What is a Barbie but solely a toy made for girls to play with or is it more than that? Barbie has over 80 careers, over a billion shoes and has 100 new additions added to her wardrobe annually. Hearing this would fill the body of a five-year-old with more excitement than anyone in the world. The glitter, the bright colors, the heels, dresses and skirts, being able to design a Barbie doll however she wanted. The five-year-old is now in control so she dresses her Barbie up the way she sees herself.
What if her thoughts and ideas were out of her own control? What if she didn’t want her Barbie to wear bright pink skirt dresses or become a rock star? But instead throw on some sneakers, shorts and a t-shirt but those options weren’t there. Wanting to reflect her persona on to a doll but the dresses and heels don’t represent her; they don’t make her feel comfortable. The five-year-old would rather sit outside with the boys, racing down the streets on bikes. Getting dirty and not caring. She would rather rough house around and fight her days away.
For Elizabeth Rizzo, 17, on the outside she was a girl but on the inside she felt stronger than a boy.
Rizzo grew up not only playing but also loving the sport of soccer since the age of five. The full body-to-body contact, the rush of getting the first touch on the ball was something she craved. As she grew older her older brother Emanuel Rizzo began testing her limits and her competitive drive. He saw that she had a spark that lit right beneath her, as soon as she stepped onto the field. He pushed her and only gave her the option to join soccer teams that were two years older than the division she had to play on.
“Soccer has always been a big part of our families life, it’s a bonding experience, I also figured it would keep her out of trouble,” Emanuel Rizzo said. “I wanted her to be as passionate as I am for the sport. I wanted her to play soccer because I knew she had a better chance of receiving a scholarship for it.”
A True Athlete
In middle school, Rizzo came across a turning point in her life. She finally realized that being around boys was her comfort zone and that there was nothing wrong with it. She was known as Lisa but slowly just started going by her last name. She began to embrace dressing like a boy in hats, jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts. Her sense of fashion had blasted off. Along with being comfortable in her own skin, her mind began to wander around different sports like basketball, boxing and football.
“I just started doing me, I was tougher and dominant,” Rizzo said. “I didn’t want to hangout with just girls, I needed to be more of a guy, more bulky, more of me. I realized that I was an athlete, I love doing this, I love conditioning, I love putting in work and winning. I was getting tired of soccer but I still had heart for it.”
Most of Rizzo’s friends were football players and for fun she would catch a couple of friendly games of football around the block.
“Football became an interest because it looked fun and you got to hit something,” Rizzo said. “I felt like I could get my frustrations out in a positive way.”
Everyday Rizzo thought about what she could do to be apart of a football team but the thought of a girl being on a football team was rare and with her brother still pushing her to become a better soccer player, Rizzo stuck with what she knew best; soccer.
A freshman in high school, Rizzo became the starting goalkeeper for the girl’s varsity soccer team at Procter R. Hug High School.
“She received All League Honorable Mention as a freshman,” said Sarah Peterson, head coach of Hug High School’s girl’s varsity soccer team. “In the time she received that award we had three ODP goalies in the northern 4A region that played for the regional teams, the California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington bracket, so for her to receive all league goalie was absolutely outstanding.”
Although being a goalie was not Rizzo’s favorite position she continued to be apart of the girl’s soccer team through her sophomore year of high school. She took pride in being a team leader and player.
“It was my choice to stop focusing on something else and start putting all my focus into soccer, “ Rizzo said. “I was scared to ask about football and get denied.”
Football still tickled the back of her mind and wouldn’t leave her alone. With soccer in full swing her sophomore year, she made a decision to go after her true goal, to become a football player. With help from her own soccer coach Sarah Peterson; Rizzo had enough courage to ask then the junior varsity coach, Carl LaGrone for a chance to be a part of his football team. Rizzo attended their first practice and got a taste of what being apart of a football team was like.
“I really liked how fast paced it was compared to soccer, the speed drills especially,” Rizzo said. “I like being around guys and feeling like one of them, I was very confused and didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I took a chance and asked the coach.”
She was denied.
Carl LaGrone had popped the only bubble of hope Rizzo had. Instead of giving up, Rizzo decided she didn’t need that bubble anymore because that denial only gave her a greater drive; he had given her a bottle of soap that would only come with dozens of more bubbles.
