The girl inside the helmet
In an adventure that begins with a few storm clouds, Livi Handelman's journey into Bill George Youth Football ends with a silver lining.
Livi is one of about two dozen girls who spent this past season on the gridiron playing in the BGYFL. About 4,500 total players participated in Bill George tackle football this year, so these few fearless females make up less than 1 percent of the roster spots.
None of that matters to Livi, however, who just wants to play football. The 11-year-old Carol Stream resident recently finished her second season in the West Chicago Wildcats program.
She played in the 100-pound division, but the football bug first bit her in 2006 when she considered trying out for the 80-pounders.
Her football career could have been derailed almost before it started according to her mother, Kim Handelman.
"When it was 80 pounds she wanted to try out, but she decided after registration and it was too late," Kim recalled. "So the next year she decided in plenty of time and she signed up (for 90 pounds). That first week was extremely tough, and she wanted to quit. She hated it."
The West Chicago 90-pound program had two teams, gold and silver. The more experienced players would be assigned to the gold team, while the others would play on the silver squad. The first brutal week of practice was designed to slot players to one team or the other, but they all practiced together.
"We were up against gold and silver players," Livi said. "The gold players and the silver players both hit me really hard. They were probably trying to make a point that they're boys and just because I'm a girl they won't let up on me."
Livi herself was not trying to make any point other than trying to play football, and as it turned out, survive. Her older brother, Tim, also plays Bill George football and that is how she caught the bug.
"My brother let me play with his friends and it was fun," she said.
The first week of practice, on the other hand, was anything but fun for the football novice. Quitting, however, was not an option her mother gave her.
"That's one thing I told her," Kim said. "When you sign up and you're playing with the boys, if you're committing to it, you've got to stick it out. She knew that upfront. You join up, you hate it, too bad. It will be a long four months of hating it."
Tough words from a mom who would make a good assistant coach to Mike Singletary.
"I don't think she realized how tough it was going to be," Kim said. "That first week when you're out there doing push ups and sit ups, it's 90 degrees. You've got all the equipment on and it's tough. I give anybody credit who does it."
Livi survived that first week and was assigned to the silver team. That silver team turned out to be her football life line. After the first week, she was in the same boat with other inexperienced players. The sport that she briefly hated became fun again - tough, but fun.
Middle linebacker became her position with the 90-pound silver Wildcats. Perfect for someone who finds tackling to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the sport. In practices, she likes running the ball because she has played only defense in the games.
This season West Chicago had two silver teams at the 100-pound level and Livi played under coaches Tom Schuman, Rob Flatter and Ron Miller. They have all been very supportive of Livi according to Kim. So have her teammates now that she has proved herself.
"They're nice to me because they know I played last year," Livi said. "They talk to me more and they don't hit me as hard."
Livi continues to get plenty of support from her family, including her twin-sister, Lexi, who is a cheerleader in the Bill George program. Although her main objective is to just play the game, Livi also recognizes there are other eyes watching Number 20, the one with the ponytail. Those eyes look up to her.
"There's one especially, and it's the coach's daughter," Livi said. "(Sam's) like 9 or 10 and she cheers me on. She wants to play football."
Livi admits she plays a little harder and tries to do well when Sam is watching. The Benjamin Middle School sixth-grader takes her job as a role model very seriously. A lesson this 11-year-old thinks a few more pros could learn as well.