Someday, many decades down the road, Sophia Marichal might sit her grandchildren down on her lap and tell them all about the day their grandma made history in Miami Springs.
But on a recent Saturday at Prince Field, this 11-year-old wasn’t the least bit worried about being a history-maker or breaking down any gender barriers.
Sophia Marichal just “wanted to have fun” and at the same time perhaps fulfill a wish that her father, who passed away 17 months ago, had for her.
With a growing national trend of girls joining up to play organized tackle football with the boys, Marichal became the first ever to do it in Miami Springs.
Aug. 15 was opening day for the Miami Xtreme Youth Football League as her 11-and-Unders Golden Hawks team took the field against Leisure City Model (from the Homestead area). And even though things didn’t go well for the locals as Leisure City had its way in a lopsided 36-0 final, the result was less important than the accomplishment as youth football in Miami Springs officially joined the trend of bi-gender youth football.
“Actually, I’ve just tried to treat her like any other player on the team,” said 11s head coach Thomas Willis. “Sophia has done a great job and we’re really proud to have her on the team. She’s worked really hard, comes to practice, gives everything she has and we’re looking forward to her making some really big contributions this season.”
But Willis also faced another challenge, which was dealing with the boys on his team.
“It was never really an issue,” Willis said. “Everything kind of just really went with the flow. I don’t think anything was really strange either for me or the kids on the team. All of her teammates have been treating her great and the whole experience so far has been really positive.”
But this wasn’t just about proving she could play football “with the boys.” It was also fulfilling a wish of a father she no longer has around.
“Today is kind of bittersweet because she was very close to her father as they shared their passion of football together,” said Arlene Marichal, Sophia’s mom, who was there to root her daughter on and worked hard to keep her emotions in check. “He always told her that girls can do anything boys can do.”
On her 10th birthday, Sophia lost her father Orlando after a long battle with a condition called Secondary Amyloidosis, a rare disorder in which abnormal proteins build up in tissue and organs that is further complicated when dealing with other chronic infections or chronic inflammatory diseases.
“At the time he passed, Sophia was playing basketball at the rec center and kind of gave up on all sports and everything after that,” Arlene Marichal said. “I allowed her to give it up because I knew it was a really difficult time for her.”
But a few months ago, all of that changed. Arlene went to go sign up her younger daughter to be a cheerleader when Sophia tagged along.
“They were signing up for football and she came up to me and said, ‘Mom, I want to play football,’ ” Arlene Marichal said. “My first thing I told her was that girls don’t play football. Usually I had heard of girls playing flag football but this wasn’t flag football here. Then she said, ‘Daddy said that I can play and he would have let me play,’ and when she said that, it was like, what do I do?”
Isbet Sosa, wife of league commissioner Damian Sosa, was there that day and assured her that not only was it perfectly acceptable for girls to also play youth football but that all the necessary safety precautions were in place.
“Since this league they play in is based not only on age but weight and I was assured that she wouldn’t be going against kids 150 or 200 pounds and they also assured me that with the equipment that they have and the safety that they teach the kids that she would be fine, I said, OK, and so here we are today,” Arlene Marichal said. “Sophia is very passionate about it and told me yesterday that it’s ‘a dream of a lifetime’ and, to be honest, I feel that maybe this is a lasting connection between her and her dad and think that maybe he might even be looking down on her today and be very proud.”
Sophia took the field and played the entire game on both sides of the ball, defensive end on defense, a blocking tight end on offense. There were no big plays, no diving catches, no touchdowns. But none of that mattered. Sophia Marichal was out there “having fun” and honoring her father’s memory.
“I just wanted to play because I always played with my cousins and never knew what it would be like to play in a boys league,” said Sophia, who will begin sixth grade at All Angels Academy next week. “They always said that girls can’t play football because they’re too weak and I wanted to show that girls CAN play football because they’re not weak. If there’s any girl out there that wants to play, they have the right to come out and play.
“Unfortunately we lost today but, yeah, I felt like maybe my dad was out there with me and maybe gave our team spirit. But I just went out there and played and had fun because that’s what he would have wanted me to do.”
Damian Sosa has been the driving force behind the renaissance of youth football in Miami Springs, now entering his seventh year as league commissioner, and he said that bringing on a girl was not an issue in the least.
“We were excited to bring Sophia on board to play in our league,” said Sosa, who dealt with this very same thing when he handled the Doral league years back as two girls played in Doral. “It’s been such a great thing. Every time I talk to Arlene, she tells me, ‘I never thought this could be such a great experience for Sophia where she’s so connected and happy and doesn’t want to miss practice.’ Some kids deal with tragedy in different ways but I think this was a real connection between Sophia and her dad.”
“It hasn’t been awkward at all,” said 11s offensive and defensive lineman Nicholas Willis when asked how the boys on the team handled the situation when Sophia first came out. “We barely even noticed she was a girl. If a girl wants to play she can play and Sophia was just one of us since the first day. I don’t see why she should be treated any differently. I think it’s normal. Someone wants to play no matter what their gender, they can play, and I think it’s really cool that she wants to play.”
Asked how it felt to be the first girl in Miami Springs to play youth football and “break down the doors of history,” young Sophia just shrugged her shoulders.
“I wasn’t concerned about being the first and actually didn’t even know about that until today,” she said. “It was more about just having fun and doing something I wanted to do rather than necessarily being the first.”
And how about paving the way for other girls to come out?
“That would be good,” Sophia said. “Maybe if some other girls out there see me playing, maybe they might not be scared to come out and play too. If they want to, they should.
“Boys have been really cool. Nothing awkward, not even from the start. They treat me like one of their teammates and that’s all I could ask.”