Michelle "Mickey" Grace isn't trying to take a stand. She doesn't want to make a point, or inspire anyone. She isn't trying to prove something. And yet Grace, a high school football player who graduated in 2010 and now coaches her rival team, has been setting an example for others for years. As she prepares for her boys at Martin Luther King High School in Philadelphia to play their first game of the season, this Friday against Coatesville, Pennsylvania, Grace remembers what it was like to catch the football bug.
In the spring of her junior year at Philadelphia's Germantown High School, two years into her tenure as the office aide for the football team, she hinted to head coach Mike Hawkins that she wanted a bigger role with the team -- on the field. "'Sure, come to practice today,'" Grace remembers him saying. "He and the rest of the coaches were shocked that I actually came."
She accepted her appointed spot as a kicker for about a week before demanding a better gig. "I was like, 'OK, let's stop kidding ourselves,'" Grace says, laughing. "'I'm on the team now, which is awesome, but we never kick. We're in D2 Public League in Philly, we never kick. We go for the two points after every single touchdown. Let's do something else.'"
"What do you wanna do?" Hawkins asked her.
"I wanna hit somebody."
So Grace started working with defensive line coach Mike Barbarito, getting her butt kicked all spring and summer long as she learned everything she could about playing on the D-line. All the while her parents thought she was still just the office aide, helping out at practice every day after playing and coaching tennis in the morning.
The tough love from Barbarito paid off. Her senior year Grace was in the regular defensive rotation in every game, earning All-Public League honors. She also played a little bit of running back, becoming the first female to carry the ball in a Philadelphia high school game.
"We were really secretive about me being on the team," Grace says. "I told the guys, 'I'm not trying to make a point, I just want to play.' Somebody finally let it out halfway through the season that we had a girl and I got a couple of news headlines. ... Once it got out that I was a girl, honestly it did nothing but push me. That first game after people [found out] I changed my jersey number so they couldn't figure out who I was. They still figured it out and they legit tried to trash me. They were really ruthless."
But Grace refused to come out of the game, eventually getting two sacks and laying a particularly hard hit on an opponent. "I ended up breaking their running back's ankle. Ended his season," she says. "I felt really bad about it. I heard it crack and got up and said sorry. The guys were like, 'We don't say sorry.' They were a lot more unforgiving than I was."
In addition to her All-Public honors on the football field, Grace was also a three-year captain and two-time All-American on the softball team, a center on the basketball team, editor of the school paper and president of her senior class. All the while she was enrolled in AP classes.
"I wasn't necessarily good at school but I was smart. I could deal with the work," she says. "Sports were kind of my outlet. I could be as aggressive and self-motivated as I wanted. It kind of made me feel free. Knowing that sports could give me so much more, it made so much more count. It made education matter so much more, cause I needed to be able to learn as long as possible. Those things were possible to me through sports."
Now 21 and a graduate of West Chester University, Grace is determined to positively affect the lives of students in Philadelphia's public schools. She's an assistant football coach at her former rival, King, working with the D-line under her old coach Barbarito. She's also working with professors from her undergraduate program to identify behaviors in students more likely to succeed in higher education.
Grace's passion for education and athletics has made her a leader for the kids she coaches and an advocate for student athletes all over Philadelphia. As one of the stars of the recently released documentary "We Could Be King," Grace is now seeing some of her story reach an audience outside of her city. The film, which aired on ESPN2 earlier this year and is available on video on demand and iTunes, tells the story of the closing of Grace's Germantown High and its merging with its 40-year football rival, King. While the focus is mainly on the struggle to bring two rival football programs together, it's also about the struggle for King's students to find direction and motivation in their lives.
In the film, Grace, then a senior in college, makes an impassioned speech at a Philadelphia school reform commission meeting, begging the board not to let budget cuts kill extracurriculars, including athletics. At the time King was holding voluntary football workouts, hoping the money would be there for the school to field a team come fall.
"Without football, without basketball, without softball or baseball, these students have no reason to go to school," Grace tells the board. "They have no reason to behave, or to pay attention. Being a student-athlete made me a student, made me who I was. And now, I'm about to get my degree. And I can't say the same for people who didn't have the motivation that I had. It needs to be a priority."
The players on King's football team that Grace coaches are like family to her. While in college she drove the hour to Philly every day to coach, then back home at night to get to class in the morning. She continued with the team even after being diagnosed with a brain aneurysm in her sophomore year of college.
She battled seizures on and off through May of this year, when stress from finals week exacerbated her condition. It was a scary two years for her, but she says she's getting better. She wears a heart monitor, and last year she would joke with her defensive linemen that they need to play better so it wouldn't go off during games, but things are looking up this season. "We just had a scrimmage and they went through hell week at camp and they look really good," Grace says. "The D-line looks awesome. Honestly, I think they won't be giving me a lot of problems [with my heart monitor] this year." She hopes to always be involved with youth programs and education, but Grace's dream is to coach in the NFL as a defensive coordinator. But she's not interested in making statements.
"I don't need to prove that girls can do it," Grace says. "I just happen to be a girl and I can do this. I'm a defensive coach, and oh, by the way, I'm a girl. Girls, if you wanna do something, don't do it because you're a girl, don't make that a point. Do it because you are qualified."