The Comeback Kid

“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”
-C.S. Lewis

Life is full of trials and tribulations. No matter who you are or where you go they always seem to follow. Some extraordinary individuals seek out challenges that lead to unexpected hardships– and they will become even greater for the experience of overcoming those difficulties. For females breaking into the male-dominated sport of football, there will no doubt be challenges and many of these courageous women are poised to take on those hardships and learn from them.

One local female football player, Mary Wilhelm is one such example. Mary, who has played football since the age of four, was one of three female football players featured in a Hernando Sun article at the start of the 2019 football season. She had been promoted to a varsity defensive lineman position at the end of her freshman year and thought she’d be playing on the varsity squad in 2019. Yet little did she know what hardships she would have to face just to be able to play the sport she had come to love.

Mary recalled, “I had a pretty good freshman year and it was really nice even though we lost most of our games. It was still really fun… I didn’t have anyone that… tried to get me off the team or anything like that. It was really fun, nobody criticized me.”

“I was actually respected freshman year… I thought I was gonna stay there until senior year.”

At the beginning of her sophomore year though, everything changed as she explained to Hernando Sun. She recounted how she was demoted to Junior Varsity (JV) in front of her entire team during a film session with no explanation by the new head coach.

She stated that after she was demoted, the coach who was also her weightlifting teacher gave her zeros. Last season Mary went to states in her weightlifting division and won the all-county unlimited weightlifting title. She didn’t know why she had received zeros in the weightlifting class and again received no answers.

The school district provided the following response to the Hernando Sun in reference to Mary’s account.

“For most of the 2019 football season, Ms. Wilhelm competed on the JV squad. Toward the end of the 2019 season, Ms. Wilhelm (along with several other athletes) was promoted to the varsity squad. At no time was she “demoted” to JV.”

“Student grades are protected under FERPA and school staff are not permitted to provide a response to this question.”

Mary concurs that toward the end of the junior varsity season she was again chosen for a varsity spot along with her twin brother and several other players. The coach had all the JV players who had been picked for varsity suit up for the next varsity football game. However, according to Mary, none of them saw the field even though the team had been losing badly.

Mary explained that she and her brother were ultimately removed from the team after refusing to run with the team as punishment for the loss.

Mary and William’s father instructed them not to run because they were not made part of the team since they were never put on the field.

These issues are nothing new in sports. All athletes, no matter what gender, are bound to face similar challenges throughout their years of participation in organized sports. Some coaches and players just don’t click. Competitive athletics prepares a person to face the challenges and disappointments in life. If it is a disappointment due to a lack of effort, that athlete has an opportunity to practice how to improve and win the next challenge. If it’s a disappointment that is seemingly unfair in some way, then the athlete learns to overcome inequities, strengthening his or her character.

Hardships also reveal the characters of those around you. Mary’s brother William also had a starting position on Central’s varsity football team at the beginning of the 2019 season. To show solidarity and support for his sister after she was demoted to junior varsity, her brother decided to play for the JV team with her.

This experience has given Mary the drive and determination to become even stronger on the football field.

“It hurt me when I got kicked off in front of the entire team and everyone hated me. But after that it made me realize that is what made me stronger than what everyone made me out to be and it didn’t fault me in any way. I just wanted to prove to them that I am a good football player and none of you can tell me any different,” said Mary.

To the naysayers she had to deal with she says, “I’m better than all of you and I am stronger and I’ll beat you on that football field and prove you all wrong. I guess it’s just a bump in the road of being a girl playing football.”

Mary is now a Junior on Weeki Wachee’s Varsity football team. She has returned to the starting lineup with her brother.

Chris Cook, Weeki Wachee High School head coach only has great things to say about Mary and her brother William.

“Mary is doing a wonderful job for us. She plays offensive and defensive line for us and is very competitive. I am very pleased that she is a part of our program. I enjoy coaching her and her brother and am expecting big things from both of them as I will have two whole seasons with them. They have both fit right in with the Hornet Family and are one of us !!!”

To other women football players who may be facing similar issues she advises, “Just be strong; just be confident and know what you can do. You just have to get stronger in the process and you have to show them that they just made you stronger. That’s what they did for me.”

She said that confidence in her abilities carried her a long way.

The women who choose to become football players will face hardships within the sport, along with their brothers. If they face challenges with strength and resilience, they will be more prepared for the greater hardships in life.