“I felt angry, I felt disappointed, I simply said, ‘next time, next year,’” Rizzo said. “I didn’t give up because I felt like I needed to show someone, show someone what I was about, if you try to put me down, I’m going to get back up and there’s no way you’re going to step on me.”
Rizzo comes from a American Hispanic home: Spanish is the first language and English is second. Her mother is a single mother and raised her family with a very strong Catholic belief. When times got hard her mother was the one to bring her back up, along with her self-motivation.
“If playing football is what you want, I will help you,” said Angela Lupercio Rizzo’s mother. “Whatever makes her happy makes me happy, she’s my baby, I hug her and give her a kiss and tell her not to worry because her time will come soon, I pray with her and hug her really hard, just so that she knows for a fact, I’m always here for her.”
At the time Rizzo did not understand why Coach Carl LaGrone said no to her. She didn’t understand why he would reject her ambition to play.
“I wanted her to play soccer, she was just named All League Honorable Mention as a freshman,” Carl LaGrone said. “She was a vital part to our girls soccer team and I didn’t want to take her away from a sport she had a bright future in.”
Rizzo finished her sophomore year on the girl’s varsity soccer team. Individually her seasons were very successful and if she had kept playing, big opportunities may have came her way but she had even greater aspirations. Her sophomore year was coming to an end but she had not forgotten about football. With summer season football around the corner along with her junior year of high school, she decided to give her goal another try. This time she had to talk to then the head coach of the boy’s varsity football team, Derek Bennett.
“I want to be your kicker!” Rizzo said.
Bennett asked Rizzo if she could kick, Rizzo didn’t hesitate to throw in the fact that she was an experienced soccer player. Bennett looked at her straight in the eyes and was willing to give her a try. He gave her a date and time; all that Rizzo had to do was show up on and prove why she deserved a spot.
Soon enough Rizzo earned her spot on the boy’s varsity football team. Her confidence level rose and now it was time to prove to people why she got such a great opportunity. She had to show why her sex had nothing to do with the drive that she had, to play such a sport where woman are not stereotypically seen playing.
Everything was new to Rizzo not just new for the football team. She once kicked a circular ball, now what went flying in the air was a pointed oval. In soccer her thighs, shoulders and chest were covered with a light jersey and shorts. The heaviest thing she carried was on her shins and even those only weighed 1.8 oz. To her surprise the football shoulder pads weren’t anything like she expected, she found them to be a lot lighter and easy to run in. Getting use to running with a helmet was the toughest challenge because she was use to running with nothing on her head. The rest of the team was shocked, they couldn’t believe that a girl was going to play and practice with them. Jaws dropped, the team did not have another choice but to accept her as nothing but
Being the team’s official field goal kicker she was assigned to the special teams coach, Jason Aytes. She worked closely with Aytes and he became her first football coach.
“I never felt like she shouldn’t play,” Aytes said “Her desire and athletic ability was of such a level that she deserved the opportunity, just like everyone else, to participate and play.”
Rizzo was proving that she had earned her spot. Staying dedicated and the simplicity of her discipline showed how much she wanted it. She was coachable in most areas everyone else wasn’t. The passion to prove others wrong kept her alive. She wouldn’t let being a girl get in the way of doing something she wanted to do.
It was the first practice with full pads and Rizzo was up to kick a field goal. New to pads and let alone, new to boys charging at her with all their might Rizzo missed the field goal. She saw the disappointment in the teams face but that once again, lit Rizzo’s fire. As they came together, clashing their helmets to gain a tight huddle, Rizzo spoke up.
“‘Can I say something?’” Rizzo said. “’I know none of you guys believe in me, but I believe in myself so I am willing to make every single field goal for you guys, I just need you all to make the touchdowns. I’ll do my part as long as you guys do yours.’”
Rizzo stood up for what she believed in and gain the respect she was asking for. Being a girl was not an excuse.
“The only time her gender played a role in the way I coached her was as a reminder that she must work harder than some just to overcome the stereotypes and bias,” Aytes said. “Other than that, she was treated the same as every other player.”
She saw change in her teammates, she saw them supporting and motivating her to do better. Not only were they teammates, they became friends outside of the game.
