For anyone who’s stumbled upon a Thomas Jefferson youth football game, you probably noticed No. 21 scoring touchdowns like Walter Payton and racking up tackles like Brian Urlacher. You may have also noticed the long, blonde ponytail flowing out of the back of the player’s helmet.
No. 21 is Maddie Gille, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Rutherfordton Elementary. And yes, she is a girl.
Maddie’s affection for football started at a young age when her and her family attended football games at Chase High School to watch her cousin, Jared Stacey, suit up for the Trojans.
“My cousin played football a lot and we used to go watch him play,” Maddie said. We would always throw the football in the yard.”
“She idolized him,” Maddie’s mother Angela said of Stacey, who is the reason Maddie wears No. 21. “He’s mainly the reason she got so interested. She’s been trying to be No. 21 every year she’s played.”
Unfortunately for Maddie, she had a to wait a few years before she could take to the gridiron.
“She always said she couldn’t wait to turn 5 so she could play flag football,” Angela said.
Now at 10, Maddie is a featured running back and safety for the Gryphons. Needless to say, she takes a beating, and that’s always tough for a parent.
“It makes me nervous because she’s out there with all those boys but she’s tough as nails,” Angela said. “I get nervous every time I go and I say a little prayer before every game.”
“I’m playing every play right beside her the same way my dad did with me,” Maddie’s father John added. “I take every lick with her and play every down with her.”
However, the contact came naturally for Maddie.
“She started off a little hesitant but after about the first four weeks of practice she was a very sound tackler and was pretty aggressive,” Maddie’s coach Chris Walker said. “In the backfield it was just a matter of contact. All four of my running backs are key blockers and she’s actually the best blocker I have.”
On offense, Maddie is utilized on the Gryphons’ “wedge” play. She takes the handoff and runs behind a wedge made of her offensive line until it collapses. From there she usually bursts through the pile and outruns the defense to the end zone.
“She was made for that,” Walker said. “She just disappears and stays in the wedge as long as possible. She really did a lot of scoring for us with that play.”
And of course, Maddie loves the play.
“My favorite play is a play we always run up the middle,” she said. “It usually always pretty much works.”
On defense, Maddie is a tackling machine from her free safety position.
“I like defense better,” she said. “I like tackling people more than I do running the ball.”
“She enjoys the freedom of playing safety,” Walker said. “I just taught her to read the quarterback and be a part of every tackle.”
And now that Maddie has made a name for herself, the boys aren’t quite as shy about playing with a girl.
“I think they were a little apprehensive until she started hitting them,” Walker said. “When she started hitting them they started hitting back.”
The person that may have had the hardest time adapting to having a girl on the field was Walker.
“The biggest trouble I had was calling her ‘sweetie’ all the time,” Walker said.
She didn’t mind it but there aren’t many times coaching football that you call a player ‘sweetie’.”
Maddie has become a real force on the field, but according to her mother, she wasn’t always so confident.
“She was so nervous for her first game,” Angela said. “I told her that everyone messes up but she said she couldn’t because she was a girl and they would think she had no business being out there. Then she scored three touchdowns and got over that feeling.”
She may love running the ball, scoring touchdowns and taking down runners, but Maddie’s favorite part of football has nothing to do with stats.
“I like how all the coaches support me and I like having fun with the rest of the players on my team,” she said.
As Maddie embraced the sport her parents embraced her playing.
“If football is something she wants to do, I encourage her,” Angela said. “I’m so proud of her in every area, but to know that she’s out there playing a sport where she has to earn the respect of other people because she is a girl is amazing.”
“I couldn’t be prouder of her for what she’s done regardless of gender,” John said. “She’s gone above and beyond. I’m just running over with pride.”
Maddie’s success even serves as an inspiration for her 13-year-old sister, Savannah.
“She may be younger than me, but I look up to her,” Savannah said. “She’s the only girl on the team and she is just as good as any of those boys out there, if not better. It takes real guts to stand out and not care what people think like she does. I know I could never do that. She doesn’t let anybody get in her way or bring her down, and even if she does she doesn’t show it.”
Football isn’t the only out-of-the-box trait Maddie features, it goes back much further.
“She’s been a tomboy ever since she was able to pick out her own clothes,” Angela said. “She’s her own little person.”
As impressive as Maddie is on the football field, basketball is said to be her best sport and she hopes one day to play professionally. Thanksgiving weekend may be the last time she puts on a football helmet as she plans to travel with a RSYFCA/Thomas Jefferson combination team to a youth football Shrine Bowl.
“I don’t know if I’ll play again but if I don’t I know I can fall back on basketball,” Maddie said.
“Even if she doesn’t play another down past the Thanksgiving weekend I’ll be tickled to death,” John added.
There’s no set path for Maddie and her athletic prowess but you can rest assured that this isn’t the last time the name “Maddie Gillie” is in the newspaper.
Her mother may have said it best, “She keeps life interesting.”