Natalie Armstrong relishes going up against the big boys.
Willpower and resolve are traits necessary in the academic world and the world of sports. Natalie Armstrong has both in spades.
An honor student at Milford Central Academy, the 13-year-old is the first girl to play on its football team.
“Natalie has wanted to play football for the past two years, but we just kind of laughed it off, thinking it was just a passing craze for her,” said Natalie’s mother, Janice McCormick. “She was persistent, though.”
That’s a point with which the eighth-grader herself agrees.
“I decided to play football because I grew up watching the sport and hearing everyone talking about it,” Natalie said. “It was just something I thought I’d very much like to try and do.”
She was so persistent that last year she asked Ryan McNulty, her social studies teacher and MCA’s head football coach, about playing.
“I told her there was nothing that said she couldn’t play,” McNulty recalled. “But I told her she wouldn’t be treated in any way different from a male player in terms of the physical nature of the game. But that goes for anybody.”
McNulty already had spotted Natalie’s spirited nature before she signed up.
“I knew she had potential to contribute,” he said. “She wasn’t going to shy away from competition. She wanted to go 100 percent all the time.”
McCormick said her daughter probably gets her interest in the game from having older brothers who played. Her father, R.J. Armstrong, played Pop Warner and high school football.
At first, she didn’t know if Natalie would stick with it. “We thought she’d go to a couple of practices and then give it up,” she said. “Instead, she became more determined.”
Natalie said she’s not out trying to prove much of a point. “I just want to have fun,” she said. “I liked hearing my brothers talk about how they said everyone on the team is your brother. They’re not kidding. You have to work together, and I as soon as I got on the team I thought it was awesome. I love it so much.”
Natalie, who has seen field time in three of MCA’s four games this year, talks football all the time and studies plays on YouTube, McCormick said.
A defensive player, Natalie saw action in the second half of MCA’s Oct. 4 loss to Smyrna Middle School. Anyone watching would never have suspected a girl was wearing No. 86: unlike some male players with long hair hanging out from under their helmets, Natalie’s braids were tucked under her shoulder pads. She showed no fear in going up against the Smyrna line.
“In practice, they always put me up against bigger kids,” she said. “I think that helped me out a lot. If I went up against people I could flatten, it wouldn’t make me ready to play against bigger people.”
Smyrna assistant coach John Leone Jr. said he was unaware a girl was on the field. “Good for her,” he said. “I didn’t even know, not that it matters.”
Natalie gets a lot of support from her schoolmates, with MCA’s cheerleaders regularly calling her name from the sidelines.
“I think this is really good,” Aryanna Tangari said. “Girls have a lot more strength than people think.”
Fellow cheerleader Karma Smith agreed.
“It’s really cool,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve seen Natalie play, but she’s really good.”
Natalie said she’s not the strongest person on the team nor the weakest, but she is always working as hard as she can to improve.
“When it comes to being determined, I’ve had lots of difficulties learning stuff I’ve had to do,” she said. “Others get upset and give up or try something different. But I keep on punching to be where I am now.”
Natalie’s seventh-grade teacher Sherry Geesaman noted her former student’s powerful character is a major factor not just in her playing but in her academic work.
“She’s a very good student, she has a very outgoing personality,” Geesaman said. “She’s very confident in herself. She walks around the school and she’s so proud to wear [the MCA] jersey.”
Natalie has no thoughts about being some sort of icon for girls wanting to break barriers.
“I’m just trying to let people know that if you want to do something, you should try it out. If you find you don’t want to be on the team, at least you’ve tried.”