Towards the end of the season, Rizzo adjusted from running miles after miles in soccer to learning how to sprint and do quick foot work.
Her first year as a football player was over and to her surprise and to the rest of the team their head coach resigned his position. The man that gave her the opportunity to prove herself was no longer going to be there to support her. Her special teams coach also moved down to coach Hug’s junior varsity football.
It seemed as if things weren’t getting any better, she found out that the new head varsity football coach would be the man that once denied and crushed her dreams, Carl LaGrone. She automatically assumed she wouldn’t have the chance to play her senior year.
“I don’t keep grudges, and I tried to understand that Coach LaGrone has love for this sport and being a girl wasn’t in my favor.” Rizzo said.
Paranoid to ask Carl LaGrone if she would be able to participate and be apart of the 2014-2015 football program, she once again built enough courage to ask him after being denied by him her sophomore year.
After asking Carl LaGrone if she could be the team’s kicker, he replied with the same type of answer; no. Insisting Rizzo go back to playing soccer.
“I got tired of asking him and him not take me serious, I am not the type of person to beg,” Rizzo said. “I decided that if I couldn’t play football I didn’t want to play soccer either, if he didn’t want to give me the chance at least I had already got a taste of what it’s like.”
Rizzo couldn’t let it go so easy, she had already accomplished so much she wasn’t going to let him take way everything she had already learned. After persistently asking him, she finally got a ‘be there tomorrow’ out of him. Springing hope in her mind she knew it was time to prove him wrong.
“That day, I felt like I couldn’t mess up, I had to prove to them that I was better, that I was willing to work for my position.” Rizzo said.
The first thing they were doing were ladder drills where your footwork was tested. To her surprise the Defensive Coach, Marcell LaGrone coach Carl LaGrone’s brother jumped up and down out of excitement to see her out on the field.
“I have really good footwork but that’s because of soccer, I’m use to having a ball between my feet so going through these drills was not a challenge,” Rizzo said. “Kids were messing up, and I was doing good.”
“Her footwork was very impressive when I first met her and I use to tell the guys all the time Lisa has better footwork than all you guys do, and she still does.” Marcell LaGrone said. “If you put her through a ladder drill she can do it as good as any one of these guys can.”
Soon enough Marcell LaGrone became Rizzo’s motivation.
“She listens, the main thing about football and playing any position is being coachable,” Marcell LaGrone said. “These guys think they know it all and she can sit back and listen, I didn’t want her to quit, when you play with a bunch of guys that you might feel are out of your league just because of gender, that can easily make her quit, so I motivate her a lot more than I do others because I want her to stay on this team, not because I like her but because I feel that she deserves to be apart of this team.”
Summer weights were in full swing and conditioning was the first thing on the list. With a set of completely knew coaches; Rizzo and the rest of her teammates didn’t know what to expect. Conditioning became a lot harder and their new coaches were not playing around. Sprinting 10, 100 meter yards back to back in the soul drenching sun, and when it rained it didn’t stop them from working just as hard. They would move their practice in the gym and start “Mad Drills” which consisted of eight stations with different timed speed drills. Testing their mental and emotional strength to keep going and not give up. These drills consisted of, back petals, burpees and sprints.
“We were moving all the time and if we messed up we would start over, if our coaches didn’t think everyone was working hard enough we would start over,” Rizzo said. “People would throw up but I wouldn’t, I might have felt like I needed to but my pride wouldn’t let me.”
Along with condition that tested their ability to stay mentally strong Rizzo discovered another part of football; weight lifting.
“For benching I do 95 pounds, squats I do 145 pounds, hang clings I do 95 pounds,” Rizzo said. “My first time lifting, I benched 20, I squatted 95 pounds and power clings I couldn’t even do one I had to put 10’s on and now I can do 10 sets.”
Along with becoming faster and stronger, Rizzo was also losing weight she started off weighing 145 pounds and is now weighing 130 pounds at 5’4 height, replacing her body fat with muscle.
“I use to be chunkier and now I can actually feel my body becoming tone.” Rizzo said.
In one summer Rizzo went from being nothing but a kicker to becoming a defensive cornerback along with being the teams kicker. She started learning about strategies and different techniques to tackle and be the best she can be in her position.
