WHEN BROOKLYN HARKER made the varsity football team in early fall, no one knew what to expect, including the other Chapel Hill High School players. She was, after all, the first girl to play for the team in the school's 105-year history. Her teammates assumed she'd play at kicker or another non-contact position, but then she lined up at free safety for the first preseason scrimmage of the year. On Harker's third play of the afternoon, their opponent, Raleigh, North Carolina-based private school Ravenscroft, handed the ball off to its running back. Harker got there first and delivered him a blow to the right shoulder that spun him around and led to a tackle out of bounds. The celebratory roar from the sidelines was more in line with a playoff touchdown than a preseason tackle.
"She not only made the play, she hit the kid hard. That was when all the guys on the team were like, 'All right. She can play," says CHHS assistant football coach Patrick Roeber.
Harker, a junior, played her first season with CHHS after the family moved back to North Carolina from West Virginia. Although more than 2,400 girls were playing tackle football across the U.S. as of 2018, that's less than 0.3% of the total. The majority of them play at kicker or special teams, making Harker's position at free safety even more unusual. It's a position that requires the ability and desire to initiate contact -- something Harker thrives on.
"It's the feeling afterward [when] you're like, 'I just took him down,'" Harker says. "That feeling drives you when you have a big hit like that."
Harker started playing flag football in third grade and almost immediately commanded attention on the field -- not just for being the only girl on the team, but for her physicality and fearlessness. She's played at every level since.
Our daughter is starting free safety on D for tonight's first home varsity game at her high school.— Jennifer Harker, Ph.D. (@jennifer_harker) September 10, 2021
Taking all well wishes for a safe game and, of course, a big win! #GoGridironTigers🏈 pic.twitter.com/xDC1XBOaMv
This season, however, it has felt like the country is watching the 5-foot-10 Harker, who also plays wide receiver. In early September, Harker's mom, Dr. Jennifer Harker, tweeted a photo of her daughter in uniform to her roughly 1,300 followers. She wrote that Harker was starting at free safety later that night for Chapel Hill's first home game of the season. In the photo, the bright lights of Friday night reflect off Harker's number, and her eyes zero in on something just behind the camera. Her expression is nearly a dare.
In just a few days, the tweet reached nearly 60,000 likes and had been shared by several major media outlets. Harker wasn't even aware her mom had tweeted the photo until her own social media notifications started racking up as friends and followers tagged her in the post.
There is pride, of course, in the attention. Two weeks after the tweet, Harker snagged an interception in a rivalry game that the Tigers went on to win. Several news outlets shared that video, too. Since that game, it seems as if every set of eyes in the stands is hyper-focused on No. 14 when she is on the field, which also means an acute and constant pressure to live up to the virality of her story.
"The comments [on my mother's tweet and the articles], I thought some of them were funny," Harker says. "There were also some that I try to use as motivation, but of course, there are always going to be some that hurt a little bit."
A missed block that would be disappointing but forgettable for any of her teammates is outsized for 16-year-old Harker because her mistakes on the field become part of the case made by those who think she, or any girl, shouldn't be out there in the first place.
"At one game when we were warming up, I ran a post, but the ball was overthrown a little bit, so I couldn't get under it," Harker says. "I looked over at the sideline as [the opposing players] were pointing at me, and it seemed like they were making fun of me a little bit. It was a little embarrassing, I will say. But I'm not the only one on the team that drops passes."
It isn't just the anonymous Twitter users who seek out the schadenfreude of seeing Brooklyn miss a block. It is occasionally, and much more dangerously, a member of a rival team. Although most of her opponents treat her like any other player, there have been a few late and blind hits.
"There was another game ... where she sacked the quarterback and it pissed them off," says Jennifer Harker, who works at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "The play was dead, and she was just running along the sideline going back to where all her team was. This kid came up behind her and just waylaid her from behind. She wasn't physically hurt, but she could have been. That could have ended very badly, and there was no reason for it."
For Jennifer and David Harker, seeing their daughter take the hits both on the field and online has been an apt mix of pride and worry. Getting to know the coaching staff helped, but she still worries every time Brooklyn is on the field. It's understandable for any parent, but even more so considering there was a time when the Harkers weren't sure if she would even be able to live a normal life. As a very sick kid living in semi-isolation, team sports seemed like a luxury reserved only for the healthy.
WHEN HARKER WAS an infant, she was diagnosed with severe chronic autoimmune neutropenia, a rare blood disorder that affects white blood cells. The family had to live an extremely risk-averse lifestyle, the kind so many of us have become familiar with during the COVID-19 pandemic -- shopping late at night or at off hours, avoiding crowds, constant hand washing. It was all an effort to keep Harker healthy. Even with all the precautions, the family spent a lot of time in hospitals throughout her childhood.
