Former Blackfoot resident continues to inspire young girls who want to play tackle football

Photo courtesy of Larry Gordon Sam Gordon carries the ball during the 2017 Utah Girls Tackle Football League season. Sam and her dad, Brent, are suing three Salt Lake County school districts to get all-girls tackle football programs implemented at the high school level.

Photo courtesy of Larry Gordon
Sam Gordon carries the ball during the 2017 Utah Girls Tackle Football League season. Sam and her dad, Brent, are suing three Salt Lake County school districts to get all-girls tackle football programs implemented at the high school level.

By Shelbie Harris, sharris@journalnet.com

Tearing through opposing defenses, ponytail bobbing, Samantha “Sam” Gordon took the internet by storm five years ago when the YouTube highlight reel of her flying past, over and around other boys on a football field went viral.

According to the video, Gordon, then 9 years old, notched 1,911 yards on 8.2 yards per carry and scored 35 touchdowns in her youth football league premiere. That landed the former Blackfoot resident on national television tackling Hall-of-Famer Marshall Faulk on the set of the NFL Network and a personal invitation from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to attend Super Bowl XLVII.

Fast-forward to today and it’s the off-the-field efforts of Herriman, Utah, natives, the now 14-year-old Sam and her father, Brent, that landed Sam the inaugural Game Changer award during the NFL Honors ceremony prior to Super Bowl LII. Sam was also the first female to win any award in the event’s six-year history.

But that wasn’t enough for the father-daughter duo, who most recently started the process to bring fully sanctioned high school all-girl tackle football programs to Utah.

They have a Title IX lawsuit filed against three Salt Lake County school districts by Brent, who is a lawyer with offices in Utah and Idaho, including locations in Idaho Falls, Boise and Pocatello.

“Before Title IX, some people thought that girls weren’t interested in playing sports, but they were wrong,” Sam said during her acceptance speech. “They were just as wrong as people who argued that women did not want to vote, to hold public office or to be lawyers or doctors. People who think girls don’t want to play football are wrong, too.”

Sam continued, “Throughout history, women have had to fight for the right to follow their dreams. My dream is that high schools and colleges will offer girls football teams, and I’m going to fight to see my dream come true.”

From an early age, Brent knew Sam was a special athlete. She got her first taste of sports playing co-ed soccer at the age of 4 when the Gordons lived in Blackfoot.

“Her very first year, I’d be sitting on the sideline and I would hear parents from both sides saying, ‘Oh my gosh, look at that little girl,’ just because of how fierce she was,” Brent said during a Thursday interview with the Journal.

With only three years separating Sam and her older brother, Max, it was fitting of many sibling relationships that Sam wanted to follow in his footsteps and play football, Brent said.

In fact, it was the ability to outrun those boys during wind sprints at the end of Max’s practices that confirmed to Brent and Sam that she could compete.

“I always played football with the boys at recess and with my family at home,” Sam told the Journal on Saturday. “But once my brother started playing competitive football, his team would run wind sprints at the end of practice … and I’d beat most of the players on his team even though he was three years older than me.”

It became a challenge to the team — don’t lose to Max’s sister — but eventually, the coach approached Sam directly.

“He told me, ‘Sam you’re really fast and I’ve seen some good football players that are girls, you should try it,’” Sam said. “And then I started playing tackle football.”

Sam played with the boys in a Utah youth football league for three years at a time when Brent says most of the players were all about the same size.

Considering Sam is currently about 4-feet, 11-inches tall and weighs about 105 pounds as a freshman in high school, it just didn’t make sense for her to continue playing football against high school boys that already looked like small men in seventh and eighth grades, Brent said.

“It’s just wasn’t safe and really it wasn’t fair to try and put girls up against the boys,” Brent said. “I know that it’s really cool when you can see a girl who can compete against the boys; it’s fun to see, yeah, but realistically speaking for the vast majority of girls they aren’t going to have many meaningful opportunities to participate in sports if they have to compete with and against other boys.”

So Brent’s first solution to the inequity was to create a youth tackle football league for girls only. The Utah Girls Tackle Football League was a huge success, said Brent, adding that within the first week of registration all 50 seats were filled. The next year, 100 girls showed up, then 200. Today, the league — which laid the groundwork for other leagues starting up in Indiana, Georgia and Canada, according to an NFL release — expects more than 400 female football players to suit up this year.

Though the Utah Girls Tackle Football League is an official nonprofit, Brent said the growing popularity of the league — the fact more and more girls are showing up each year — has placed pressure on the league’s purse strings with the need to purchase more equipment, reserve additional fields and compensate referees and officials.

Therefore, Brent launched solution No. 2, a Title IX lawsuit filed in June last year against the Jordan, Canyons and Granite School districts, that claims the disproportionate number of girls playing high school sports could be resolved by the addition of all-girls tackle football programs.

“My feeling was look at every other sport out there — soccer, basketball, down the list there are all-girls teams,” Brent said. “So why is that for football, probably the most physical sport out there — where the differences between boys and girls physically are the most significant — it’s the one that you are forcing girls to compete against boys.”

Brent said that at Sam’s current school there are about 200 more boys playing sports than girls, adding that he doesn’t want to see the school districts resolve its unequal representation of genders in high school sports by adding just any program like bowling or gymnastics.

“Our suggestion to resolve the disparity,” Brent said, “(is to) offer girls football because you can’t tell me that if you’re life depended on getting 200 girls to come out and play a sport and you could only choose one sport that’s not currently offered, would you honestly choose bowling over football?”

While the Gordons’ actions are strong enough to warrant the NFL to choose Sam as its first female award recipient, it’s not as revolutionary to Sam as it may be to many others.

“It’s crazy to think about because it seems like such a simple thing to me,” Sam said about the significance of her and her father’s efforts. “Girls are wanting to play football, so let’s offer them a league, like nothing huge, you know, but when you think about the true significance of it, it is amazing.”

She continued, “It’s amazing that every kid in my family got to play football, and it’s amazing that other girls can now sit down at the dinner tables with their families and be a part of that football conversation and to have the opportunity to learn and play football. It really is just incredible.”