Brandi Shaw meets her daughter, Eva, on the sidelines of the football field at Bordentown Regional Middle School one chilly Sunday in November. Eva is the only—and first—girl to play in the Robbinsville PAL Junior Ravens football league. But she doesn’t want her opponents to know it.
So before Eva takes the field, Brandi ties her long, light brown hair into a ponytail and tucks it neatly into a skull cap that her helmet easily slides over.
Eva, 10, is a 54-pound defensive end squaring up with players twice her size. Because of her age, she has to play on the 100s team. While her teammates, for the most part, match up evenly with their opponents, other players often tower over her small frame. She sometimes goes up against other girls on other teams, but they are all bigger than her. Still, she stands her ground.
“The kids are bigger, taller and sometimes she’s getting double teamed on the line,” said Eva’s father, Jay. “She hangs in there. She might get thrown down on one play, but she’s fighting the next play, which is great. She just keeps going. We love it.”
Eva tried other sports—softball, basketball, soccer, cheerleading—but nothing stuck. Brandi and Jay asked her if she wanted to play in a flag football league, or in a league where she would be more evenly matched up weight-wise. No way, she said.
“I wanted to be a Raven,” she said.
Eva officially joined the team when the season started in July, but she first caught the football bug last year.
“I just started automatically getting into football because of my dad,” she said. “He wanted me to play catch with him.”
Jay added that the two often watch NFL games together—Eva is a New York Giants fan and chose her No. 13 to match wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr.—and she constantly asks questions, taking in as much about football as she can.
‘She’s gotten tougher and tougher as the season’s gone on. You can’t keep Eva down.’
Brandi took Eva to watch her friend Kieffer at a Junior Ravens 85s practice last summer, and that’s when she got her first taste of organized football. She ended up joining the practice, and then the team, but when she suited up at her first game, the team learned she was eight days too old. She would’ve had to move up to the 100s, but she was only 40 pounds at that point, and all parties involved decided it would be unsafe for her to play.
Brandi and Jay thought the phase would end there, but it didn’t. She continued to play pickup games with her friends on an open field across the street from her home in Town Center—until she snapped her collarbone trying to recover a fumble. But even that wasn’t enough to deter her.
“She was pretty tough,” Brandi said. “I could tell by the way she was crying that it was a little bit more, but we didn’t know [it was broken] for two days. I swore that was it. She’s not going to want to play. Nope. She’s definitely very tough. Both my kids, I’m so proud. They are so comfortable in their own skin. To be 13 and 10 and to know who you are and be like, ‘I’m cool with that…’ Be who you are, and don’t care about what other people think.”
So it’s not surprising that Eva was still determined to get on the field. Her parents were nervous, but head coach Clarke Paulus, his staff and the league’s board members reassured them.
“I was like, ‘People are going to think I’m a horrible mother, I’m letting this little girl play football,’” Brandi said. “But I knew from the first email to [Paulus] it would be okay. I was like, ‘What do you do when all your daughter wants is to play football, and you want her to do it, but you’re totally freaked out?’ Just from the first email, I was like, ‘I’m not crazy, it’s OK, and they’re going to make it work.’”
Eva wanted to be a kicker, but the Junior Ravens don’t start kicking field goals until the 115 weight class. Since she is small and fast, Paulus and his staff thought she would make a good running back instead. She wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being full-on tackled, though, so they settled on defensive end.
Eva said she was nervous but excited to play in her first game. Those emotions haven’t changed.
“I still get a little nervous coming out,” she said. “It’s the competition sometimes.”
Her opponents don’t take it easy on her, and neither do her teammates. Paulus recalled a game earlier this season against Seneca where Eva played the entire game at noseguard, save for a few minutes on the bench after bruising her leg.
Brandi and Jay remember that game well. She was double teamed, but she pushed back and played a good, tough game, Jay said. So he wanted her opponents to know who they had gone up against. After the game, he (purposely) led her in the opposite direction of their car, past the other team.
“We walk over there, her hair is down,” he said. “I just walked in between all the boys, and I said, ‘Oh, the car is on the other side.’ We start walking away, and I hear some of the boys go, ‘Hey, No. 13 is a girl.’ I wanted them to see that she’s playing tough like that.”
They want to prove wrong the stigma that girls are not as tough as boys.
“She’s gotten tougher and tougher as the season’s gone on,” Paulus said. “You can’t keep Eva down. And she never shies away from contact despite the fact that she is almost always knocked around by bigger, better players. She wanted to play football, and nothing was going to stop her. I love it.”
Her teammates love it, too. Paulus, Brandi and Jay all said that the boys—some of whom go to Sharon Elementary School with Eva—embrace her and encourage her. Paulus said the boys respect and root for Eva, especially during practices.
Every week Paulus leads the team through Oklahoma drills, where two players lie on their backs head-to-head between bags. One has the ball, and the other tries to stop the ball carrier from advancing past them. At the whistle, both players pop up and go. The drill, Paulus said, is close-contact, so neither player can gain much momentum before contact occurs.
‘It takes guts to say I know I will be the only girl in the program, but I want to play real tackle football.’
Throughout August and September, Eva had yet to make a tackle during the drill. She finally tackled a teammate in early October, and the team erupted.
“When she does it and gets the other person down, her teammates go crazy,” Brandi said. “They’re like, ‘Did you see what Eva did?’ The boys and the coaches, it’s such a wonderful situation.”
One of the Shaws’ favorite moments from the season didn’t happen during a game or even a practice, though. The Junior Ravens were introduced at a Robbinsville High School football game under the lights earlier this season. Each player was announced over the PA system, and when it was Eva’s turn, the team mobbed her.
“She’s running out, and they said, ‘For the first time ever, we have a Lady Raven,’” Brandi said. “The whole team just ran up to her. The mom next to me was like, ‘I’m crying, and it’s not even my kid.’ It was just so beautiful. They didn’t have to make that about her.”
The team’s season ended Nov. 13 with a playoff loss to Bordentown, but Eva is already looking ahead to next season, when she will move up to the 115s. She practices kicking in her spare time and hopes to play the position next season.
Wherever she ends up, Paulus knows she’ll give it her all.
“The key thing is that she has courage,” Paulus said. “It takes guts to say, ‘I know I will be the only girl in the program, but I want to play real tackle football.’ It takes guts to look at your teammates who average around 85 pounds and say, ‘I know they’re going to knock me around, but I want to play real tackle football.’ She’s 54 pounds. More than half the team are kids playing their fourth, fifth and sixth seasons of football. She is the smallest player at our level in the whole 16-team league. She has rare courage for a little kid.”