Isa Katz knows how it feels to have the wind knocked out of her on a football field. She knows how great it feels, too, to deliver a blow. But a 5'4", 128-pound varsity player sometimes has to get inventive to bring a ball carrier to the ground.
"I've been working on it, getting a little lower with tackles," she said. "Even if I have good form and wrap up, I might not get them down. I have to try to take out their legs."
So it was for Katz--one of two girls on the team--as a sophomore at Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago, which reached the state playoffs. Katz, who turned 16 in October, is Payton's starting kicker, going 14 for 15 on point-after attempts and converting all but one of her five field goal tries.
She made her long kick--32 yards--in a first-round playoff loss at Rochelle. Her season highlight: scoring the only points, from 21 yards out, in a 3-0 victory against Raby. Walking out of the locker room after that game, an opposing coach and a couple of his players gave her fist bumps and said, "Good game."
"It was nice to get that respect," she said.
What is there but respect to have for a girl who grew up playing flag football, loves the sport, had the temerity to crash the boys' club and, oh, by the way, is a straight-A student with a class load that includes multiple AP courses?
Katz was in sixth grade when she first started kicking around the idea of playing football in high school. At home during the pandemic, she had more time to think about it. She asked herself if she wanted this to be part of her identity. Ultimately, she settled on a question: If she were a boy of her size, would she want to play? "Yes" was the only answer.
Her parents were initially concerned but gained confidence while hearing from Payton's coaches about hitting techniques that would align with safety concerns throughout the sport. Meanwhile, Katz discovered Andrea Reyes, a fellow rising sophomore with plans to go out for the team. The girls emboldened each other, a beautiful thing.
"She just has always had a love for football," dad Kevin said. "We were happy to support her as long as she wanted to do it."
One opponent's players laughed at Katz before a game, but on the whole she was met with tremendous support. Teammates embraced her. Students and parents cheered for her. Chants of "We want Isa!" happened.
"It brings a tear to your eye," her dad said.
In regard to her Jewish identity, Katz has mixed feelings.
"I don't personally believe in God," she said, "but the identity of being Jewish, more the cultural aspect, is something I identify with. It's nice to have a community of similar people who maybe have similar traits as you, and it's nice to have holidays to get the family together."
She has found a football family, too. Here, it's the little things that count--like Payton's quarterback tapping her on the helmet after she puts the ball through the uprights.
And when the season ended? That was special. One of Payton's coaches approached her after the state playoff loss.
"I wasn't a big believer in girls playing football," he said. "But seeing you and Andrea [Reyes] has changed my mind."
Add that to the victory column.
Steve Greenberg is a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.