Julia Mackenzie breaking gender barriers along D-line for Bluffton football

Julia Mackenzie remembers the day she told her mom that she was on the Bluffton football team.

“We were at Starbucks and my mom had her coffee, so she was happy,” said Mackenzie, reminiscing about that day this past summer. “I actually just told her I was the kicker.”

Mom had reservations, of course. But kicker? That can’t be too bad.

Turns out, Mackenzie wasn’t the kicker. She was suiting up as a defensive lineman for the Tigers, in the trenches battling it out in physical one-on-one matchups with a bunch of boys.

“I eventually told her the whole truth after one of our two-a-day practices,” Mackenzie said. “She just thought I was working out at school. She wasn’t mad, but she was definitely worried.”

Football is not a new passion for Mackenzie. As a youth growing up in American Samoa, she remembers watching NFL games with great interest. Her uncles played football, her grandfather dabbled in rugby. She was immersed in physical sports through her family. She joined some flag football leagues in American Samoa, but never tackle.

After two years living in Hawaii, Mackenzie moved with her grandma and mother to rural Indiana in 2017. It was a big adjustment, but one Mackenzie took in stride.

Bluffton junior Julia Mackenzie moves towards her block during scout team offense drills at an October 2 practice.

“It was very shocking,” Mackenzie said of the move. “But I like the people. I have never been in a place where there are so many cornfields. I am used to water and beaches.”

Mackenzie settled in at Bluffton and joined the track team as a discus thrower. She has developed into one of the top throwers in the ACAC. She also got her fix of football during Homecoming with the Powderpuff game, but it wasn’t enough.

“At track, Julia would make these offhand comments about wanting to play football,” said Bluffton football coach Brent Kunkel, who also coaches track. “She told me last spring that she was going to do it. I told her she was welcome, but she was not going to get any special treatment.”

Turns out, that was exactly what Mackenzie was looking for. In a new environment thousands of miles from the only home she ever knew, the junior found that commonality she had shared wherever she was – football.

Concern over how she would be treated evaporated rapidly. After some initial hesitancy during blocking drills and hand placement, Mackenzie’s teammates began to treat her as any other player.

Bluffton junior Julia Mackenzie prepares to match up with a teammate during a line drill at practice on October 2.

Kunkel, true to his word, did the same. Mackenzie has never been “the female defensive lineman,” but rather just another “Bluffton defensive lineman.”

“From that day she told me she was going to play, she has been awesome,” Kunkel said. “She has no fear about jumping in there. She does everything we ask her to do and she legitimately wants to get better.”

The physicality has been something that Mackenzie has taken to quickly as well. She has been pancaked to the turf in practice and in games, but always jumps right back up, eager to be taught or to get another crack at an opposing offensive lineman.

For Mackenzie, the most enjoyable part of the game is being able to be around her teammates and coaches.

“They teach you something new every day,” Mackenzie said.

Perhaps the greatest compliment aimed at Mackenzie is one that initially doesn’t sound like one. To Kunkel, his junior female lineman is just another player, just another Tiger looking to get better to make an impact on Friday nights.

“She isn’t treated any differently and she doesn’t ask to be,” Kunkel said. “If she misses a block, I’ll jump her like I do any other kid.

“She is doing this for the right reasons. I think she is a role model not just for little girls, but also some guys as well, and that’s how to commit to something that some people may say you cannot do.”

Mackenzie knows she has room to improve. Her strength is not at the level of males her age, while can be problematic when playing a position like defensive line. She has appeared in a pair of varsity games, seeing some spot action in blowout games against South Adams and Southern Wells. But with another year of eligibility, Mackenzie hopes she can make a bigger impact next year.

And what about mom? The one with the upmost amount of trepidation about Mackenzie and football?

“She tells me to be careful here and there,” Mackenzie said. “She doesn’t mind it really. I really think she is getting comfortable with it.”



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