small enough numbers that it still turns heads when long hair tumbles out of a football helmet.
“Women in general have evolved over the years, and women in sports have evolved even more. It’s an opportunity for women to show their power,” said Brandi Downing, a fullback with the Baltimore Nighthawks, a women’s tackle football team. “Everyone is worried about women suffering injuries. Women are equally susceptible to injuries as men are. … We’re all people.”
Nationally, about 2,000 girls participated in traditional high school football last year, a 62 percent increase since the 2009-2010 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In Maryland, there were just a handful of female football players last school year, according to the state education department. School officials say a girl has never played for City's varsity team.
Many of these trailblazers — girls still represent less than 1 percent of all high school football players — are kickers. Jacey is a defensive tackle, one of the more aggressive contact positions on the field.
“I like hitting," she said. "As soon as I get off, somebody is in my face. I either got to push them, or they push me."
Now that she’s a varsity player, the boys in her position are nearly grown men, some of whom could be just months away from signing to play college ball. It’s not uncommon for them to have 6 inches and 80 pounds on Jacey.
“These are pretty big dudes,” said her stepfather Barry Amos, 47, who helps her train by taking her to the weight room. “But she’s mentally tough and physically tough.”
When Jacey was a freshman at Poly, her stepbrother Barry Amos Jr. was a junior and a member of the football team. He invited her to come to practice with him — and she liked what she saw. She doesn’t remember ever thinking it would be a problem for a girl to suit up as an Engineer.
JV Coach Ty Nance wasn’t so sure. He remembers the late summer day Jacey and other young football hopefuls flooded the field for tryouts. He had them running laps in the more than 90-degree heat — and says he kept praying that Jacey would quit, as many others had. He didn’t want to be in the position of having to cut the only girl.
On one of the final laps, Nance suddenly heard a loud female voice.
“I heard her say to herself, ‘C’mon, Jacey, you got this,’ and she kept running,” Nance said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t cut her. Her heart is way too big.’ ”
For the next two years, Nance’s two young daughters came to practice just to watch Jacey play.
Her family is supportive, offering to help her practice and showing up to all of her games. But beneath their pride is worry for Jacey’s safety, which has only intensified since she made varsity.
Rosemary Lee, her mother, remembers the first time she watched her daughter get tackled on the turf. She watched as a huge boy knocked Jacey, then 14, flat on her back. Rosemary jumped up in the bleachers, holding her breath.
“I thought, ‘They’ve killed my baby,’ ” she said.
Then, after a few seconds, Jacey stood back up and brushed herself off. Rosemary’s heart rate slowed. And her daughter kept on playing.
Fear didn’t stop Rosemary from scouring the internet to find Jacey proper shoulder pads, ones that were more suitable to a girl’s frame than the ones provided by the school.
Still, her family figured they were witnessing a phase.
“We honestly thought it wasn’t going to last this long,” said her father, Jeffrey Lee. “We thought she was going to quit. But clearly she didn’t.”
Sometimes, when running up and down the bleacher steps in the brutal heat, Jacey thinks about giving up. In those moments, she has a song she blasts in her headphones: “Letter From Lucci.”
The words could be her anthem.
“I promise to come in and destroy my opponent,” YFN Lucci raps. “I promise no man want it as bad as I want it.”
To prepare for the shift from JV to varsity, Jacey spent every other day of the offseason in the weight room, where she tries to bench the same weight as the boys do. She can squat 230 pounds.
Jacey says her small size can be a secret weapon of sorts. Since she stays low and is so short, it’s hard for the bigger guys to shove her in a league-sanctioned way.
“It’s not as surreal as it could seem. It’s actually not a big deal at all,” head football coach Dwayne Green said of having a girl on the team. “She has to put in work. We demand that from everyone. … She’s going to be treated just like everyone else.”
That means when the team has to run as punishment for maintaining a messy locker room, Jacey sprints along with them — even though she changes by herself in the girls’ team room.
“I really did not do none of that, and I still gotta run,” Jacey says, shaking her head.
The boys say they regard Jacey as just another member of the team. She sits beside them in classes and hangs out with them during lunch. On game days, the team shows up to school in white button-down shirts and bow ties. Jacey rocks the same look.
“Being in high school, it sometimes seems like the world is against you. But then you’re able to come and be with your family on the field,” said Poly senior Antoine Johnson, Jr., the team manager. “We don’t care about if you’re a boy, girl or trans. If you give football your all, you’re part of the family.”
Johnson said some of the boys on the team view Jacey like a little sister, but she has never asked nor needed to be defended.
Often, Jacey said, boys on opposing squads won’t realize she’s different until the final whistle, when helmets come off and her long ombre curls and feminine features become more visible. Once, after the game, a boy asked for her number.
“I looked at him and was like, ‘Get out of my face,’ ” said Jacey, who has had the same, non-football-playing boyfriend since middle school.
At least one girl played football at Poly before Jacey, though she stopped before joining the varsity team, after deciding to pursue other interests. Dazja Dorsey, who played JV during the 2013-2014 school year, said she’s proud of Jacey’s accomplishments and looks forward to a time when more than one girl at a time takes the field.
This year, Jacey’s playing time has been confined to pre-season games against regional high schools. But Green said anything can happen in the Poly-City game.
Tomorrow is the 129th time that the teams will meet, in what is believed to be the second-longest continuous public school rivalry in the country. Thousands of fans in Poly’s orange and blue are looking to assert dominance over City’s orange and black.
City has won the past five games, though Poly maintains a small lead in the series: 62-60-6. Last year, City won in double overtime, 30-28, giving them the longest winning streak in the rivalry since the 1960s.
In Jacey’s family, the Poly-City game is personal. Her uncle played for Poly in the 1980s. Her brother played varsity during a heartbreaking loss to the City team. Her stepfather, though, played for City in his high school days — and while he roots for Jacey nine games out of 10, he said, “When it comes to City-Poly, I’m not changing my colors.”
Past players say that what happens during this rivalry game sticks with you forever.
For Jacey, being on the team for Saturday’s showdown means she’s made it.
“This is the game where everything matters,” she said.