BREAKING BARRIERS…PART 1

The weekend of October 7-8 was a busy one for me. I was fielding a number of messages including one from Paul Barnes from the Ashland Daily Press asking about females playing football. He was working on a story concerning a young lady playing for Washburn. When her coach sent me a list of all the stats from the game vs. Mellen (114-92 win by Washburn on September 30) I didn’t closely look at the first names of one player in particular, Sieanna Sandor. At the same time, I was made aware that Ava Metz of Pewaukee started the game against Milwaukee Pius. History was being made. No, they aren't the first females to play the sport in Wisconsin, but they are part of a growing segment of the population expressing interest in the game.


The Beginning

On the beginning god created the heavens and the earth. He allowed man to invent sports like football. In some states it became a religion…football, family and church (The last two were allowed to be switched around) but in Texas football was #! It was a rite of passage for a boy to play football and become a man.

Years ago, the Dallas Morning News ran weekly stories on the history of Texas football. One of the stories was about junior Frankie Groves of Stinnett who, on November 14, 1947, suited up for the team’s final game. She had no idea of the repercussions this would lead to.


In post-World War II Stinnett was a small town, located in the Texas Panhandle, with a population of about 650 people in 1947. It hasn’t grown much in the last 75-years.


NOTE: You may remember the name Donnie Anderson. He was a high school All-American from that tiny town, Stinnett, in 1961 then he went on to star at Texas Tech where he again earned All-American honors. A running back who could do it all he was drafted in the first round by the Green Bay Packers to replace Paul Hornung. Anderson played 10 seasons in the NFL and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.


First, Frankie told her parents that she tried out for the team, and they weren’t happy but didn’t ask her to quit. She was sort of a rebel. She would go to the local pool hall and hit a few racks. She wore jeans, not a dress!!! As she said she was a girl who liked to live on the edge and why should the boys have all the fun. The coach, Truman “Chief” Johnson, a full-blooded Cherokee who had played in the NFL before the war, saw Frankie play with the boys and remarked that he could use people like her on his team. He was doing his best, but the team was going nowhere but he wasn’t serious about Frankie playing. However, after seeing the 16-year-old junior tackle the boys, he asked her to ease up. She was 5’3, 120 and she was a bruiser. Frankie asked if she could play. He said no. She persisted. He finally gave in. His squad hadn’t won a game all year and with the finale coming up he took a chance. A big chance. He understood there would be problems so, instead of telling administrators his plans to play Frankie he called the press in the area and told them what was going on. The news got out of the panhandle and was reported nationally. Most of his players resented her playing but Johnson threatened those opposed that they wouldn’t be awarded their varsity letter if they continued to resist. So, on a frigid Friday night over 3,000 people and national press showed up for the game. More than 3-times the town’s population attended.


In the third quarter she entered as a tackle for five plays. She played three more in the fourth quarter. The opposing players tried to step on her face. This was a period in football before facemasks. They resented a girl playing their sport. Then it was over. Or was it?


Frankie Groves suiting up to play.

Stinnett beat Groom 14-6. Then, the repercussions began. Her mother was so embarrassed by the small-town gossip she refused to attend the game and didn’t leave her house for months, not even to shop for groceries. Her aunt also failed to attend the game to watch Frankie’s cousin in his final football game for she too was embarrassed. Her father was forced to resign from the school board, a position he had held for years. He took verbal abuse at his job, working at the town hardware store. And, as he predicted, Coach Johnson was fired. Then, things got even worse for females in Texas and for some around the country. The Texas University Interscholastic League (UIL), comparable to the WIAA, ruled on December 3 a “prohibition against girls playing any of the rougher sports” and this would be incorporated into the body’s rules before the next season began. They also ruled that Frankie was ineligible and should not have played as the appropriate paperwork had not been filed. Roy Bedichek, the UIL director, said that “no one thought a girl would have the gumption to try to play”. The board felt Frankie had been a victim of a publicity stunt. Coach Johnson denied the claim saying that it was serious business. Frankie dispatched a telegram to the league office saying “Gentleman, I make a plea for the girl footballers of Texas. We want to play.”


Many states followed suit and passed similar rules but into the 1970’s lawsuits in some states lightened the rules. Title IX passed banning sex discrimination in 1972 but Texas still held back. They allowed “girls” to play girls sports but not cross the line into “boys” or “men’s” sports. In 1987 the UIL relaxed the rules and allowed junior high “girls” to play football. Finally, in late 1992, the UIL, was the last state governing board in the country that voted to allow high school females to play. Some purists in Texas, thought that it was (AS per the Dallas Morning News) “the worst thing to happen since the devil came to being”.

Frankie would graduate in 1949. She would never again play football. She left Stinnett soon after her senior year to get a job. College wasn’t in her future as money was tight. She married three times, had two children and later returned to Stinnett to retire after having worked as a mortgage loan officer in Austin. Now known as Frankie Wood she, as of 2016, still lived in Stinnett.


The First Player


I don’t think the Frankie Groves case was a publicity stunt. However, the story of Luverne “Toad” Wise probably was; and yet she did play and kick for her team. Luverne appears to be in 1939 the first female to have ever played high school football. Like Frankie Groves, she drew national attention. As a junior, Luverne and three friends asked the team coach at her high school, Atmore (AL) (Now Escambia County High School) if she could play for the football team. He said yes and thought that after the girls scrimmaged with the boys that would scare them off. But when Luverne stepped up to try kicking, he got an idea. Coach Andrew Edington told her he already had a good kicker, but after seeing her kick extra points, he said he would give her a try. There was nothing in the rules against girls playing. The only rule to be a player was that they had to wear a helmet. She practiced with the team and was told that when the team was up by 20-points or more she would go in and kick the extra points. She kicked six extra points in all in 1939. The coach also saw money in having her on the team. Luverne would be a big draw at the gate as people came from miles around for the chance to see her go into the game and kick. Some came from as far as New Orleans, nearly 200-miles away. Her uniform was a blue skirt and a white top or a white bottomed dress with a blue top and it was short for the time period. Larger holes in the helmet were drilled to accommodate her hair so it could hang out more. And, she had to wear makeup.


Two of Luverne’s daughters, Susan Moorhead and Toni McMurphy in 2011.

See the video attached. It is a promo-type newsreel. FIRST GIRL TO PLAY H.S. FOOTBALL - Film & Video Stock (efootage.com)


Luverne and her holder, J.F. “Red” Vickery.

NOTE: “Red” would earn all-state honors in 1940, go on to play college ball on a University of Georgia football team that defeated ULCA in the 1943 Rose Bowl. He was transferred to Duke University by the Marines in early 1944 and served in the invasion of the island of Saipan in the Pacific. He lost his left leg in the invasion but returned home otherwise healthy and served for many years as the Register of the Circuit Court for Escambia County. He had a wife and three children.


In one 1939 game the snap to her holder went awry and she picked up the ball, spotted a teammate in the end zone and tossed the ball to him for the extra point. LIFE magazine, newsreels and press from around the country came to see her kick. Luverne earned honorable mention all-state in 1940 as a quarterback and kicker. The 1939 pass was her only one she ever threw.


She married Tony Albert and had three daughters while working in a sporting goods store that she and Tony ran for 39-years. She died of a heart attack in July 1982.


Next time a better look at Wisconsin players.