By Justin A. Rice
SOUTH BOSTON — Toward the end of a recent South Boston High football practice at Moakley Field, JV coach Emmerson Phillips scolded a player chatting with his girlfriend while he stood on the sideline.
“Tell her to go have a seat,” the coach yelled across the field to the player. “No girls here, this is football practice. No cheerleaders.”
A moment earlier Phillips was shouting at Gaby Cruzado, a junior strong safety on his JV team, after she blew her assignment on a long pass completion.
“Gaby!” he hollered, throwing his arms up in the air.
“I gotcha,” the 5-foot-6-inch, 125-pound female football player shouted back, putting her coach at ease.
To Phillips, Cruzado is not a girl or even one of the guys; she’s simply an athlete, a football player.
“She’s an athlete, that’s what it is,” said Phillips, 32, explaining how the first-year player has adjusted to her new sport so quickly. “She’s an athlete. She can play the sport. She might not be the best but she can play the sport no matter what.”
The 17-year-old from Dorchester has played girls varsity basketball since her freshman year at South Boston and now can add captain of the JV football team to her resume.
While Phillips doesn’t keep stats, he said on Sept. 28 in a 42-10 victory against East Boston she returned an interception 30 yards and on Oct. 5 she made about 10 tackles in a 30-6 victory against English High.
“If she keeps going like this I’ll play her on varsity next year,” said third-year South Boston head coach Sean Guthrie, 31, who played football with Phillips at Boston College.
The South Boston JV and varsity practice together because there are not enough players on each team but Cruzado doesn’t stand out. Wearing an oversized green jersey, Cruzado pulls her short brown hair back so it only slightly sticks out of her blue helmet. Just like the boys, she takes pride in her Nike accessories, including cleats, gloves and wristbands.
Underneath her football pants, however, she wears white leggings so she can change in front of her teammates. The school doesn’t have its own practice field and the public park where they practice doesn’t have a locker room.
She’s only been strapping on all that gear for about two months.
“I put pads on and I was like ‘Wow I’m really about to do this. Oh God, I can’t believe I’m doing this,’” she recalled after practice one day. “It felt good. At the same time I couldn’t believe I was doing this.
“When I was young I always liked football,” she continued. “I was a tomboy. I used to dress like a boy. Now I dress like a girl and people are like ‘Wow, she plays football.’ I always wanted to play football but never thought I could until I asked [the coaches.]”
Last winter Cruzado was dating a football player at South Boston High when she approached Guthrie about playing herself.
“I get a lot of girls saying ‘Oh I’m coming out for the football team,’” said Guthrie, who along with Phillips also teaches at the high school. “[I say] ‘Okay, alright, we’ll see’ and they never show up.”
Cruzado not only consistently showed up to 6 a.m. off-season weight lifting sessions before school, she was making her new teammates look bad when they didn’t attend.
“That was great for me as a coach,” Guthrie said. “I’d say ‘Gaby was here every day this week, where were you at?’”
By the time summer practice rolled around in August, none of the boys on the team disrespected Cruzado.
During a recent practice a teammates patted her on the behind after a good play. She momentarily flinched before swiveling her head and flashing a smile across her freckled face.
“I guess its part of football, I got used to it,” Cruzado said after practice. “I did it back to them. They don’t like it when I do it back to them. I got them.”
She also emerged as the team leader a couple weeks ago. After Phillips canceled the JV game because most of his players skipped practice but still showed up for the game, Cruzado chewed out her teammates.
“When I heard that I was like ‘Oh my gosh,’” Phillips said. “The girl has grown.”
Almost the entire team attended the next practice.
Her teammates might have accepted her as a peer, but Cruzado still gets funny looks when she rides the bus home in her pads. Referees and opposing teams also scoff at the coin toss before games.
“I tell them straight, let everyone know we got a girl on the team,” Phillips said. “She doesn’t play like a girl so it doesn’t matter.”
But the learning curve was large because Cruzado, who was only familiar with the quarterback and linebacker positions, had no idea what a safety was when Phillips assigned her to the defensive backfield.
“I didn’t want to put her in a position to fail,” said Phillips, who also played defensive back in the Canadian Football League.
While it was difficult for her to learn to read coverage, by far the hardest thing for Cruzado to get adjust to was hitting and being hit — but only after the boys got used to hitting her.
“The first practice they would say ‘I’m not hitting her’ till the coach said ‘Oh you’re not gonna hit her than I’ll make you run,’” Cruzado said. “Then they hit me. The first couple hits it shocked me. Now I’m used to it. Now people hit me and I step right back up.
“Football is pressure. I’ve been through so much I can handle it. What I’ve been through is different, football is hard but I’ve been through harder. I knew I could do it. What I’ve went through, I knew I could do football.”
Cruzado, who lives with her mother, step father and three siblings, declined to elaborate on why her home life is so difficult.
She did say if she had a daughter she’d encourage her to play sports and would attend all her games.
“I’ll support them, I’ll be there,” she said. “I’ll cancel work to be at their games.”
Still, while her female counterparts at South Boston High have held her in high esteem, she admits football is not for everyone.
“Most girls in school want to play football too,” Cruzado said. “It’s a good sport. But football is not for every girl. That’s my opinion.”