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Twenty-five years ago Jacque Womack spent her summer practicing with the Terriers.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Grass grows. Seasons pass. Time flies. Just for a minute, let’s turn the clock back 25 years, to the summer of '88. News wise, the pickings were pretty slim.
The state bought the land for Explore Park. Three movie theaters in town refused to show “The Last Temptation of Christ.” A freak storm blew down a tent at the Salem Fair and sent two people to the hospital with broken bones. Roanoke scored its third All-America City Award.
Bigger news than any of the above was happening over at a football practice field in Vinton. A girl tried out for the William Byrd High School football team, and spent a large part of the summer practicing with them.
She was 5 feet 4 inches and 110 pounds, a rising junior. Her name was Jacque (pronounced “Jackie”) Atkins. It appears she was the first girl to try out for a local high school team.
But that was a well-kept secret. It didn’t make the news until later. Even then, the real reason she never played a game didn’t come out.
This week, I heard the rest of the story from Jacque Atkins Womack, class of 1990, and her dad, Roger Atkins, who lives down at Smith Mountain Lake.
Today Womack is a mother of three young girls, ages 6 to 13. She lives in McLean, teaches third grade. Her husband David Womack (William Byrd class of 1988) is a lieutenant colonel in the Army. He’s slated for promotion in October.
Womack was an unlikely trailblazer. She describes herself as a “prototypical Southern belle.” She begged me not to put her age in the newspaper. You can probably figure it out for yourself.
Back in 1988, she was a sprinter on the track team. She also played basketball. “I was pretty quick,” she said. Her older sister Christy was a star cross-country runner. Their friends were other student athletes.
Early that summer they were hanging out by a pool when the topic of Jacque trying out for football came up. Her pal Mike Neubert was the first to broach it. At first it was a goof, she said.
“Some of my guy friends were sitting around the pool joking, saying ‘Jacque we need you on our team as a wide receiver.’ ” They knew she could catch a football.
But as time went on, “what started as a joke became, ‘ We’re serious, you should do this.’ ” So she approached coach Jeff Highfill, who still coaches the Terriers. (I couldn’t reach him for comment).
“He said, ‘ Well, if you come to practice, and if you can do two-a-days, I guess you can try out.’ ”
She also approached her dad. Roger Atkins was concerned about his daughter playing football, and he had a very good reason. That went back to his own days as a tailback for Marshall High in Fauquier County.
In the first quarter of one game, he took a knee hard to the lower back. That ended up costing him his right kidney.
“I was dumb enough to play the rest of that game,” Atkins told me. “I woke up two days later in the hospital.” That was the end of football for him.
When Jacque approached him about trying out, Atkins faced a conundrum common to many parents. He’d always told his two daughters, “you can accomplish anything you want to in life, if you put your mind to it.” So he felt like he couldn’t say no.
Womack believes her dad thought she’d get a taste of football practice then quickly quit. He was wrong about that. “I don’t think he expected me to like it and stick with it,” she said.
She spent weeks practicing with the team. Off the field, she lifted weights with them. On the field, she learned the plays, did the drills. Except for one teammate, Broad Bonds, “the guys were reluctant to hit me,” she said. There was a running joke was that “every time it was time for me to do a drill, the coaches would call a water break.”
Once they got into two-a-days, a lot of the team members hung out at the Atkins house on Duke Drive in between practices.
Roger Atkins snuck over to some of those. With all the helmets and shoulder pads the players wore, he couldn’t pick out Jacque on the field, he recalls. The summer, which was a little wetter than normal, wore on.
When mid-August came, Atkins’ protective-dad instincts welled up. His own high-school injury loomed larger in his mind. How could he let his little girl risk getting creamed by some behemoth from an opposing team?
The day before the Terriers’ first scrimmage, Atkins pulled the plug on Jacque’s gridiron dreams. He yanked her off the team.
“He wasn’t willing to put me in danger of getting hurt,” Womack said. “I look back and thank God he did that. I was so strong-willed, I’m not sure I would have walked away.”
One of the Terriers’ first-string wide receivers broke his hand in that season’s first game, Womack recalled. The team went 1-9.
Later that school year, Jacque made a singular appearance on the football field, during the annual junior-senior girls power-puff football game. On the first play, she took the ball and ran it the length of the field for a touchdown.
“She ran for something like 230 yards in that game,” Atkins proudly recalls. He’s got the videotape, and he plays it now and then.
Womack’s daughters laugh in delight every time they watch it. They’re athletes, too: swim team, soccer and basketball.
Have any of them broached the subject of playing football?
“Only jokingly, not seriously,” Womack laughed. “I’m probably more overprotective than my father.”
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