If you look close enough, there’s a hint of a blonde ponytail under her helmet. The end of it hangs down just enough to brush the top of her shoulder pads.
But to the casual observer, Kassie McCue looks just like every other player on the field.
McCue is the starting safety on Hilliard Weaver’s seventh-grade football team. In September, she became the first female player in Hilliard football history, at any level, to intercept a pass. She caught the ball in the end zone and returned it 35 yards before getting knocked out of bounds.
Even as the numbers of female football players have risen nationally — National Federation of State High School Associations data show a 92.5% increase from 2009 to 2018 — the majority of female players are kickers. In central Ohio, Isabella Neal kicks for Fairfield Union and Ella DeMent is one of Granville’s kickers.
Earlier this year, kicker Ashleigh Macias accounted for all six points in Howland’s 6-0 win over Niles. The Ohio High School Athletic Association doesn’t have specific records on points scored by female players, but Macias is believed to be the first to score every point in a game.
In 2020, Cleveland Heights kickers Olivia McKay and India Pulphus were featured in a Super Bowl LIV commercial that celebrated female leadership in football.
Holley Mangold broke barriers in the late 2000s when she played on Kettering Alter’s offensive line and became the first female non-kicker play in a Division III game.
But nearly 15 years later, it’s still uncommon to see female players at contact positions. That’s part of what makes McCue unique.
“It sticks out when you talk to parents who don’t (know her) and you’re like, ‘My daughter plays football,’” said Mark McCue, Kassie’s father. “And they’re like ‘What? Tackle football?’ and they sort of take a step back. ‘Is she a kicker?’ ‘Oh no, she tackles and gets run over.’ It definitely gets people’s attention.”
A lifelong football lover, McCue started playing flag football when she was 6 and has been pushing to make the move to tackle for the past few years. The initial plan was for her to start playing tackle football last year, in sixth grade, but the COVID-19 pandemic canceled that season and sent her to another year of flag football.
But this year, tackle football was an option again, and McCue grabbed the opportunity. She started the season playing both safety and running back and finished the year as the starting safety and punt returner.
“It was really fun,” McCue said. “A lot more challenging, but it was awesome.”
Though McCue’s team didn’t win a game, her passion for football was apparent every time she stepped onto the field — even in a 54-0 loss to Pickerington Ridgeview.  
“She’s just always loved it,” Mark said. “We like football, so it’s always been something we watch, but I didn’t grow up playing at a high level or anything like that. She’s always been good friends with a lot of the boys, so a lot of the kids on the team she’s friends with.
“Once she started playing flag football and loved it, she loves to play. She loves to play Madden with her friends and fantasy. Just football types of things, she’s really had a passion for probably for the last four or five years at least. All things football.”
Hanna Keller almost couldn’t believe it when she heard that Smitty, one of the main producers of clothing for officials, was introducing a women’s cut pant to its line.
Just weeks before, Keller had reached out to a fellow official to ask how she gets the men’s pants to fit properly — a process that requires buying pants multiple sizes too big and having them altered just about everywhere.
“I actually had a pair of pants done, and then they came out with the women’s pant,” Keller said. “It’s really, really nice. I never expected (it). I did think it was really cool to see the company saying, ‘Hey, there’s enough women out here that we’re gonna make this specific design and style for the female officials we have out there.’ ”
Keller, 26, first was licensed to officiate basketball when she was 16. Her father is an official and had taken her with him to games over the years, and when she stopped playing basketball, she decided to start officiating.
In college at Wright State, she added football to her repertoire and is now licensed for basketball, football, softball and baseball. This fall is Keller’s eighth season officiating football.
The OHSAA doesn’t keep data on the number of female officials, but it’s clear that the number of women in officiating, particularly in football, has grown since Keller started. Smitty introducing women’s pants is just one example that proves the growth.
In September, an all-female crew officiated a high school football game in Oregon for the first time. One of the women, Amy Pistone, is now an assistant professor at Gonzaga University and earned her doctorate at Michigan. While officiating basketball in the Midwest, she and Keller got to know each other.
“I think there’s kind of a different type of camaraderie with other women, just because we’ve been the minority for so long,” Keller said. “It’s empowering to see other women stepping out and being able to have the courage to do this: to step out in, I don’t want to say a man’s world, but a male-dominated sport and do it.”
Keller didn’t become an official to make a statement about the capabilities of women as referees. McCue didn’t start playing flag football, and eventually tackle, because she wanted to make history as the first female player to have an interception.
But every time they step on the field, in their own way, they do make statements.
We’re here. We’re good at what we do. This is normal.
Keller can recall only one incident in which someone made a comment about her being a woman: a football player who told her male crewmate that he couldn’t say anything to her “because she’s a woman.”
“I think that the easy thing to think is I’m a woman, I don’t know football,” Keller said. “… I remember I had an older gentleman come up to me when I first started and said, ‘Since when did they start letting women officiate football?’ He didn’t mean it negatively, but I said, ‘You know there’s a woman in the NFL?’ ‘Oh no, I didn’t know that.’”
In 2015, Sarah Thomas became the NFL’s first full-time female official. In 2021, she was the first woman to officiate a Super Bowl. This season, there are two full-time female NFL officials for the first time — Thomas and Maia Chayka, the league’s first Black female official
“I think (my presence) surprises a lot of people,” Keller said. “I get, ‘Yes, sir — I mean yes, ma’am,’ a lot.”
Mark McCue thinks Kassie surprises a lot of people, too. With the tip of her ponytail just barely sticking out of her helmet, neither father nor daughter are sure if opponents even know there’s a female player on the field.
Kassie prefers it that way. As Mark often describes her, she’s just another kid who loves football.
And as numbers continue to rise, both of players and officials, the presence of women in football has gone from unconventional to routine — even rising to the level of having their own league. The Women’s Football Alliance, a women’s 11-on-11 tackle football league, began in 2009 and has 47 teams across three divisions, including the newly-founded Columbus Chaos.
“The former team, the Columbus Comets, didn’t quite make it through the COVID season,” said Chelsea Johnson, co-owner of the Chaos. “We have an opportunity to revive that platform for this upcoming season. I do believe, as a former player, that we have and need that platform here, especially in the market of Columbus.
“… (We need that platform for) representation. One word. Representation. Women’s football and, more than that, women’s full-tackle football, has been a taboo subject for some time now. … It is our honor, as an ownership group made up of former Comets players, to be here to complete the story of women’s football.”
The representation Johnson talks about is part of what has allowed players like McCue and officials like Keller, along with countless others, to step into previously male-dominated areas and excel. With every woman who breaks a barrier, it becomes easier for the women who follow to do the same. And as the number of women excelling in football grows, so too does the number of future opportunities. 
“I think that just speaks to, hopefully, the positive change in our society and the culture of sports,” Keller said. “I think it helps having a female official in the NFL and almost every single Ohio State game that you turn on, there’s a female official on the crew.
“(It shows) the strides that I think officiating and sports in general are making toward an inclusive environment. That includes everyone, regardless of gender.”


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