She is a typical 9-year-old girl. She likes to play with her Barbie dolls and games on her iPod.
He is your typical 8-year-old boy. He spends his time playing his Nintendo DS, riding his scooter and watching sports on TV.
But Ella Nichols and Blake Emerson are far from typical. In a society full of gender stereotypes, these two children did what they wanted to do.
It started in August of 2013 on a small field in Bristol. Ella Nichols suited up in cleats, shoulder pads and a helmet and walked on to Casey football field for the first time with the members of the 4th Grade Bristol Bulldog Youth Football team. For only the second time in the 50 year history of Bristol Youth Football & Cheer, a pony tail would hang out of a helmet.
Ella donned colorful socks and bright pink shoelaces and wrist bands — an opportunity to keep her daughter cute in football her mother, Lara Nichols said. While the long hair and colorful accessories stood out amongst the black and red uniforms of her Bulldogs teammates, on the field she looked no different than any of the boys.
“I was nervous the first day,” Ella’s mother Lara Nichols said, “but once I saw her with her new teammates I knew she’d do fine.”
She added, “When she first told me she wanted to play football I tried to talk her into cheering again, but she insisted on playing football, so football it was.”
Fourth grade head coach Chuck Conner saw Ella’s confidence right away.
“Ella walked on that field on day one like she belonged there and I think that’s why she immediately started earning respect from the rest of the team,” Conner said.
Ella hit hard. She ran fast. She worked as hard as her teammates and gave 100 percent at every practice — raising the eyebrows of coaches and fellow players.
“It really elevated the level of play of the entire team, not so much because the boys didn’t want to be beat by a girl, but because they wanted to perform at her level,” said coach Conner.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines, Blake Emerson was unknowingly creating history. He would become the first boy to participate as a Bristol Bulldog Youth Cheerleader.
There was no helmet to shield his face or pads to soften any hits, but he didn’t need a helmet or pads — Blake quickly built friendships and showed how his strength and determination could help his fellow cheerleaders. While he and his teammates didn’t have a lot in common, Blake fit in and began to participate as a member of the Cheer Squad and not as a boy on a cheerleading team.
Blake’s stepmother, Joceyln Emmerson, talked about the friendships Blake developed.
“The girls took to him right away. And as the season went on, some of the girls became very protective of him, making sure that no one from outside the team was bothering him. I often heard him referred to as ‘our Blake,’” Emmerson said.
“I was a little nervous to be honest with you, when I saw that Blake signed up,” Bristol Mighty Mite cheer coach Sara Aparo said. “I didn’t know how the girls would react to having a boy on their squad. But right away at our first practice I saw that Blake was fitting in with the squad. He has a great personality and is really funny, so the girls really took to him.”
Blake impressed his female teammates too, showing off his speed while doing laps around the field during practice.
“He is super-fast, so the girls would make a game of it and time him each lap,” coach Aparo said.
But why, as an avid sports fan, choose cheerleading? Blake’s answer is simple: “I saw cheerleaders on the Today show and there were boy cheerleaders, so I thought it would be fun.”
And fun it was for Blake, who says his favorite part of being a cheerleader is cheering in front of spectators at competitions.
The addition of Blake to the Mighty Mites gave coach Aparo the opportunity to take her squad to the next level.
“It made us stand out, and made us rethink our music and even our competition routine. We were able to use a little rock music instead of the typical pop music you hear at cheer competitions. It gave us a fun feel,” Aparo said.
Back on the field, Ella’s speed and aggressive tackling earned her a spot as a safety on the team — the last line of defense, in which she performed well.
“The coaching staff never worried about giving up a long run or a touchdown when Ella was at safety. We knew she would do whatever she could to prevent a touchdown and never slowed down on her hits,” Chuck Conner says. “Ella could hit as good as and sometimes harder than anyone else on the team, and it showed in every practice and on game day.”
“My favorite part about football is being able to hit for sure,” Ella said. “I like hurting the boys.”
Ella’s 4th Grade Bristol Bulldogs team had an incredible year — winning the AYF (American Youth Football) New England Regionals, beating Hartford in the MidConn Conference finals and Norwalk in the state championship along the way.
Blake’s Mighty Mites Cheer team had a great year on the field and in competition, earning medals in the local and regional competitions.
“Their voices were loud, their jumps were high and the stunts were performed as a team,” coach Aparo said. And Blake was right in the middle of it all.
The success of both Blake and Ella on the field would not have been possible without the support of the league.
“BYF&C has had a tradition of encouraging all players and participants, regardless of gender, to play whatever sport they want,” Bristol Youth Football & Cheer President Robert Decker said. “Just a few years ago Bristol Youth Football had their first female football player graduate from the tackle program, playing all the way through the eighth grade. We hope to see many more boy cheerleaders and female football players. The bonds built at the youth sports level transcend all preconceived gender barriers. These bonds are for life and we’re proud to promote it.”
Breaking gender barriers by switching sides of the field wasn’t even a thought to Blake and Ella. All they wanted to do, like other kids, was to participate in something they thought was fun with kids they enjoyed being around. They did not care what others thought or how they would react. It did not worry them about how kids would treat them in school. Nor did they realize the heroics in their actions — paving the way for other children who want to be able to participate in any sport they want without being teased or bullied about it in school.
Jocelyn says it’s important to let children follow their hearts and to let them do what they want to do. “You have to support your child in whatever they want to do. Be their support, encourage their dreams and allow this to be an opportunity to overcome your own prejudices.”
“If a girl asked me if she should play football next year, I’d say yes,” Ella said. “Anything a boy can do a girl can do.” — “and do better,” Lara Nichols added.
Because of children like Blake and Ella, AYF (American Youth Football) is adding a co-ed division for cheer. Aparo and Decker hope to field a co-ed cheer squad in 2014, which would be required to have three boys on the team.