“She figured out that she could do more than just be a kicker,” Marcell LaGrone said. “It was her choice to get out there and say that she wanted to do more and show that she could do it and she showed it.”
“You have to be discipline, you have to be smart when you’re on the field,” Rizzo said. “Being physical is only a small percentage of playing the game. It doesn’t matter how big you are it matters how smart you are.”
Rizzo fought to be apart of a football team for years and her junior year of high school she got that chance. Her senior year it was ripped from her hands but she kept fighting and got her opportunity back again. Finally she is experiencing everything she has been fighting for. She is getting the opportunity to play and practice in her comfort zone. Being able to take her frustrations out in one tackle or even ending a practice drenched in sweat. She is where she wants to be, surrounded by boys, surrounded by an environment where she can paint and express who she truly is.
“Coaching a girl didn’t change my coaching strategies at all, she gets yelled at like the rest of the guys do and she gets praised when she does something well,” Coach Carl LaGrone said. “We don’t see any favorites or sex’s or colors out here.”
“The guys support her, and its something that hasn’t been done mainstream.” Carl LaGrone said. “She’s disciplined, she does what she’s suppose to do she is reliable, I know that if I put her in the game she is going to do what she is suppose to do at that
time, if she is suppose to be in a certain area she’s going to be in that area.”
Although Rizzo isn’t playing soccer anymore she does have a certain someone on the sidelines with her. Sarah Peterson who was once Rizzo’s head soccer coach and the woman that helped her touch the football field is also the high schools Athletic trainer. Supporting her and the team in every away and home football game.
“The same motivation she had for soccer she has for football,” Peterson said. “I do miss her as my goalie but I also know Lisa as a person and I know she’s much happier on the football field because of the motivation and drive she has not only to be the only female but to be successful as the only female on the team.”
And in the stands Rizzo’s girlfriend of three years Cynthia Saldana stands holding a sign up with endless support for her.
“I try to support her mentally because physically she’s there, so when she gets frustrated and in a bad mood I remind her that she can do it.” Saldana said. “I’m here every game, I am very proud that she’s gone through with this, people make comments here and there but I tell her to blow them off because it’s nothing. It shouldn’t matter what others say if she’s happy with what she is doing it shouldn’t matter what other think.”
And for Rizzo’s brother Emanuel Rizzo, he never turned his back on her because she chose to pursue football and leave soccer.
“I’m happy for her, I’ve told her myself that I wish I had played football when I was in high school, its always good to be involved,” Emanuel Rizzo said. “At the same time I was also afraid for her since she is a girl, my little sister playing a mans sport.”
Before football became apart of Rizzo’s life, she didn’t know who she was in her own world. Not even the sport she grew up with and loved made her feel comfortable. Football gives her the ability to reduce her anger and express her feelings. Lost in her own world, football gave her the chance to find herself completely. Football reassured her that she might be a girl on the outside but on the inside she is tougher than a boy.
“I am a girl that can play, it’s my time.” Rizzo said. “It’s my time to show anyone and everyone that has put me down, that a female is doing everything they thought a female couldn’t do”
If anything is said about Elizabeth Rizzo it is that she is coachable, disciplined and a hard worker. Rizzo had one goal and that goal has been accomplished. Off the field she has just as big of goals. She is focused on graduation and passing her last proficiencies and wants to go to college. If she can she would love to keep playing football.
“I would love it if I could play for a junior college, to really show that females can go even further with football than just high school football,” Rizzo said. “Females need motivation and I hope I can be that.”
Football or not she wants to go to college to major in business and minor in fashion. She hopes to one day open up her very own store. Where she can sell athletic gear and even everyday apparel.
Playing dress-up with a Barbie doll wasn’t Rizzo’s desire of games to play as a child. Little did she know that she’s been playing dress-up her entire life? She went from dresses and skirts that were ripped off immediately, t-shirts and shorts that were preferred, soccer jerseys which weren’t an option, to football pads and a helmet, for her the boy section is where she belonged and the only accessory she wanted was a football.
Give a girl a Barbie Doll and she’ll make an imaginary world, give a girl a football and she’ll do the same the only difference is that she’ll make that football world a reality.