Who says girls can't play football? Certainly not 13-year-old Auburn Roberson
Her parents say they love when it happens, usually in the handshake line after a game when they hear the surprised tone in someone's voice.
Sometimes it is preceded by, "Oh my God," as in "Oh my God, that was a girl," which is what an opposing coach said recently after Auburn Roberson threw the winning touchdown pass, then took off her helmet as the two teams traded "good games."
"We're like, 'Oh yeah, they just found out she's a girl,'" Autumn Roberson says of her 13-year-old daughter. "And she'd rather it be like that. That's why her hair is never down, it's never sticking out, because she wants you to think she's one of the boys."
It's really all Auburn asks. No fanfare. No special favors. In fact, the only time she was ever close to being annoyed with her best friend, Justin Birkelbach, who's three months younger than Auburn but 122 pounds heavier and 11 inches taller, was when he refused to tackle her hard.
"It was the first year we were on different teams -- we were in fourth grade," Birkelbach, 12, recalls. "I was scared to death to tackle her the first time, and I remember when I did tackle her, I gently placed her on the ground. Then right after, I tried to help her back up because I didn't want to just leave her on the ground.
"She kept dropping hints later that she wanted me to try harder and just play regularly."
He would find out the depth of that wish when all five-feet, 105 pounds of her bore down on him at a game a few weeks ago, and took him out at the ankles.
"I'm not at all worried about her [anymore]," he says with a smile. "If anything, I'm worried about the people she tackles."
One of an estimated 25,000 girls who played the sport on the youth level in this country last year (according to USA Football), Auburn loves football. She loves it so much that her bedroom -- with the Fatheads of her in uniform from her "Super Bowl"-winning teams; the NFL-themed bed linens and furniture; assorted signed footballs and framed photos; trophies; a Cam Newton feature wall and closet full of football jerseys -- is every football-lover's dream, and the envy of all her little brother's friends.
She loves football so much that after a brief and ill-fated attempt by her mother, a former college cheerleader, to enroll her in dance classes as a toddler, her parents "snuck" her into an all-sports recreational program at age 4 -- one year younger than the enrollment requirements.
They should have known by then that that was where Auburn would be happiest. At a year and a half, her father, Brian, noticed that when they'd throw a ball around the house -- any ball -- "she had perfect aim; she could throw it on a line and zip it right in at you."
Auburn loves football so much that when she started bringing home books from the school library in first grade, the first one was "The History of the Green Bay Packers."
"After that, it was the history of any team," Autumn says. "So I know more about every team than I want to."
Auburn, who plays quarterback and middle linebacker for the Haines Middle School team in St. Charles, Illinois, and quarterback, running back and safety for her area club team, the Tri-City Chargers, loves the sport so much that she says she would like to continue to play on the high school level, college level and until recently, maybe even the NFL level.
She doesn't rule out the women's pro league, either. "It's all right, the uniforms kind of throw me off [though]," she says of the Legends Football League's bikinis-with-shoulder pads look. "If it was more like the NFL, I'd probably like to play, yeah."
But realistically, what is her future in the game?
Sam Gordon was 9 when she shot to YouTube fame after her father, Brent, circulated a highlight reel that showed his less-than-60-pound daughter whizzing past defenders and scoring at will in her mostly male tackle football league in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Sam, now a 13-year-old eighth-grader, has serious aspirations and elite talent in soccer, but she still plays football. Now, however, it is in an all-girls tackle football league she and her father started two years ago after Sam asked kids at a school assembly if any girls were interested in playing, and nearly every hand shot up.
Last season, they had more than 100 girls enrolled in the eight-team league. And Sam says she feels for Auburn and female football players like her who are usually at a size disadvantage against boys as they enter their teenage years.
"It really is unfortunate girls don't have quite as good opportunities to get college scholarships in football, and it seems like less of a chance to play in high school, just because by that age, girls at their peak form are not going to be as tall and heavy as boys," she says.
"That was where my dream of girls' tackle football comes in. I want girls like [Auburn] to be able to play in high school and get college scholarships and play football at a professional level, and I think [girls' leagues] give more girls opportunities to do what they want to do."
Sam said she heard from girls who wanted to play football, but who said their parents did not want them to compete against boys. The all-girls league is a good solution, she says, and she doesn't miss playing with boys.
"All the girls have such a fun time, which is a little different with boys. With boys, you see many of them doing it for a long time, but not with the same love of the game that the girls have. With girls, everyone really wants to be there, so it makes the experience so much better."
She will pursue soccer, but said she wants to continue to play in an all-girls football league, hoping to entice high schools in her area to start club teams. At 4-foot-8, 90 pounds, she said she couldn't envision playing with boys in high school.
"I think they would take me seriously in high school, but to be honest I don't know how good of a chance I would have," Sam says. "I think I would be one of the better ones in agility and speed, but in size and strength, even compared to girls I'm small, and I'd be crushed by boys, honestly. It would be difficult getting a starting spot. When they're that big, it's very difficult."
Brent Gordon said he is a big believer in the team building, discipline and hard work that carries over from football to other aspects of life.
"But I don't think in older age groups, the risk of injury is worth it," he says. "There are other pursuits, there's also all-girls' leagues. I think girls should definitely consider playing football at younger ages but definitely should also be realistic about their risk of injury as they get older."
Auburn said she loves the game because she loves the action. "In other sports, it's maybe waiting around, or it's too fast and I kind of like the pace of football," she says. "It's really exciting and everything."
She calls the plays on both offense and defense and it's what she likes most about being quarterback.
"I'm in charge of it all. I mean, I'm not bossy about it or anything, but it's nice to be in control because I almost know what's going to happen and what's happening around me, so it's easier."
She loves Joe Montana and Tom Brady, but worships Cam Newton because of his style of play.
