SAN DIEGO – Standing at just a shade over 5-foot-2 is El Capitan High School junior kicker Laila Rodriguez.
Those who know her well believe it unwise to mistake her slight stature for weakness.
“She doesn’t think she’s a girl on the field,” El Capitan head coach Ron Burner said. “She doesn’t play like a girl. I don’t mean that condescending. She plays like a football player and she doesn’t take things easy at all.”
Rodriguez joined the football program as a freshman, the only girl on the roster in a sport with few others. In high school, she says, there’s generally well-worn stories about football or cheerleading.
But as Rodriguez notes: “I’m not a cheerleader.”
“I’ve been playing soccer for a while (and) my cousin used to go here, so I figured why not try out?” she said.
The 16-year-old kicks off for her team, but coaches say she’s not afraid to take a hit, either.
“She doesn’t think she’s small, but she is,” Burner said. “It worries me. I have five daughters, so when I see her out here, especially like that first game, they were sending guys after her, that worries me. I don’t want her getting hurt.”
Starting out, she said she was a little nervous. But after some time came comfort and it soon felt like second nature to her – and it’s far from her only one. On top of juggling football and soccer practices during the week, Rodriguez is trilingual — speaking English, Spanish and Chinese — and takes AP classes.
Rodriguez said she’s thinking about joining the Air Force after she graduates.
“(Football is) definitely a lot different from soccer,” she said. “It’s family-based with football and the guys. If someone’s hurt, we’re all there for them. If someone did something wrong, we all take the punishment.”
That demeanor has won her plenty of support on the team, too.
“She’s on my team,” offensive lineman Bradley Larsen said. “She’s my sister. All these guys are my brothers out here. I’ll defend them with my life.”
While she isn’t the first girl to join a football team, it’s safe to say Rodriguez won’t be the last.
“A parent came up to me, they had a little girl and said, ‘Oh, my daughter wants to meet you,’” Rodriguez said. “That was the coolest experience of my life. It was incredible. Just seeing everyone say, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to join football, that’s so cool,’ that’s really cool to me and I’m really happy to be a part of that.”