“I wish I had 13 kids like Abby on my football team. I wish I had the heart and determination myself at that age that she has."
“I wish I had 13 kids like Abby on my football team. I wish I had the heart and determination myself at that age that she has. She thoroughly understands that it is more than just a game. It is a life lesson. It is about building integrity and character and working hard to get what you want. She understands completely that you have to earn whatever you get out of life.”
That is football coach Jeff Betteridge speaking, commenting on Abby Thomas, an Oreland resident who for the last two years has been the only girl on the Sandy Run Middle School football team in the Upper Dublin School District. Before that, she was the only girl on the Upper Dublin Township football team for two years.
In this recently completed season that ended Nov. 8, Abby was a special teams starter and substitute defensive player on a Sandy Run team that went 5-1. She started at nose tackle in the team's last game against Wissahickon, which Sandy Run won 30-26, which also won them the league title. Not only did Abby have to compete physically against boys on the other teams, but for the first three years of her four-year football career, she had to deal with the fact that the boys on her own teams would not speak to her.
Abby, 14, who is 5-foot-5 and 150 pounds, is going to the all-girls Gwynedd Mercy Academy next year, partly because they have a flag football team. “I kept to myself for three years because the boys would not talk to me,” she told the Local. “This year we became friends, though. It has been all I could ask for ... I love the adrenaline rush with football. I got the idea four years ago when I saw a TV show called 'Bella and the Bulldog' on Nickelodeon.”
The show follows cheerleader Bella Dawson whose life in Texas takes an unexpected turn when she becomes the new quarterback for her school's football team. At first, the previously all-boys middle school team does not want Bella on the team since she is a girl, but they eventually accept her when they discover that she has talent.
“In 2019, Abby announced to us that she was going to [try]out for the Upper Dublin Township football team,” said her father, John. “My wife and I doubted her resolve. However, she stuck through practice after practice. I would watch in the bleachers at each practice.
“In one particular practice, she was on the scout team defense and was knocked down time and time again. We walked to the car as I fully expected a river of tears to come and her wanting to quit. Instead, she got in the car and joyfully exclaimed, 'That was so much fun!'
“I believe the coaches tried to get the boys to accept Abby,” her dad added, “but the boys were still very immature at that stage and couldn't fathom the idea of a girl football player. In the first two years some of the unkind players were even vocal in telling Abby she was no good and terrible at football. It didn't stop her; she continued to persevere even in the face of no boy support and cruel words from some of them.
“I was shocked quite frankly that she didn't quit after the second year. Believe me, as her dad it broke my heart the first three years to see her standing by herself in practices and games … (Speaking to Abby) was taboo for the boys for three years. She has mountains of courage.”
According to Betteridge, who retired this month after 20 years of coaching, “I made an effort early on to make Abby feel comfortable, but she stayed off to the side. The boys' behavior was a lack of maturity. The boys did not know how to treat her like a teammate. I made it clear from the first practice that we are all family and that it is a privilege to play the game.”
Abby's goal after high school is to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. Thanks to Abby's pioneering football prowess, she has gotten to meet some football legends such as former Eagles' head coach Dick Vermeil (“He was thrilled to meet Abby after hearing about her story,” said her dad), New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, former Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach, ESPN sportscaster Suzy Kolber, who also attended Sandy Run Middle School and was the first girl in Pennsylvania to play tackle football in the 1970s; and the late Wayne Hardin, the winningest football coach in Temple University history who “was like a grandfather to me,” said Abby.
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org