Bryan Gray acknowledged having some reservations at first.
The East Hall High football coach never had a girl on any of his teams before, so he was naturally a bit worried when Kaia Rice stepped on the field for the first spring practice ahead of the 2015 season.
But within minutes, the then-freshman alleviated her coach’s concerns.
“When I blew the whistle to move drills, she turned and told the other kids to grab the bags and follow her,” Gray said. “I knew at that moment that she was special. … She leads others, and I have never seen a ninth-grader with that kind of leadership. After that practice, all the coaches and I couldn’t stop talking about her.”
From that moment on, Rice gained the respect and admiration of her teammates while blazing a path as one of few — if not the only — female football players in Hall County’s history. She is likely the first to play a position other than kicker, the spot girls almost always assume.
On top of that, Rice is also an honors student and plays flute in East Hall’s band, making for a well-rounded mix of smarts and skills that helped her earn a spot on the Junior Homecoming court for last Friday’s game.
Rice was in a dress and holding flowers on the sideline for the Homecoming ceremony. About 30 minutes later, she caught a pass and was diagnosing plays as a receiver/linebacker in East Hall’s 42-14 win against Lumpkin County High.
“We talked about it, and she wanted to be on the sideline in her dress,” Gray said. “But when that was over, she sprinted to the locker room, got in her uniform and was warming up before the second half.”
Gray said he believes the “tough-as-nails” Rice is the only female currently on any Hall County football team, a significant status she strongly downplayed.
“She doesn’t think that she’s special or that she’s anything more than one of the guys,” said Michele Bagwell, Rice’s mother. “I told her, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re opening a door for girls in Hall County to play football. You don’t know your greatness.’ But she doesn’t see it that way. She never wanted it to be a thing; just football.”
Though she may insist otherwise, Rice’s standing as a football player is extremely rare.
According to the Georgia High School Association’s 2016-17 participation survey, only 59 girls played football last year. Twenty-five of the 419 Georgia high schools with football programs had a female on their roster, and many private schools have policies preventing that very thing.
In fact, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month reported Prince Avenue Christian School denied student Megan Garth’s request to play on its football team after she practiced throughout the summer and was in contention for the kicker job.
“I was heartbroken for her,” said Rice, who has an area of the locker room separate from the rest of the team. “It just reminds me that I have such a special opportunity here and can’t take this for granted.”
But desire to prove a point or break down barriers wasn’t what compelled the junior to try out for football.
Toward the end of her eighth-grade year, she heard a school announcement directing all students who wanted to try out for spring football to report to the gym after school. When Rice considered trying her hand at the sport, she simply asked herself, “Why not?”
The eighth-grade boys assembled at the meeting also asked themselves a question — “Why?”
“At first were kind of shocked, pondering if she would even be a contributor in any way,” senior quarterback Austin Parker said.
Rice, who has never played another sport, received a different reaction from her mother, though her stepfather was a little reluctant at first about her playing football.
“I told her to do it,” Bagwell said. “We can’t tell her no because we will have never known how good she was if we were to stop her. I was for it 100 percent. … If she gets hurt, so what? That’s football; it happens.”
Anyone thinking Rice wasn’t tough enough or too injury-prone to play football simply because of her gender was proven wrong almost instantly.
Gray recalled a junior varsity game from Rice’s freshman year when she delivered a punishing blow that took down a running back much larger than her but also knocked the wind out of her. While the opposing player remained on the ground, Rice staggered to the sideline, refusing to give anyone an excuse to question her toughness.
The junior’s tenacity and commitment — Gray said she has never missed a practice or workout — gradually won over all her teammates, who look to her for leadership and inspiration.
“We don’t really see her as a girl; we see her as part of the family,” said East Hall junior lineman Carlos Zaragoza. “ … She’s such a hard worker, and she’s tough. She can hit.”
Added Parker: “She has really earned that jersey and has bought into what we’re doing.”
It’s not all talk from Rice’s teammates. The senior class unanimously voted her a team captain, an honor bestowed upon the hardest-working players during the practice week, for the Vikings’ game at Johnson on Sept. 8.
She made a 5-yard reception in East Hall’s 60-7 win, one of her two catches this season. But she’s still a fixture on special teams and entrenched as a second-string receiver, all while maintaining the highest GPA on the team and keeping up with her work for the band.
“She one of the hardest-working students I know, and she’s a role model to other people,” said Michelle Fair, an East Hall instructor who taught Rice ninth-grade biology. “ … She just has a contagious personality, and she can’t be stopped. It’s like that with her playing football, something so non-traditional.”
Always one to eschew the norm and aim as high as possible, Rice hopes to study law at Harvard, Bagwell said. But until then, she’ll be right here in Gainesville combating the stigma that girls can’t hang on the football field.
East Hall wants her to stick around as long as possible.
“Kids in the community look up to her, and she has everybody in the school’s respect. She’s probably the most respected player I’ve ever coached,” Gray said. “Everything about her, if she was a boy, you’d still be extremely impressed. She’s truly an inspiration for anybody.”