As the Nogales High School football team prepared for its first scrimmage of the season, 7-year-old Miley Bustamante and 10-year-old Gianna Redman noticed something different about one of the Apaches’ players: A ponytail was sticking out from under the athlete’s helmet.
When they learned that the player was a girl – Maile Vasquez, the first female varsity player in program history – their curiosity turned to delight.
“The girls were like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a girl on the football team,’” recounted Arleen Redman, Gianna’s mother. “They even waited for her when all the players got out of the field at the end and asked to take a picture with her.”
Since then, Vasquez, a junior placekicker, has attracted numerous other fans and photo-ops, becoming a minor media celebrity as she booted nine extra points in the Apaches’ first three games.
But her self-proclaimed biggest fans remain local elementary schoolers Miley Bustamante and Gianna Redman, who attended the Apaches’ Sept. 7 game at Rio Rico High School sporting custom-made T-shirts, courtesy of Miley’s mother Blanca, that declared them each a “#1 fan” and displayed a photo of the girls with Vasquez.
After the game, the girls surprised Vasquez by showing her their T-shirts and presenting her with a goodie bag.
“I felt like her No.1 fan,” Gianna said about wearing the shirt to the game, during which Vasquez kicked six extra points, reportedly tying the state high school football record for most points scored in a game by a female.
“She’s the first girl that made it on varsity,” said Gianna, a fifth-grader at Coronado Elementary School. “Only boys play that sport and not a lot of girls like it.”
Gianna, whose father Larry is an assistant coach for the NHS team, added that she now hopes to play football in addition to gymnastics, which she currently practices.
“She’s always liked football. So for my daughter to see that there’s a girl and she’s holding her ground, doing a great job and scoring points – that’s huge because you don’t see that in football,” her mother Arleen said.
While Miley, a second-grader at Challenger Elementary School, would rather be a softball player like her older sister, she’s still inspired by watching Vasquez play.
“(When) I see her do a field goal, I feel nervous and happy because I don’t know if she’ll make a high one or a low one, but I know she’ll make it,” Miley said. “Because she plays football, every girl can play football with the boys.”
For her part, Vasquez said she loves knowing that girls are taking inspiration from what she’s doing.
“Just knowing that I’m inspiring little girls, it’s a good feeling, especially here in Nogales. I feel like it’s always been the same, so I feel like I’m part of a new era. I just hope I’m doing something different for the community,” Vasquez said.
However, it wasn’t until Miley and Gianna walked up to her during the first practice game that she fully realized how her presence on the team could make her a role model for younger generations.
“I always had that thing in my head where I was like, ‘I hope I’m motivating girls,’” she said. “But I didn’t come to the realization of how I was motivating them until my first scrimmage when two little girls came up to me.”
“They’re now my biggest fans, or at least that’s what they call it,” she joked, adding that her younger cousins have also turned into huge fans.
Put to the test
Although Vasquez expressed pride in being on the football team and motivating younger generations in the community, she admits it was difficult to get this far.
Before trying out, she said, she worried about what people would think of her. But her friend Jesus “Chuy” Ochoa encouraged her to pursue her goal.
That’s when the harder part began, she said.
“I was really out of condition,” Vasquez said about trying out for the team. “At one point I was like, ‘Oh my God. I can’t make it,’ but I just pushed myself to keep going. It was a challenge, but now I’m on the team and it feels really good.”
Her family, team and coaches are the reason that she has been able to come this far, she said, as they’ve all shown tremendous support and have accepted her with open arms.
Vasquez’s willingness to confront and overcome challenges, Arleen Redman said, is what makes her so inspiring to fans like Gianna and Miley.
“For her to just put herself out there is saying a lot. For the little girls, it means that you really can do and be anything if you work hard,” Arleen said.
And while the Bustamante family had been Rio Rico fans in previous years, Miley’s mother Blanca said she’s happy to now take her daughter to the NHS games.
“She just enjoys watching the game because of Maile,” Blanca said. “She’ll stand by the fence and just yell for her, so I see it as motivation for her.”