Sitting on a park bench by the Coliseum, Harvard’s home football field, sophomore Mai Le smiles as she remembers her time playing football in high school. Le, a two-year starting kicker at St. Xavier’s Prep who now plays forward for the Crimson women’s soccer team, remembers how her coach, Darrell Lewis, begged her to play kicker starting in tenth grade.
“I was asked at the end of my sophomore year if I wanted to try out,” Le said. “I thought it was a joke, but he wrote in my yearbook that he still needed a kicker and was dropping a lot of hints about it at the end of the year. I talked it over with my parents and my dad was thrilled. He had three daughters and he never thought he’d have a football player.”
Although Le’s dad grew up in Vietnam, she said that going to Notre Dame cultivated his love for football early on and he supported her throughout her entire career. Her mom, who doubled as Le’s high school soccer coach, was a little worried about Le getting injured, but agreed to let her play.
Le kicked extra points, field goals, and kickoffs for St. Xavier, starting 10 games over her two-year stint on the team. Lewis said that beginning in her second year there were students from the boy’s soccer team looking to get her role, but that she was able to beat them out for the position because of her focus and discipline on the field.
“We had other soccer boys who wanted to be on the team, but Mai was the most mentally tough person we had,” Lewis said. “She was the best kicker on the team, guy or girl.”
ALONE IN THE PACK
Lewis said that although Le was the only female player on the team, there was not the tension one would expect. Although Le occasionally had to dress in a different locker room for road games or come dressed to the bus rides, he added that Le’s work ethic quickly earned her respect from her teammates.
“Mai was so athletic and humble and hardworking that there wasn’t as much awkwardness as there could have been,” Lewis said. “The male students had a lot of respect for her, and she was the type of leader that you want to be as a student-athlete, committed and doing a great job in the classroom and doing everything you want to do on the field.”
According to Le, while there were certainly awkward moments—at certain times she had to face the corner of the locker room while waiting for a player to alert her that the team was done changing—the team embraced her as one of their own.
“They were really accepting of me from the beginning,” Le recalls. “In the huddle, they would say ‘Nobody touches Mai, she’s like our sister.’ The freshmen would call me an older sister and ask me to sing them lullabies. When I started hearing other stories about the experiences that other girls had playing football, I realized what a special environment I was in. I was so lucky.”
Not wanting people to change how they played against her, Le wore her hair inside her helmet her junior year on the team so that opponents could not identify her by her sex. By her senior year, Le’s competitive side took over and she began to use her sex to her advantage in games, wearing her ponytail out and coming to warm up without a helmet to make sure other teams recognized it.
“My first year, I put on all my pads over my head and didn’t want people to register it,” Le said. “Senior year I began to realize guys who play football are much more conscientious about it and began to use it to my advantage.”
FROM SPORT TO SPORT
In the fall, Le would juggle both football and soccer by going to football practices earlier in the afternoon and club soccer practices late at night. Although both games feature eleven members on each side, according to Le the environment is very different between the two.
“In football, everything is prepared beforehand,” Le said. “Unlike soccer, which is much more free-flowing, everything is a set piece. It’s definitely an interesting contrast between the two. The culture of football is so unique in some ways because it’s almost like the military with the emphasis that it places on personal value. Everyone can step forward and be a leader in soccer, but in football everyone has a specific role and is disciplined enough to play within it.”