"Especially at this age, seventh grade, probably the first reaction [of other boys] is 'Oh, it's a girl, let's go lay some hits on her,'" says her Haines teammate Max Medernich, 12. "But Auburn is one of a kind, a Cam Newton sort of thing. She can throw, she can run, she can do anything. And people are shocked by her. She's magnificent."
Auburn also plays basketball with girls and baseball with boys and it's her overall athletic ability that helps her most, says Luke Sharkey, 13, another Haines teammate.
"She has a great arm and can run really well," he says. "Once she gets out of the pocket, I know there's a first down coming or a significant play."
Autumn, who has two younger children -- August, 11, and Braidy, 9 -- says she thought it was "crazy" to allow her oldest daughter to begin tackle football at age 7. And her husband agreed it certainly wasn't part of any plan.
"It always just felt like she was meant to do it," Brian says. "It was an easy decision on my part."
"He kept telling me, 'She'll be fine,'" Autumn says.
Last year, when Brandon Petersen, a social studies teacher and the football, basketball and track coach at Haines for 14 years, asked his class who was interested in playing football this fall, Auburn raised her hand.
"I never had a girl volunteer to play football for my team before," Petersen says. "So out of curiosity I said, 'What position do you want to play?' And she said 'quarterback,' and I was like, 'That's interesting.'"
He says his first thought was how they would handle the whole locker room thing. His second? "Could she handle the physicality? When we do tackling drills, can she handle it?"
Then he saw her throw.
"I was like, 'Whoa, now I can see why she wants to play quarterback,'" he says. "When we do tackling drills, she'll put her shoulder right into anybody. We had a game [a few weeks ago] and they had a kid about 200 pounds and she just took him down like it was nothing."
Petersen calls Auburn poised, a great leader who commands the huddle, and an astute student of the game who recognized offenses and defenses scarcely before he introduces them. As for the reaction of his male players, many of whom had played with Auburn since second grade? "They recognize how good she is and the transition has been seamless," he says. "I've never had to acknowledge the fact that she's a girl or her gender at all."
Her Tri-City Chargers coach Brian Glon said he was not aware Auburn was a girl during league evaluations prior to their draft, but after finding out, he came home and announced to his wife: "I might draft a girl."
"I told her, 'You don't understand, she is head and shoulders better than most of the boys her age,'" Glon says.
He calls Auburn "one of the best we have as far as technique, she's a great tackler ... has a fantastic stiff arm, probably the best in the league," he says. "She's not the fastest in straightaway speed, but she's powerful. And as a competitor, we were just in a fourth-down situation with the clock winding down and she told me, 'Coach, give me the ball, I'll get the first down.' I did and sure enough, she pushed her way in there and we won the game."
But as with all football players, size is still an issue.
"When the boys mature from eighth grade to freshman year, is she going to be able to mature?" he said. "Right now, she's one of the fastest and strongest and can throw the ball 40 to 50 yards. But can she continue to grow?"
St. Charles North, the high school where Auburn and her Haines classmates will attend in two years, is currently 9-2 in football and ranked 44th in the state. In his four years as head coach, Rob Pomazak has sent 13 players to compete on the collegiate level -- six to Division I schools -- and currently has three players committed to play at D-I schools.
But Pomazak does not hesitate when asked about Auburn one day playing for him and becoming one of the more than 1,700 girls who play high school football in the U.S., according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"Currently, she's the best quarterback at her school at her grade level, so I don't see any reason why she wouldn't come in at quarterback as a freshman," Pomazak says. "After that, whether she stays at quarterback or we have to put her at running back or another position to be successful, whatever is in her best interest. But if she's the best player at her position, there is no reason for her not to continue to play that position."
The smallest player on Pomazak's varsity squad this season is 5-5, 130 pounds. He has four players who weigh less than 150 pounds. While the coach acknowledges that at some point Auburn (whose parents are 5-6 and 5-8) might not be able to match up physically, he is aware of her desire for a career in football one day, possibly as an NFL scout or coach.
"If coaching is in her future, we want to put her in the best position to have her keep learning the game," Pomazak says. "[But] I hope she plays four years, I'll be perfectly honest. We don't have many people with the leadership skills and drive Auburn has. By no means will we try to hide her or put her as a manager."
He says he fully expects his team as well as the community to be as receptive to Auburn as they were to Kat Stutzman, a soccer goalie and kicker he had on his team who graduated in 2013 and went on to the Air Force Academy, though she did not continue on in football.
"Her teammates will have played with her since second grade and will all be very familiar with Auburn," he says.
And they're apparently not interested in leaving her behind.
"I hope she does [play in high school]," says Haines teammate Josh Kennedy, 13. "It's going to get a lot harder for her, but I think it's definitely possible. All she has to do is just keep working hard like she has been. A couple years ago she told me she had a quarterback coach and I was like, 'Wow, she really takes this seriously.'"
For now, Auburn says she is concentrating on basketball because she knows she can probably play in high school. Her father also stuck a golf club in her hand a few years ago. "I'm not too bad at golf," she says. "If I could get a scholarship in that, that would be good."
Auburn's parents are unlikely to be surprised at anything at this point. "With other sports when the season is done, now it's time to move onto the next one," Brian says. "But she never tires of football. I just feel she's meant to keep playing. She likes it that much."
Autumn admits their daughter has "blown our minds" playing this long. But, the reality is that if Auburn wants a college athletic scholarship, it probably won't happen in football.
"I just kind of want to play as long as I can," Auburn says. "If I could make it to high school, that would be nice. I think I could probably [make it] freshman year but anything past that, I'd have to work really hard for it. Just being smaller, all of them are so big. ...I can punt. I could try kicking. I really just want to be around the game."