WESTFORD — Westford Academy sophomore Julia Bourque is breaking the mold.
Bourque is the first girl to ever suit up on the football field for the Grey Ghosts, coach Pat Gendron said.
And not just as a kicker — a common role girls playing high school football across the nation find themselves in. She’s a running back and a defensive back.
She wants the ball and wants to compete with, and against, the boys.
“I’m definitely proud,” Julia said of being the first girl to play football in school history. “It took a lot of time and effort and just getting over small obstacles. I loved wearing the uniform.”
The previous fall was Bourque’s first time ever putting on football pads and running through tackles. She previously played field hockey and soccer, swam and performed gymnastics. She plans on running track in the spring.
But heading into her sophomore year, she decided to trade the hockey stick and shin guards for a football helmet and some shoulder pads. It was her natural, competitive spirit and drive to “be like everyone else” that made her join the team, her father, Andy, said.
“It’s a bold move and I support her 100% in the process,” Andy said, adding that watching Patriots games with his daughter is “a little more special” now that the 16-year-old has donned the gray-and-maroon jersey.
“She knew she wasn’t going to get special privileges and that she was gonna get her hits and licks,” he added. “I’m impressed with her decision.”
“I’m so in awe,” said Julia’s mother, Susan. “I think I’m a pretty tough person, but I don’t think I could go through what she’s doing. This is so outside her comfort zone.”
The pinnacle of Bourque’s first foray into football came late in the season. She was named captain against Dual County League opponent Newton South and took her first handoff for a 7-yard gain.
She suffered a concussion during the game, Susan said, but made a statement: There’s a girl on the Grey Ghosts’ football team. And she’s here to stay and play.
“It took a little bit at first, being a girl on the team,” Julia said. “But then I started joining the sideline conversations and being like everyone else.”
Julia is one of many in a slowly growing trend in youth and high school football. As more boys drop the contact sport, more girls are picking it up, Business Insider reported in 2016. Holly Neher, a 16-year-old quarterback, made national headlines in October in Florida after throwing a 42-yard touchdown pass in a varsity game.
Of the 5.5 million Americans who report playing tackle football, 596,000 (or 11%) are female, The New York Times reported in 2018.
“It was a new experience for us,” JV coach Joe Sullivan said of Julia. “It’s not every day a girl comes out and plays the sport, but she was courageous with it. She wanted to prove to everyone that she belonged there.”
There were not technical tryouts for the team, but Bourque said she woke up at 6 a.m. during the summer to work out with the team, running hill sprints and joining workouts in the weight room. She was one of about 40 players who suited up every week.
Sullivan added that Bourque was shy when she first came to team workouts during the summer. The coaching staff — going through their first experience trying to incorporate a female into a male-dominated sport — didn’t know what position she wanted to play until Julia said she wanted to try a skill position.
Logistically, she had her own locker and space before practices and games — a double-edge sword, she said. She didn’t have to deal with smelly gear or teenage boys’ locker-room shenanigans. But she said she also missed talks about the playbook due to being in a different locker room, and some teammates felt awkward tackling her at first.
“We would be doing running back and ball-security drills and I would see gloves, gloves, gloves and then just long nails,” Sullivan said. “She was quiet and shy at first but she got more vocal as the season went on.”
Through the season, though, Julia said she gained confidence from playing the sport. She started with no experience but ended up understanding the Grey Ghosts’ playbook and audibles.
“It was a lot of learning and participating as best I could,” Julia said. “A lot was learning to ignore the hits and just getting back up. It hurts for everyone — I’m not the only one.
“Just get up and keep going,” she added.
Bourque said she plans on suiting up again next fall.
Luke O’Roark on Twitter: @LukeORoark