'I just wanted to prove them wrong'
Grace Wiley, a Lakeridge High cornerback and the only girl on the Pacers football team, says she was originally inspired to start playing the sport for a reason that's probably familiar to many women: Some guys told her she couldn't.
"A couple of boys were joking around one day, saying girls could never play football," Wiley says. "That was my seventh-grade year. I just wanted to prove them wrong."
By her freshman year at Lakeridge, she had convinced her parents to let her play. Once she got on the high school's junior varsity team as a sophomore and saw some playing time, however, her inspiration changed.
"I realized I didn't really care about proving them wrong anymore," Wiley says. "I had just found a sport that I really liked to play."
Wiley says she was originally nervous about how her family and school community would react to her decision to join the team, but the feeling didn't last.
"There were a few people that were skeptical about it," she says. "But once I start playing, you can't be skeptical. I'm playing — what are you gonna do?"
Wiley's good friend and teammate, Brett Logsdon, echoes her sentiment.
"People were very unsure at first," he says. "We didn't really think she was going to do it. But once she was on the team, the players started to get to know her and she fit in well."
Now a junior, Wiley has seen limited action with the Pacers' varsity team this season. She played about half of the game against Wilson High earlier in the year, but says she doesn't play as much when the team is facing more challenging matchups.
Wiley says she is used to being around boys because she has two brothers. While the team may pick on her, she says, it's nothing that her male teammates don't also receive.
"They pick on me and each other," she says, "just like any other brothers would. It's a family environment."
She says she's also been welcomed by the coaches, who Wiley says originally intimidated her. "Coaches are always intimidating," Wiley says. "But I know on the inside they really care about me."
She says head coach Elvis Akpla has had a hugely positive influence on her. "He's been so open to me being there, and he's always challenging me to be the best that I can," she says.
Akpla has nothing but great things to say about Wiley.
"Her development as a player and as a person has been one of the most incredible things I've been a part of since I've been at Lakeridge," he says. "Grace's hard work, determination and unselfishness is nothing short of exemplary."
Akpla calls Wiley one of the most important players for the Pacers, saying her presence has raised accountability on the team. Last year, as a sophomore, Wiley even won the Pacers' Most Inspirational Player award.
Still, playing football as a female is not without its share of challenges. At 5-feet-9-inches tall and 155 pounds, Wiley says she knows that she is at a physical disadvantage compared to her male teammates. She worked hard to bulk up during her first year on the team, she says, but there were some male teammates who added more weight in a few months than she was able to over the whole year.
"It was definitely hard accepting that," says Wiley. "But I'm held to the same standard as everyone else on the team, so it's just another thing I have to go through."
Wiley is not one to shy away from challenges, however. Football practice takes place Monday through Thursday after school, with early morning practices on Tuesday and Thursday and a weight-lifting session on Sunday. Although it takes up a lot of time, Wiley says football is the one thing that clears her mind.
Her other passion is animals. She currently volunteers whenever she can at the Southern Oregon Humane Society when visiting her grandma. She hopes to be a veterinarian.
Her current goal, however, is to play football for as long as she can. Wiley plans to attend Southern Oregon University, where she hopes to land a job involved with football, such as assistant team manager.
"I'd just love to be around football and help out with the team as much as I can," she says.
After college, Wiley says she would consider playing in a women's professional league. Among her inspirations are Dr. Jennifer Welter, a female football player and the first woman to coach in the NFL. "Seeing a woman in the NFL, in any capacity, is huge," says Wiley. "To see her breaking down walls is something that I look up to."
Akpla says he has no doubt that Wiley will be successful in the future, "due to her unique characteristics and her ambitious drive to conquer any hurdles placed in front of her."
For the time being, though, you can catch Wiley under the Friday-night lights at Lakeridge.
"I earn my playing time," she says. "I'm just doing what I love."