For a new generation of girls, high school football is physically demanding and fun

Roseline Oshagbemi draws a route on her hand during a Watkins Mill soccer practice in Gaithersburg on Oct. 25. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Roseline Oshagbemi’s high school football career began with a time-honored pastime: the powder puff game.

An annual tradition at many high schools, powder puff is an old-school entertainment that involves a swap of traditional gender roles: female students play flag football while football players serve as coaches and cheerleaders.

Oshagbemi enjoyed playing, but what she really enjoyed was spending time with the football players on the coaching staff at Watkins Mill in Gaithersburg. She respected the camaraderie they seemed to share and how comfortable and friendly they all were with one another. Then, at the end of her sophomore year, Oshagbemi decided the powder puff game wasn’t enough. She wanted to try the real thing.

“That was my path to football,” she said.

This weekend, Oshagbemi, now a senior, will be a two-year varsity player and one of her team’s captains for the Wolverines’ first-round playoff game against Urbana. She plays running back, tight end, linebacker and occasionally defensive end.

Thirty miles south in Vienna, Madison’s Jessica Bae is preparing for a regular season finale against Centerville. The senior has been in the Warhawk program for four years, starting as a lineman and then moving to wide receiver.

“I would go to football games [growing up], and it was always just a good time,” Bae said. “When I saw these things, I really wanted to play.”

Oshagbemi and Bae are two of several players in the D.C. area and represent a new generation of girls participating in the game: They don’t play foosball, the position traditionally assigned to female participants, and they don’t consider themselves novelties. They approach their decisions to play football with a certain nonchalance and, after years of commitment, they show an undeniable passion for the sport.

“I can’t lie, I really don’t know where my interest in the game came from,” Oshagbemi said. “I was a sporty child and always wanted to try new things. Football just seemed interesting.”

Despite her athletic upbringing, Oshagbemi did not play sports during her first two years at Watkins Mill. She worked after school and participated in some extracurricular activities, including being on the K-pop dance team. Her parents didn’t watch much football, but there was something about the sport that she liked. A few weeks after the Powder Puff game, she participated in offseason training.

An avid Cowboys fan, Bae grew up in Dallas and got a big dose of football. When her family moved to Virginia, she tried out for Madison’s freshman team in 2020. Due to pandemic stunting participation, the team only consisted of 18 players, meaning Bae had plenty of time to learn her craft on the line.

“It just felt really exciting; There were just a lot of moments where it just felt like we were doing it together,” Bae said. “The freshman team was very tight-knit because of its small size.”

Watkins Mill has a much smaller soccer program than Madison, meaning Oshagbemi joined the varsity team right away. Her first experience was in a seven-on-seven competition where she was supposed to play safety.

“I really didn’t know what to do,” she said. “They scored a touchdown pretty quickly.”

Over time, her discomfort lessened. She can’t pinpoint a game or moment when it happened, but a few weeks into the season she noticed she was feeling more comfortable and confident on and off the field.

“The reaction from opponents was mixed, but that’s part of it,” she said. “A lot of people are going to see me out there, put lotion on me and say it’s cool.”

Bae remembers exactly when she found her confidence on the field. As a sophomore on the junior varsity team, she became a wide receiver and struggled to learn route running early on as she adjusted to the more physical nature of the game at a new level.

In one of her favorite football memories, Bae remembers a catch in the last game of the season.

“It was a turning point for me where I was able to prove to myself that I could do it and prove to everyone else that I could do it,” Bae said. “I feel like a lot of times I want to show people that I can make a difference and do something different.”

While many football newcomers first have to get used to the physicality of the game, Oshagbemi had hardly any problems with it. When she told her body to throw a punch, it listened.

“In general, I’m a pretty physical person,” she said. “It was harder for me to get used to wearing the pads than it was to get used to running in to make a tackle.”

In her time at Watkins Mill, Oshagbemi has only seen one female opponent – a fleeting moment of recognition in the post-match handshake line. She and Bae said they talked to other girls about playing soccer quite often and encouraged them to consider it as an option.

“I feel like I’ve inspired a lot of people around me, not just through football, but also through having the courage to do new and different things,” Bae said.

For Oshagbemi, trying something new and different led to one of the best nights of her high school years. In late September, Watkins Mill defeated Wheaton 27-13. It was the program’s first win since November 2019 and Oshagbemi’s first win as a football player. After the game, she and her teammates gave their coach a celebratory bath. She had made four tackles that night and the feeling of contributing to a win was something to savor.

“Playing soccer taught me that I can adapt and evolve,” she said. “And I learned that I can get involved in things. If I decide not to give up on something, I can develop a passion.” For a new generation of girls, high school football is physically demanding and fun

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