By TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE
The third quarter was well under way when Saint Stephen's defensive back Kelsey Leskinen was addressed on the field by a fellow football player from Bradenton Christian.
"So you're a girl?"
Fourteen-year-old Kelsey Leskinen, bow in her hair, smiled as she relayed the exchange from an overstuffed couch in her Bradenton home a week later. "He asked me
if I wanted to come play on their team. I said 'no way!'"
A child of two Michigan Wolverines, this Falcon wants to fly.
Her mother, Jennifer Leskinen, describes the eighth-grader as "incredibly diverse."
"She played Lucy in the Virtuoso Performing Arts' performance of 'Narnia' and sang and memorized hundreds of lines. Really, she's math- and science-oriented, and she wants to be a doctor, like me."
The scholarly athlete who lists Winnie the Pooh as one of her likes on Facebook decided spontaneously to play spring football with one of her girlfriends.
Football coach Tod Creneti said he was approached by a spokesperson for five or six girls who said they wanted to play. "In the end, Kelsey was the only one who showed up," he said.
"My mom thought I was trying out for flag football or a girls team," Kelsey said. "When I told her I needed to pick up my pads for practice, she was surprised, but she just told me not to get hurt."
There is precedent in the Leskinen family; Kelsey's aunt, Meredith Flaherty, played Pop Warner football and was an All-American soccer goalkeeper for a national championship squad at the University of Florida before coaching soccer at Sam Houston State University.
"My aunt is kind of cool," said Kelsey, who wears her aunt's number, 21, on her jerseys in lacrosse, soccer and now football.
"The guys see her as a teammate," Creneti said. "She went out there and worked hard; she developed skills with ease."
As fall approaches, Kelsey is not sure what football team, if any, she will play for.
"Maybe I can play on the middle school team," she muses, not sure what FHSAA eligibility rules will come into play. If not this fall, she says she may try to play varsity in a couple of years.
"I want her to compete at a level that she can continue in the game," said Creneti, who was not sure if she will play in the fall. "We want players who can contribute in a variety of ways: leadership, physical, energy, attitude. Kelsey has a hard work ethic, and she's naturally athletic."
"My aunt said she doesn't know of many girls that like sweat dripping down their nose," said Kelsey, who clearly counts herself as one of the few.
During that spring game on May 18th, those who were initially shocked at her decision to play were loudly cheering her on. "They flipped out. It's a really good feeling when they support you," Kelsey said.