It started just like any other game day. Chapel Hill High School junior Brook Harker was wearing her lucky bracelet and listening to Fetty Wap in the locker room as she dressed out for her team’s first home game of the season.
It wasn’t until the car ride home that night, when her mom said they needed to talk, that Brook realized something was up.
Earlier that morning, Jennifer Harker, Brook’s mom, had posted a tweet announcing that her daughter would be starting for the varsity football team, making her the first female athlete in school history to accomplish that feat.
By that night, the tweet had almost 8,000 likes — now nearing 60,000 likes — and had attracted the attention of several reporters and Bleacher Report, a sports media website that reaches millions of followers.
“I had like 20 new follow requests,” Brook said. “I was like, 'What is going on?' It was crazy.”
'She's Iron Man today'
Unlike most of the other small number of women playing football, who usually play non-contact roles like kicker, Brook specializes in playing free safety.
But this unusual feat doesn’t weigh on Brook, as she’s always had big dreams. Throughout her childhood, her imagination led her to emulate the strength and courage of powerful superheroes, while her parents often encouraged her to keep pushing the limits.
“I was like, ‘Oh this is awesome, if she wants to be Iron Man today, she’s Iron Man today,'” Jennifer said. “We just let her be her, just always. Whatever you want to do, just do it.”
Her family kept the same mentality when, in third grade, Brook decided to compete on her local flag football team. As a very active child, it was no shock when she caught her first interception later that same season.
“I remember I just kind of caught it and didn’t know what to do with it,” Brook said. “I was like, ‘Where do I go?’”
After spending three more years playing non-contact football, Brook was ready to upgrade to full-fledged tackle football. At the end of her sixth grade year, she was the only girl to participate in a small scrimmage hosted by her middle school in order to scout out new incoming talent, before joining the team the following season.
The following year, three more girls followed her lead and showcased their own talent on the middle school field.
“I thought it was really cool," Brook said. "I’m hoping that I was able to help them realize that if they wanted to play, they can."
The physicality of the game can be dangerous to any athlete, male or female — something Jennifer has had apprehension about.
“I’m a complete mess about it, it worries me to death, but I just try to trust her coaches to know when to put her in and when not to,” Jennifer said. “I trust her and all of her training, she’s been playing her whole life, she knows what she’s doing.”
Brook’s coaches are also careful to keep her matchups as equal as possible in order to provide her with an extra layer of protection, even with Brook’s more competitive nature.
“I totally understand it, but sometimes it’s a little bit annoying because I like to get physical,” Brook said.
'Like every other teammate'
By the time Brook was able to step up to the high school stage, she was the first and only female athlete to compete in such a physical game for Chapel Hill High School. Yet she — and the rest of the team — feels that she is just another one of the players.
“My first impression was that she knew the game of football,” head coach Issac Marsh said. “I didn’t have to go and explain a lot of the activities and the drills we were doing, she was familiar with it.”
While most reactions to Brook’s success have been positive, there's a small lingering presence of doubt from those unfamiliar with her ability. A number of those commenting on Jennifer’s viral tweet were insensitive and misogynistic, questioning Brook's ability based on her gender and size.
But Brook and her mother said the comments are not necessarily unexpected.
“No matter what profession you’re in, no matter what you do, you are going to get smacked up against that kind of stuff,” Jennifer said. “As a woman, you’ve got to work harder and prove yourself more often, and I don’t feel like football is that different.”
And for Brook, her family, teammates and coaches have repeatedly voiced that they see her as an equal and valuable member of the team.
“I don’t really look at her any different from anyone else on the team,” Chapel Hill quarterback Caleb Kelley said. “That’s why I was surprised a little when (the tweet) blew up, because like, for us, we look at her like every other teammate.”
The first chance to prove herself came in August during the very first scrimmage of the season against Ravenscroft School.
As Brook took the field under the Friday night lights for the first time, a number of onlookers wondered aloud if she was capable of actually doing anything.
But it only took two plays and her lucky bracelet for Brook to make one of the biggest tackles of the game as her sideline erupted.
“We were all going crazy on the sidelines,” Palmer Blanchard, another of Brook’s teammates, said. “It was our first setting hitting another team, so I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was like, ‘Whoa, she can hit.’”
Brook’s biggest goal for the season is to help the team become the best it can be — a task she rarely struggles with. In last Friday’s game, Brook managed to kick for two extra points, deflect a pass, catch an interception and even play a few snaps on offense. She has seen playing time in each of the team’s five games so far.
As the season progresses, Brook and her teammates hope their hot 5-1 start will be a sign of greater success to come.
Her main focus is doing whatever it takes to help her team win, but with the platform she has been given, there’s a message Brook hopes to give to other young female athletes.
“Don’t hesitate to go for what you want,” she said. “If you can see yourself doing something, or even if you can’t see yourself doing something, but you want it, just work as hard as you can to get it.”
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