Girl, 11, now must tackle Archdiocese of Philadelphia

Caroline Pla, 11, of the Romans CYO team, sacks the Holy Cross quarterback. Her next opponent? The Archdiocese of Phila.
Caroline Pla, 11, of the Romans CYO team, sacks the Holy Cross quarterback. Her next opponent? The Archdiocese of Phila. (SEAL PLA)
Posted: January 07, 2013

Lining up for the last play of the season - and probably her career with her Catholic Youth Organization football team - 11-year-old Caroline Pla "gave it everything I had" and sacked the quarterback.

It was just like the final scene of Rudy, the inspirational movie about Notre Dame - Pla's favorite team - except that Rudy Ruettiger was a practice-squad player; Pla is an all-star.

"Without a doubt, she was the most inspirational player on the team," her former Romans coach Jim Reichwein said Wednesday. "She was every bit as strong and as tough as any person on our team.

"She never backed down from a single challenge."

Now, the sixth grader is tackling the challenge of convincing the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that girls should be allowed to play tackle football in the CYO program for fifth through eighth graders.

She has the backing of her teammates and classmates, plus more than 7,100 supporters across the country and around the world.

The archdiocese's policy states that "CYO football is a full contact sport designated for boys," spokesman Ken Gavin said Thursday in a written statement. "There has been some perceived ambiguity in the policy regarding this point."

Asked whether the ban on girls might be lifted, Gavin said in an e-mail: "The rule is being reviewed to provide complete clarity."

In the fall, the archdiocese had about 43 junior-varsity and varsity CYO football programs, Gavin said, with about 2,500 boys - and the Doylestown Township girl.

"To our knowledge," he said, "she was the only girl."

Coaches and officials in Our Lady of Mount Carmel CYO in central Bucks County were unaware of the boys-only policy, so Pla played the 2011 season and two games into the 2012 season before an opposing team reported her, said her mother, Seal Pla.

Most opposing players "couldn't tell I was a girl," Caroline Pla said. "I had my hair pulled up, and I kept my helmet on except at halftime and the end of the game."

"The biggest challenge for her playing football," her mother added, "was to get her hair in the padded helmet."

The archdiocese wanted the girl off the field immediately, Seal Pla said. But coaches and officials, backed by Msgr. Joseph Gentili, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Buckingham, persuaded the archdiocese to allow her to finish the season.

Pla and her 30 teammates weren't told about the rule until near the end of the season, "because we didn't want to get into her head the feeling that she wasn't wanted," Seal Pla said.

When she was told, "I was shocked," Caroline Pla said. "They said it was a safety issue, which doesn't make sense. I was about the same size as everybody" - 5 feet and 95 pounds her first season; 5-foot-3, 110 pounds last season.

"There was never a time when I couldn't handle myself," said the defensive end and guard on the offensive line, even when opponents talked smack.

"Sometimes, they used curse words and made fun of me for being a girl," she said, "and made fun of my teammates for playing with a girl."

The Cold Spring Elementary School student had the last laugh, as her junior-varsity Romans team won the championship in her first season and took third place in 2012. She even ran the ball a few times when the team had a big lead, scoring the only touchdown by a girl in CYO history, the organization's director told the team.

She also played in last month's all-star game, one of a handful of Romans to earn the honor.

Caroline Pla said she has wanted to play football since she was 3, watching her older brother play Pop Warner. She played Pop Warner flag football at ages 5 and 6, when there were a few girls on opposing teams, before becoming the only girl playing Pop Warner tackle at ages 7 through 9.

Pop Warner had weight limits - 70 pounds for 7-year-olds, 90 pounds for 9-year-olds. At age 10, anyone could play for the CYO, and everyone made the team.

The Romans draw players from Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Doylestown, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, and three neighboring parishes in central Bucks and Montgomery Counties. The team plays nearby CYO teams every Saturday from September through mid-November.

The season starts with one month of four-night-a-week practices, and it did not take long for Caroline Pla to earn her place, said Reichwein, her first-year coach.

"At first, the guys were reluctant to go against her," Reichwein said of the practices. "That quickly changed when she put them on their back."

The game of football has a way of "sorting things out," regardless of a person's gender, race, or culture, Reichwein said. "Caroline was at the top of the list - great teammate, never backed down from anybody, regarded with the highest level of respect."

The team demonstrated that respect in her last game as a Roman, when she was named the sole captain. As she stood at midfield before the start of the game, with the referee addressing her and the other team's captains as "lady and gentlemen," Caroline Pla's teammates held hands a few yards away to show their support.

Pla said she has the backing of her teammates and classmates to move up to the Romans varsity team and play two more seasons.

To persuade the archdiocese to "stop discrimination" and to "allow girls to play," her mother posted a petition on Change.org that has drawn more than 7,100 supporters across the country and as far away as Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

"A nun from Scranton wrote that she was disappointed in the archdiocese," Pla's mother said. "Msgr. Gentili told her, 'Go get 'em, Tiger.' "

Caroline Pla's goal is simple - to give it everything she has and sack the archdiocese's ban the way she sacked the quarterback in her last play as a Roman.

"There are girls who say they want to play," she said. "I want to change the rule so they can play."


Caroline Pla talks about her fight against the ban of girls from CYO football at www.philly.com/CYO


Contact Bill Reed at 215-801-2964

or wreed@philly.com, or follow

on Twitter @breedbucks.

Read his blog, "BucksInq,"

at www.philly.com/bucksinq.

|
|
|
|
|