"I feel like the neutropenia thing helped shape me," Harker says. "My grandmother always called me her miracle baby because I almost died a couple of times through it. She said, 'If you didn't have a purpose right here, then God wouldn't have pulled you through.' And I always think about that. I'm always trying to figure out what my purpose is."
By kindergarten, after lots of trial and error, Harker's treatment was successful enough that she could start to have a more normal childhood, and by third grade she was a kid-sized force majeure.
"She dealt with so much physical trauma in those early, formative years. ... Now, the reason why she is so brave, and she has that piece to her, is because she had those experiences," Jennifer Harker says.
Since her mom's tweet went viral, people have called Harker an inspiration. It's a bit of a nebulous word -- well-meaning but trite from overuse, particularly online.
"People are always telling me, 'Oh, my gosh. You're making such a big difference.' But, it's never real until you witness it," Harker says.
As much as she humbly shrugs off the attention that has come her way this season, there is one encounter that has clearly affected her. The team was working concessions at a University of North Carolina football game as a fundraiser when one of Harker's teammates told her someone wanted to take a picture with her.
It was a young girl, around 6 or 7, with her dad. The girl said she wanted to play quarterback someday and asked Harker for advice. They chatted for a while and took a picture together. Then the family went to watch the rest of the game.
"I almost cried," Harker says. "People are always telling me, 'You're making such a big difference,' but it's never really become real until you witness it. That little girl made me think I'm doing something right."
WHEN SHE LINES up on defense in the third quarter of a late October game against Durham's Riverside high, Harker hits her helmet a few times -- a kind of release valve for the adrenaline rocketing through her. The team has to win out the remaining two games of the season to make the playoffs. The play unfolds, and she's reading the field, anticipating where the ball will be.
"She thinks the game," coach Roeber says. "When people think about a girl playing varsity football and how she can compete at this level, she makes up for maybe a little bit of lack of speed with how well she envisions what's about to happen or is happening."
Ultimately, Harker misses a block and later fumbles a recovery. It's a tough game, the kind that happens to any athlete at any level on occasion. Her teammates are there on the sideline to help her leave it behind. Harker's parents and younger sister, Haven, a freshman at CHHS and a cheerleader for the basketball team, watch and cheer in the stands. (She also has an older brother who lives in West Virginia.) The Tigers ultimately win the game on a last-minute interception to keep their playoff hopes alive.
She's quiet after the game, her face an unreadable mix of all the complicated emotions that come with being 16 and all the extra ones that come with ESPN showing up to your high school football game. But by Sunday afternoon over coffee, she lights up as we talk about her best games, the playoffs and her favorite movie -- "Rudy."
She can quote the 1993 film, which debuted more than a decade before she was born, from memory. Harker still cries when the protagonist, Rudy Ruettiger, gets accepted to Notre Dame. It's the reason she dreams of going to Notre Dame and wearing the Fighting Irish uniform.
There is a scene where Fortune, a former Notre Dame player who became a groundskeeper and mentor to Rudy, sees Rudy in the tunnel. The empty stands tower in the background as Rudy explains that he just quit the team.
Rudy tells Fortune that he didn't see the point if he wouldn't make the dress roster. He wouldn't get to prove that he could do what everyone said he couldn't. Fortune responds with advice that is also why Harker is, for the most part at least, able to tune out the noise and focus on the game.
"In this lifetime, you don't have to prove nothin' to nobody except yourself."
No one puts more pressure on Harker than herself. Even before the tweet, she has always hungered to rise to the occasion of every play. Yet, the comments online, the opposing team's opinions about a girl on the field -- it's all noise dwarfed by the signal: her still unadulterated love for just being there under the lights.
The Tigers lost their first playoff game, ending Harker's junior season on the field. She has basketball and fencing in the winter, soccer in the spring -- but they're no match for her love of football. When fall makes its way south again next year, she'll be ready for her senior season.
"You know the [football] movies where it gets super dramatic and you're zoned into the game? You can hear cheering in the background, but you also hear the quarterback and everyone else on the field. It's like that," Harker says. "It's awesome."
It's a cinematic moment in time -- lining up under the lights, shoulder to shoulder with your friends, the long boulevard of your life laying itself brick by brick before you. But more than a movie, and more than a viral moment, Harker is writing the script. She is defining the expectations, and when the end of summer brings the start of her senior season next year, she'll be ready.