As the sun went down on a recent crisp, autumn night, the lights on Post Falls High School’s athletic field illuminated a time-honored – but increasingly scarce – homecoming tradition: powder puff football.
Senior girls clad in purple ran drills, tossed the pigskin, huddled and cheered. The juniors, costumed in red with glittery eye-black, sat on the sidelines and chatted about the possibility of the game turning rough.
“It’s a bunch of girls; it kind of turns into a cat fight,” said Mariah Rouse, a junior.
The atmosphere is fun and lively, and it’s all for a good cause – proceeds from the games typically benefit a charity or the senior class graduation party. Belying its name, the competition often is fierce.
“I don’t like to lose, that’s not my thing,” said Emily Bennett, quarterback for Post Falls’ senior team.
That drive to win, however, is behind the slow demise of the powder puff tradition. Too many injuries, school officials say.
“Our kids wanted to do it, and I called our insurer,” said Joe Kostecka, athletic director for the East Valley School District. “Our insurer strongly discouraged it, so we said no.”
First game in ’72
The first powder puff football game was played in 1972, in Wallingford, Conn., when a high school athletic director decided to spark a little competition to draw more girls into athletics, according to at least one source, Wikipedia.
Sometimes rival high schools compete, other times it’s class versus class. Many games feature high school boys as cheerleaders.
One consistent element is that the game is never tackle football – always flag or touch.
Central Valley High School brought back its powder puff game last year after it had been banned for seven years because of injuries. Pictures of previous games on teacher Leanne Donley’s wall apparently inspired students to ask for its return in 2009.
“The kids just wanted to do it because it looked fun,” Donley said. The administration said yes.
On Thursday, a combined freshman and senior girls’ team will play a full football game against the sophomore and junior girls while 24 “manleaders” dressed in skirts pump pompoms on sidelines.
“It’s an activity to get students involved and raise money for the food drive,” said Hannah Robb, a senior leadership student who’s helping organize the event.
While Central Valley’s game will be a full football game, Post Falls’ format was four 15-minute games that concluded with the juniors playing the seniors.
At both schools, the girls’ teams were coached by regular-season football players.
Post Falls senior Colton Peugh took his role as coach quite seriously and said he’s a big supporter of powder puff.
“It would be a big disappointment if powder puff was canceled,” Peugh said. “It’s a big part of homecoming for the football players.”
The final matchup in Post Falls was close, with juniors and seniors tied 0-0. Then senior Tori Davenport ran in a touchdown as time ran out.
“The seniors always win,” she said. It was high fives all around. Peugh beamed with pride.
No protective gear
Powder puff football is a long way from the dainty image its name conjures up.
The girls who play aren’t typically violent, school officials say. They are just competitive in a game they aren’t trained to play. Plus, they aren’t wearing all the protective pads and helmets worn by other football players.
Bennett, Post Falls’ senior quarterback, broke a rib the first year she played powder puff. “A rather large girl fell on me,” she said.
Those are the kinds of stories that prompted the elimination this year of powder puff football from Lakeside High School in the Nine Mile Falls School District, said Principal Mark St. Clair.
“I made that decision simply for fear of injuries,” St. Clair said. He asked himself, “Do we really want girls who don’t have football safety training to go out and risk injury? No.
“The injuries have included broken fingers, collisions … nothing where we’ve had to call an ambulance, but certainly enough to catch our attention.”
School officials elsewhere also recited a litany of broken bones and concussions from powder puff games. And coaches of other sports take a dim view of their star athletes getting injured.
That’s why powder puff football has been discontinued at Deer Park High School, Jenkins High School in the Chewelah district, Bonners Ferry High School in Idaho’s Boundary County district and University High School in the Central Valley district. At Post Falls High School, “it went away for some time because some kids were getting hurt, some of the girls got unruly on the field and there were some unruly crowds,” said Principal Dena Naccarato. “This was a sport or a game that didn’t need to happen. It’s powder puff.”
Then four years ago, students rallied to bring it back. “It was quite the discussion,” Naccarato said. When the game returned, there was one big change: Fall sports athletes, such as cross-country runners and soccer and volleyball players, need not turn out.
“If you are in season doing another sport, then you’re not allowed to play,” Naccarato said. “The girls don’t like that, of course.”