MOORE HAVEN — When they arrived on the first day of practice for the Moore Haven junior varsity/middle school football team, the small group of players from the Brighton Reservation was not surprised to see Ysla Gopher on the field.
Most of the Tribal kids knew she planned to play.
But the rest of the 30 or so boys on the squad had no idea they would have a girl as a teammate this season.
“They were amazed,” said Ysla, a 12-year-old girl who is one of the team’s six players from Brighton.
About a month into the season, the Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School seventh-grader looks right at home with the Terriers. She made a few tackles on defense and returned two punts in the team’s second game of the season, a 50-6 win against visiting Donahue Academy on Sept. 21.
One characteristic Moore Haven JV/middle school coach Al Gary learned about Ysla right away is that she doesn’t mind the physical aspect of the sport.
“She’s not afraid,” he said.
Ysla actually arrived in Moore Haven with some playing experience on the gridiron. She was a quarterback for the Okeechobee Eagles youth football team last year, so making the transition to JV/middle school football hasn’t been too difficult. She was already acclimated to the roughness.
“I’m used to it,” she said.
Ysla, who has to remove her earrings before each game per the rules, played cornerback and was on kickoff coverage against Donahue, but the girl in the No. 12 gold jersey opened more than a few eyes as a punt returner. On the first of her two returns, she sprinted back to scoop up the ball at the Moore Haven 15-yard line and proceeded to evade defenders with a couple of quick moves as if she was an experienced running back. At one point during the 30-yard return, she bumped into one of her large teammates, but simply bounced off him and kept going as her teammates on the sideline erupted with cheers.
“She surprised us. Very juky. Something she pulled out of the hat,” said coach Gary, who added that Ysla is also the team’s third string quarterback and wide receiver.
Ysla’s presence has been welcomed in more ways than one.
“It’s awesome to have a girl on the team. It’s awesome to have another tribal member on the team,” said lineman Pherian Baker of Brighton.
“I think she’s doing really well,” said Moore Haven varsity coach Max Manin. “I haven’t had too many conversations with her, but the few I’ve had she seems to really be enjoying it. I know the kids really like having her on the team. She’s a really hard worker.”
Ysla has played basketball and softball, but she’s always enjoyed watching football. Florida State is her favorite team.
“I told my mom I wanted to play football because I like it. I want to continue playing it,” she said.
Ysla’s mother Johnanna Gopher and stepfather Justin Jenkins were among the approximately 100 spectators who watched the game against Donahue.
“We’re proud of her,” Jenkins said. “She was in on a couple of tackles and got to return a couple of punts. It was cool.”
As for being nervous watching Ysla play a rough-and-tumble sport against boys, those feelings haven’t arrived … yet.
“I will be when she wants to play varsity,” Johnanna Gopher said. “That’s when those boys are big.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the name of Ysla’s stepfather. His name is Justin Jenkins, not Jason Jenkins.