Erin DiMeglio, a 17 year old, may be the first girl to play quarterback in Florida high school football history.
When the announcer told the crowd Erin DiMeglio was at quarterback, there was little reaction, because the name Erin, when pronounced, does not connote a gender. But then everyone saw her ponytail swaying as she jogged onto the field. Then there was some buzz. Is that the girl? Can she play? Can she throw?
South Plantation Coach Doug Gatewood knew that the answer to all three questions was yes. The one question he did not know the answer to, and did not want to know, was whether she could take a hit. So when DiMeglio dropped back for her first pass, saw no open receivers, and began to roll to her left, Gatewood felt queasy.
“Go down, Rock,” he said quietly. “Go down.”
DiMeglio, who is 5 feet 5 inches and 140 pounds, did not go down, but she did fire a pinpoint pass to a receiver, who turned upfield for a 10-yard gain. Fans cheered. Cheerleaders chanted Erin’s name. Kathleen DiMeglio exhaled.
“Oh, my God,” she said.
This event, observed on video and recounted by Gatewood in an interview, was not a publicity stunt or a tale of a small-town football team with a jersey to spare. South Plantation High is near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., nestled in one of the nation’s high school football hotbeds. The Paladins’ roster is filled with college prospects. The star running back has committed to Miami, and its starting quarterback has offers from Navy and Air Force. And, yes, one of the backup quarterbacks is a girl.
Erin DiMeglio, a 17-year-old senior, was 2 for 3 passing in that scrimmage at Loxahatchee. And on Friday night, she took two snaps in the Paladins’ 31-14 season-opening victory against Nova, handing the ball off both times. She is believed to be the first girl to play quarterback in a Florida high school football game.
“My friends all think I’m crazy,” DiMeglio said. “But they also think it’s pretty cool.”
DiMeglio’s father, Tom, a police officer, taught her to throw a football when she was a child. Most often, Erin tried to mimic her favorite player, Dan Marino.
She joined a flag football league when she was in the fourth grade. There were about 90 players, and DiMeglio said all but four of them were boys. Among the girls, Erin was the only quarterback.
“She’s always had a really strong arm,” Tom DiMeglio said. “She could throw better than a lot of the guys.”
When Erin was a freshman at South Plantation, she stood on the sideline at varsity football games and helped however she could — as a ball girl, a manager or a trainer’s assistant. She also became the quarterback of South Plantation’s girls’ flag football team, which plays in the spring.
“She’ll get upset because the girls can’t catch her ball because she throws too hard,” said Gatewood, who also coaches the girls’ team. “For the most part, she’ll drill them in the hands and it’ll fall off. I have to remind her to throw a catchable ball, because she’s not throwing to Michael Irvin. But she can pretty much wing a girls’ football wherever she wants to put it.”
Last spring, Gatewood invited DiMeglio to throw to the boys at an off-season workout. She adjusted to the bigger football and proved herself immediately, then asked to try again the next day with a helmet. She threw while wearing the helmet, then asked if she could try in full pads.
“I said, ‘Sure, but you’re not playing,’ ” Gatewood said. “She wore me down and she wore her parents down.”
Last summer, DiMeglio played for South Plantation’s varsity team in a seven-on-seven tournament at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She threw five touchdown passes and three interceptions in three games.
“We’d be warming up, and people would stop over and wait for her to throw to see if she could play,” the Paladins’ starting quarterback, John Franklin, said. “And then they’d walk away like, ‘Oh, they have a girl, and she’s for real.’ ”
Even though DiMeglio was playing against boys, there was no tackling, no need for her to leave her comfort zone. If the quarterback still had the ball four seconds after it was snapped, the play was ruled a sack. But DiMeglio’s performance gave her confidence to take the next step.
Her parents were leery of seeing her get tackled. Gatewood assured them that DiMeglio would line up in the shotgun formation rather than under center, so she would have more time and space to elude a hit. And DiMeglio reminded them that she was tough. As the star point guard for the South Plantation girls’ basketball team, she has had a broken nose, a torn labrum, dislocated fingers and a concussion.
“We kind of realized she’ll actually be protected with a helmet and shoulder pads,” Kathleen DiMeglio said.
Tom DiMeglio added, “She’s not the kind of girl that’s going to worry about splitting a nail.”
After her parents relented, DiMeglio rushed a consent form to Gatewood. The coach did not believe it.
“So I still asked for a letter from her mom,” he said, “another layer of ‘Are you freakin’ sure?’ ”
DiMeglio had proved herself to the other players during spring and summer workouts, so when she officially joined the team, it was met with a respectful shrug. She has her own changing area in the girls’ locker room, and at the seven-on-seven camp last summer, she shared a room with the cheerleading coach. Otherwise, she is one of the guys, and they are protective of her.
Last month, DiMeglio and several teammates traveled to a rival high school to watch a scrimmage. Some students from the other high school approached the players.
“They were kind of making comments about how they heard we had a girl quarterback,” said wide receiver Hordly Seide, who has a scholarship offer from Memphis. “We were just like, ‘Yeah, she’s standing right here.’ ”
After DiMeglio’s debut in the scrimmage, a game in which she was untouched, she brought cookies and dessert to her offensive line.
Gatewood knew he had to prepare her to be hit eventually. Last Wednesday, he brought junior varsity players up to the varsity and taught DiMeglio the best way to take a tackle. She popped back up each time, ready to do it all again.
“Everybody says, ‘What happens when she gets hit?’ ” Gatewood said. “This isn’t a knock on Erin, but she’s bigger than 10 kids on my team. I have a wide receiver that weighs 25 pounds less than her. And the pads she wears are the same as the pads he wears.”
Gatewood has told DiMeglio that she may not throw a pass this season. If she enters a game, South Plantation will probably have a sizable lead and be trying to run out the clock. And that will pose a quandary for DiMeglio, because during this unforgettable season, she would prefer that time stood still.