Toni Harris Just Made History As One of the First Women Awarded a Football Scholarship

Women have been shattering glass ceilings in sports for decades. Female athletes have set make-your-head-spin records, fought for equal pay, and pushed boundaries to make their sports even better. But football—a sport that is almost completely male-dominated on the field at every level—often feels stuck in the past. Antoinette "Toni" Harris, a college football player in Los Angeles, is helping to change that—she's just been awarded a historic scholarship to play football at Central Methodist University in Missouri.

Harris, who plays free safety, is the first woman ever to land a scholarship to play defense—and in what is known in the sport as a seriously skilled and tough position, no less. (She also starred in a Super Bowl ad earlier this year.) This is only the second college football scholarship that's ever been awarded a woman; In 2017, kicker Becca Longo became the first when she signed to play for Adams State University. (Around a dozen women have played football in college, but none on scholarship prior to Longo, according to ESPN.)

For the past two years, Harris has been crushing it on the field for a community college in Los Angeles, which is what got her noticed by the six (!) schools who offered her scholarships. This week, she made it official and signed a letter of intent to play for Central Methodist University, a Division I NAIA school.

Harris' historic achievement was hard-won. She was kicked off numerous teams from little league to middle school, she says. But she kept fighting to play. "My biggest pet peeve is people telling me that I can't," Harris told NBC News. "So I have to prove them wrong."

Harris has always believed that no matter where she played, if she was talented enough the right people would find her—and she was right. "They don’t want females to play in this sport, and so if you want the chance, you do have to be so good they can’t ignore you,” she says. She even has the mantra tattooed on her right side along with an NFL football, since playing in the pros is her ultimate dream. "I don't let anything stop me. I don't take no for an answer," Harris says.

What makes Harris' journey to the college football history books even more impressive is the fact that she's an ovarian cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with the disease at 18. She credits her family and her faith with getting her through the fight, which caused her to lose half her body wait. "I did want to give up," she says. "I thought things were over."

After taking the field at CMU, Toni Harris hopes to go on to play in the NFL. "If it doesn't happen, I can just pave the way for another little girl to come out and play—or even start a women's NFL," Harris told NBC. That's a league we could definitely get behind.

Published at Wed, 27 Feb 2019 15:20:43 +0000