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"Cute, feminine and a mean machine'

Vanessa Cox plays tackle for a Pop Warner football team, epitomizing a trend that has more pre-adolescent girls going out for youth football.

The hardest-hitting player on South Pasco's junior midget football team lined up for a tackling drill at practice.

When Coach Chris Gipson blew the whistle, No. 66 raced five yards toward the charging ball carrier. A moment before impact, the defender leaped forward and dropped a right shoulder in a manner that would please Warren Sapp.

CRACK!

The sound resonated along the sidelines of the Lake Padgett East athletic field. The tackle got many parents' attention, and made one mother proud.

"That's my little girl," said Wanda Cox as she watched her 12-year-old daughter, Vanessa Tyson, knock down the boy with the ball.

Sure, Vanessa hits like a girl. Her teammates have the bruises to prove it. They all know that some girls can hit harder than boys.

At 5 foot 3 and 125 pounds, Vanessa is one of the biggest players on her Pop Warner team for boys and girls ages 11 to 13. She starts at offensive tackle and defensive end, positions that demand strength and a love of contact.

"They were all giving me strange faces in the beginning, faces that said, "Is she playing?' " said Vanessa, brushing her blond hair away from her blue eyes. "Now they are giving me different faces. Scared faces."

But the boys also learned she likes to wear make-up and long skirts, talk with friends on the phone and playfully flirt with the boys _ just not during practice.

"Cute, feminine and a mean machine," said Gipson.

Vanessa is hardly the first girl to play tackle football. Foundation for Youth Development, Tampa Bay's Pop Warner affiliate, has had a few come out since the league started three years ago. Vanessa is the only girl playing this season, but at least two others played in the past two seasons.

The New Tampa YMCA tackle football league attracted its first girl player this summer when Jacquelyn Peek, 13, signed up. She plays tailback and defensive back.

Experts say the trend is shared by other youth football clubs nationally.

"I would not say it's common," said Ron Dilatush, national football commissioner for Pop Warner Football based in Philadelphia. The 70-year-old youth football program has approximately 350,000 children ages 5 to 15 playing in 145 leagues nationwide. "But particularly at the younger levels, girls give it a try."

Since girls tend to reach puberty earlier than boys, many grow taller and heavier during the pre-adolescent years, usually between 9 and 14.

While a handful have tried to play at the high school and college level, most often as kickers or punters, girls rarely continue to play beyond those years.

"As the boys mature, it does become a little rougher," Dilatush said. "I think at that point, the girls decide, "This is not for me.' Then again, we have had them."

Chuck Smith, a professor at the University of South Florida, has spent the past 33 years preparing people to become middle and high school coaches and physical education instructors. He said some girls have the size and strength to compete in high school. They wrestle, box and play rugby, he noted. Why not football?

"Kids may get judged for being too far away from the norm of what young girls should be like," Smith said. "Young girls really feel it because they are moving into an age where they are vulnerable to each other's words and behavior. They think they are on stage and everyone is looking at them."

Vanessa said she takes a lot of ribbing from classmates _ particularly girls _ at school.

"They tease me," she said. "They say all kinds of stuff. I just laugh at them. I tell them, at least I'm going out for something I want to do."

Often the hardest step is winning approval of teammates.

Rachel Seal, 15, felt the pressure two years ago when she joined the South Tampa Pop Warner team her father coached. But she said that only lasted a short time.

"Yeah, I got made fun of a lot," said Rachel, who was 13 and weighed 110 pounds at the time. "Toward the end of the season, it was pretty cool. We all became friends."

Rachel mostly played wide receiver and some halfback. Though they rarely threw her the ball, she enjoyed blocking for other receivers, especially "the fact that a lot of times they got knocked down and were really surprised to find out a girl knocked them down," she said.

But last season she decided to stop playing, saying her father did not want her to get hurt. She now takes karate and may play soccer.

"I did not discourage it (then)," said Charlie Seal. "I really did not have any concerns because of that controlled environment. High school? I think I'd flip a little bit."

Wanda Cox, a single parent, said she will leave that decision to her daughter, Vanessa.

"Anything she wants to do is fine," said Cox. "I do have concerns, but she can handle it, and I'm not going to hold her back."

That would certainly be a tough task. Vanessa, who has two sisters, decided she wanted to play football this summer.

When she first came out to play, the boys went easy on her, thinking she might not be able to keep up.

"At first, they were very timid," said Gipson. "That is, until they picked themselves up off the ground.

"Out of all the guys I've coached _ and I have coached some hard hitters _ she's in the top three," said Gipson, who has coached youth football in Georgia and Florida during the past decade.

A quick study, Vanessa immediately learned the technique and has emerged as the team's hardest-hitting tackler. She has recorded three solo tackles in each of the team's first two games. At one practice, Gipson asked his players how many received bruises from Vanessa.

"They started showing them like trophies," said Cox, who rarely misses a practice.

Now, Vanessa gets treated like one of the boys.

"She's a good defensive lineman," said teammate Thomas Lane. "She can hit pretty hard. They underestimate her, and she just blocks through."

How long she intends to play remains a question. Vanessa said she hopes to return next season. Her mother noted that the boys will soon be bigger and stronger, and if Vanessa wants to keep playing, she might have to consider other positions.

Vanessa likes to remember how people often told her that boys were bigger and stronger than girls.

"I wasn't sure how big they would all be, how strong they would all be," Vanessa said. "Now I know."

_ Michael Sandler can be reached at (813)226-3472 or sandlersptimes.com.

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