BIG PINEY — Helen Laughter loves football. Her father played in high school, and her mother is a passionate fan of the Kansas City Chiefs. Laughter wore a Chiefs T-shirt to the interview and warned folks to “bring ear plugs to our house” whenever Kansas City is playing.
The Big Piney Middle School seventh-grader grew up with the sport and dreamed of playing on a football team.
“My dad would throw the football back and forth with me,” she said. “I watched the NFL players on TV and got curious about how this sport works.”
Laughter’s interest led her to attend a football camp led by BPMS football coach Brian Willford when she was in fifth grade.
“I thought this could be my chance,” she said. “I was the only girl to show up, but I was like, ‘Eh, I don’t care.’ (Coach Willford) taught me a lot about offense and defense, and I took a liking to offense.”
The following year, Laughter made the sixth-grade football team at BPMS. She played on the offensive line, but during practice, Laughter realized she liked defense too.
“I found out while we were doing tackle drills last year that hitting people is where the fun is,” she said.
This year, Laughter started for the seventh-grade team as a right offensive tackle. She also saw action as a defensive left tackle. On top of playing on both lines for the seventh-grade team, Laughter has frequently been called on to play up on offense with the eighth-grade team.
“On the seventh-grade team, Laughter is the strongest lineman,” Willford said. “I’m very glad to have her on the football team. She is a great asset because she loves the game and is a great contributor. Our teams had a good season, and we couldn’t have done it without her.”
Offensive players on other teams fear Laughter, and her own quarterback can always count on her to protect him, Willford added.
Laughter’s season ended with a close game against Mountain View. The Rustlers lost by a touchdown.
“I didn’t care about the score,” she said. “The game is about how hard you work. I play football just to have fun.”
Laughter is the only girl on the BPMS tackle football teams. She is one of only a handful of girls with the courage to go out for the sport in Wyoming. According to the National Federation of High School Associations, 10 girls went out for high school varsity football in Wyoming during the 2018 season. There were no stats available for middle school teams.
The New York Times reported in 2018, however, that as the number of boys going out for high school football is declining, more girls are stepping in to fill the gap. Girls are also playing football at the college level. In 1997, Willamette University placekicker Liz Heaston scored the first point for women in a college game. In 2018, Jennifer Gardner signed on as Wyoming’s first female head varsity football coach in Lovell.
Girls are able to play football because of legislation passed in 1970s, called Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX, among other things, requires institutions that receive federal funding – most public schools – to “provide equal athletic opportunities for members of both sexes ... “
Basically, if a girl wants to play a sport, the school must offer a girls’ team in that sport or allow the girl to play on a boys’ team. To date, there are no existing girls’ tackle football teams in the nation. So players like Laughter have to join the boys.
Laughter said the “guys were pretty cool with a girl” joining the team.
“We’re all one team, one big family,” she said. “We practice together, look out and care for each other. We are all an important part of the team, and you gotta do your part.”
“From what I’ve seen, the rest of the boys are glad to have (Laughter) out,” Willford said. “Laughter is a smart player who knows what’s going on in a game. She’s really good at helping other people on the line learn plays. The boys listen to her.”
Laughter sounded like a professional commentator as she described hand signals and plays during the interview.
Laughter’s main concern lay in the fact that the girls’ locker room was farther away from the football field than the boys’. The lockers in the girls’ room are also not designed to hold football gear, and Laughter said her helmet is “streaked in red” from cramming it in and out of her locker every day.
Laughter’s first season on the sixth-grade team ended without victory. The following year, as seventh-graders, the team improved and pulled out some wins.
“We didn’t win any games last year (as sixth-graders),” Laughter said. “We hardly even scored. This year, I said, ‘Please don’t let this be a repeat.’ When we lost to Rich County (Utah), I thought ‘I’m worried now.’ But then we won against Lyman, and I realized maybe we’re getting somewhere.”
The Rustlers also defeated Cokeville and Kemmerer this year and nearly won against one of the top middle school teams in the region, Mountain View.
“The last game of the season against Mountain View is always big,” said Willford. “There were some humongous boys on the defensive line, but Helen stood her ground. She’s not afraid to go against anybody and defensively, had quite a few tackles.”
Laughter recalled sacking Cokeville’s quarterback. He thought he had room to get through the defensive line, but Laughter grabbed on and pushed him back until he tripped for a loss of yards.
“He didn’t get very far,” she said.
Laughter takes the concept of “multi-sport athlete” to a whole new level. A few days after finishing football, Laughter traded in her pads and helmet for a basketball jersey. After basketball season is over, Laughter plans to go out for the swim and track teams. She also sings in choir, plays the bassoon in band and maintains a straight-A grade record (with one B).
“I’m extremely proud of this one,” Laughter’s mother, Billie Laughter, said.
As for football, Laughter is already thinking ahead to next year when she’ll only have to play on one team instead of two. Playing high school football and beyond is also a possibility.
“I’ll play football as long as they let me,” Laughter said.
If anyone has any doubt that girls can play football, Laughter’s response is, “We’re tougher than we look.”