It was reminiscent of the movie Rudy.
The kid who rarely plays gets in the game and makes a sack on the final play.
Except this was no movie — and the “Rudy” in this real-life drama is Maddie Hertz, the first female tackle football player at Miami Country Day in the school’s history. The school is 76 years old; it fielded its first varsity football team in 1979.
Maddie, who turns 16 on Wednesday, is a 5-8, 140-pound defensive tackle. She and MCD teammate Zachary Weinberg actually got credited for a half-sack each two weeks ago in a 24-0 win over Marathon. Weinberg came in from behind while Hertz hit the quarterback straight on, waist high.
“Then the whistle blew,” Maddie said, “the game was over, and I thought: ‘Did that just happen?’ Everyone was cheering, and I heard my name over the speaker, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, that just happened.’”
Maddie’s mother, Connie, is a Nebraska Cornhuskers fan, and her father, Martin, roots for the New York Jets. But Maddie, their only child, has never really cared much for football.
Instead, she’s a hard-working student with a 4.5 GPA, plays the flute and has a black belt in taekwondo.
She tried football for the same reason that people scale mountains, run marathons or parachute from planes — for the challenge.
But before she could step on the field this fall, she had to convince her parents, who were — and still are — concerned about an injury.
“I was against it,” her father said. “I told her I wasn’t going to her practices or games because I didn’t want to see her get hurt.”
Maddie said she was “annoyed” with her father’s attitude.
“I was really sad with a mix of anger, too,” she said. “My mom, who was the first engineer in a male-dominated field in Nebraska, told me she was proud of me but that it was going to be really tough.”
Maddie’s father changed his mind just before her first game and is now in her corner. They now watch Jets games together and have grown closer.
Meanwhile, Maddie still had to convince first-year MCD Coach Sean Hill that she had the right stuff.
“I made it clear [to athletic director Chuck Sennett] that I wasn’t going to put her in unless she proved she could play,” Hill said. “Chuck said: ‘Fine, treat her like you would any other player.’”
Maddie is a starter on the kickoff-coverage team — “Maddie stays in her lane, which is more than I can say for some other kids,” Hill said — and is third string at defensive tackle.
She has two tackles this season, including her sack.
“Maddie keeps improving her technique,” Hill said. “There’s only one instance I can recall that she took a pretty good hit. But she came back the next play. As far as toughness, she’s got it.”
Maddie, who wears her long blonde hair in a ponytail that flows way past her helmet, has not heard any disparaging comments from opponents.
As for her teammates, Maddie said she has felt only support.
Hector Estupinan, a sophomore running back, said he and his MCD teammates were initially shocked and confused when Maddie tried out for the team.
“When we were doing hitting drills, it was kind of hard to go full out on her,” he said. “We didn’t feel like we should because it’s wrong to hit a girl.
“We feel like we have an advantage over her, but we really don’t. We had to be taught that we didn’t. Our coach told us we can’t treat her differently. You have to man up and hit her.”
When Maddie did not back down, she earned respect.
“We had people who quit the team — guys who quit the team — and Maddie is still here every day,” Hector said. “Now we look at her as one of the guys.”
Maddie admits that the summer conditioning requirements were hard.
There was a lot of running, and it was plenty hot.
Said Maddie: “I thought: ‘Can I really do this again tomorrow?’ Then I said: ‘Yes I can. I did it today, and I’m going to do it again tomorrow.’”
Maddie knew the repercussions if she quit.
“People would say: ‘She’s a girl — she’s a quitter.’ I had to show that girls could do it. I hope that more girls play next year. I hope they don’t play for the novelty of it but because they want to play.”
Maddie indicated that she has earned the respect of many, including the girls in her school.
“Everyone loved it,” she said, “but their first question was: ‘Doesn’t it hurt to get hit?’
“I said: ‘Not if you hit them back.’”
Maddie plans on playing next season and hopes to move up the depth chart as she gains experience.
“She’s amazing, never misses a practice,” Hill said. “There’s not a perfect person, but Maddie comes close. We have discussed that if she wants to play football next year, to have her as a captain.”
Maddie may have a surprise in store. She learned how to catch a ball from playing water polo.
What if MCD threw a pass to her in football?
“If they do,” she declared, “we’ll get a touchdown.”