Told in alternating point-of-views, Thatcher Heldring’s novel The Football Girl challenges what it means to be a girl in sports and explores the burdens of being a trail-blazer, all while accurately depicting the subtle and awkward moments that mark the transition from middle to high school. Summer lovers and soon-to-be-freshmen Tessa and Caleb must reevaluate their futures – and relationship – when Tessa decides to join the boys at football camp.
Tessa is a force of nature, written with an expert blend of self-possession and impulsiveness. Guided by instinct, Tessa bravely chases her dreams even when she’s not entirely sure where they’ll bring her. Tessa is determined to be her own person – apart from her parents and friends – by being the first female football player in her town. Once Tessa gets a taste for individuality, she no longer wants to be “another face in the crowd waiting to get noticed, hoping someone would pick her for the team, ask her to the dance, or tell her how smart she was. From now on I wasn’t going to ask for permission or say sorry.” Although Tessa isn’t positive she wants to be on the football team once she enters high school, she knows that decision is only hers to make. Tessa’s unapologetic determination is the novel’s greatest strength, casting an inspirational example for young readers.
As expected, Tessa’s decision to join football camp does not go over well. Though he’s not her most vocal adversary, her boyfriend Caleb (who shares the novel’s narration) is strongly against her choice for the majority of the novel. Caleb’s position is unique; he endures jokes and harassment from his male friends due to Tessa, and acutely feels the lack of a role model for his situation. His point of view serves to attract male readers, balancing respect for tradition with an introduction to gender equality. However, his side of the story may ultimately do the novel a disservice. When Caleb muses that he “really, really didn’t want Tessa to play on the football team” at the end of the novel, it feels like a let-down. Though there are moments he sticks up for Tessa in the middle of the book, it is challenging to remain invested in his story while the conflicts he faces are mere reactions to the active narrative Tessa creates.
Although Tessa ultimately decides not to continue football, a reader’s disappointment is subdued by the inspiration she sets for other ‘football girls’ and her conviction that any choice she makes is her own. At this point, she’s expected to be nothing more than the ‘football girl,’ so the act of turning away is just as powerful as continuing may have been.