PLYMOUTH — Haylee Joudrey is 9 years old, with blue eyes, long blond hair that cascades out from the back of her football helmet, and a printout of her team’s 28 offensive plays neatly tucked into a plastic sleeve all but embedded on her left forearm. She’s the quarterback.
“The starting quarterback,’’ asserted Joudrey, the No. 1 play-caller for her Pop Warner team in Plymouth, a league that numbers only two girls, Joudrey and teammate Sarah Kirrane, among its 150-plus players. “Matt Tull goes in if I get hurt, but I’m first string.’’
Joudrey, with a delightfully impish voice and abundant energy, is also a steel-willed dynamo when it comes to confronting physical adversity away from the field. She twice last season underwent neurological surgeries to repair a Chiari (pronounced: KEY-ah-ree) malformation, a congenital condition in which the base of her skull did not adequately encase her brain, leading, as her father Paul said, “for her brain to slip down and suffocate the top of her spine.’’
It was a preseason physical exam in 2014 that found that Joudrey, then 8, had juvenile scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, which doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital ultimately discerned was caused by the Chiari condition. She underwent her first surgery in July 2014, began to play Pop Warner tackle football some six weeks later, only in October to require a second emergency operation on the Chiari when a follow-up MRI revealed spinal fluid was trapped inside her brain.
“What happens in the Chiari,’’ explained Dr. Mark Proctor, the Children’s neurosurgeon who performed both operations, “things are so compressed [at the base of the skull], the fluid gets trapped inside and cannot leave the brain. Therefore, instead of leaving the brain, it enters into the spinal cord rather than going around the spinal cord.’’
The pressure exerted by her brain not fitting fully into the skull, explained Proctor, led to her scoliosis. The two surgeries fixed the Chiari and alleviated the pressure, remedying the flow of spinal fluid, but the scoliosis remains.
“As far as that goes,’’ explained Jenn Joudrey, Haylee’s mother and constant fixture on the sidelines during games, “I think we’re in a holding pattern.’’
Outnumbered by boys
Dr. John Emans, an orthopedic surgeon at Children’s, continues to monitor Haylee’s scoliosis. She has yet to require surgery for the condition, and possibly won’t need it, he said, depending on whether the curvature becomes more acute while she progresses to the end of her growth cycle.
“I think it’s useful for people to know that she is able to play,’’ said Emans, who along with Proctor, cleared Joudrey to return to her athletic endeavors, including football — not that the patient/quarterback ever questioned the latter. “It is possible to play serious sports in spite of having scoliosis. Just because you have scoliosis doesn’t mean you cannot be active.’’
Frankly, sitting still has never been a page, or as much as a sentence, in Haylee Joudrey’s playbook. The middle of three children, between brothers Ryan (11) and Sean (8), she is all football, more football, and a lot of everything else there is to play. If not under center in the fall, she is a point guard during basketball season, a catcher during baseball season, always on boys’ teams.
“She is between her two brothers and we moved into a neighborhood of all boys,’’ explained her mother, the only football fan in the family who won’t sit and watch NFL games all day Sunday. “So she has always followed the boys, that’s just how she is . . . and that’s funny because sometimes at school the girls think of her as one of the boys. We never had Barbies or other dolls, other than when she was really little, but she lost interest fast in all that because she had no one to play with.’’
According to national headquarters in Langhorne, Pa., approximately 225,000 children, ages 5-15, are registered to play Pop Warner football this year. Josh Pruce, the league’s national director of communications, said approximately 1 percent, or some 2,250, are girls. Typically, added Pruce, girls choose to play quarterback or linebacker.
“Not sure why that is,’’ said Pruce, “but that’s how it usually breaks.’’
In 2003, a girl approximately Haylee’s age today quarterbacked her team in Illinois to the Pop Warner national title game for her age group. Jasmine Plummer, of the Harvey Colts, ultimately became the subject of a full-length feature film, “The Longshots,” detailing the story of her sensational season at quarterback.
Though only 4 feet 6 inches, Joudrey is a notch taller than any of her Mitey-Mite teammates. Dressed in full gear, she shows no sign of her scoliosis or trace of her two Chiari operations. She not only quarterbacks, but in her game last Sunday, in which she directed the Vikings to a 19-6 win at Taunton, she took a few reps at running back and alternated between defensive end and linebacker when Taunton had the ball.
Over the course of four quarters, she shook off a hand injury, a hip injury, and recovered quickly after a stiff tackle by one of the Taunton players knocked the wind out of her. She missed only a few downs all morning and showed near disdain for an icebag she was offered for one of her injuries.
“That’s Haylee, tough as nails,’’ said Jenn Joudrey, whose father, Tom Bailey, coached football for decades at Rockland High and now, in retirement, coaches at Plymouth North. “No matter what, she’s always, ‘Get me back in there.’ ’’
She is confident, feisty, fit, knows the plays cold, and isn’t timid about being in charge. Sunday during the game, in which coaches were on the field for hands-on tutoring, she more than once signaled to have out-of-position teammates hauled over to correct spots before she called for the snap.
“Actually, before leaving the huddle, she’ll often say to the kids, ‘OK, you know where you’re lining up, right?’ ’’ said Paul Joudrey, a Pembroke police officer and one of the Vikings’ assistant coaches. “And the other day in practice, she was leading exercises, and everyone had to do 10 pushups. A couple of the kids got up as it was ending, and she yells, ‘I didn’t say recover!’ Then she made those kids do five more.’’
Source of inspiration
Maryellen Weeks, the president of Plymouth Pop Warner, said she has been inspired by Joudrey’s perseverance. She feels the two share a kinship, two females navigating what is a traditionally all-male sport, and she has particularly admired Haylee’s unyielding desire to keep playing despite health issues.
“Someone so fearless as my dear Haylee,’’ noted Weeks, “should be a role model to other girls . . . I hope gives them a voice. She is very, very strong-willed. It’s great. To face the kind of adversity she has had with her health, to turn that into a driving force, is just wonderful.’’
According to Weeks, a few of the biggest boys in Plymouth Pop Warner, who play in the league’s “unlimited’’ division, weigh more than 200 pounds, including one who weighs 231. Joudrey, now a fourth-grader, if she were to stick with Pop Warner into her early teens, ultimately could be facing a decided weight disadvantage.
“Do I think she will play football at the high school level?’’ mused Jenn Joudrey. “Probably not. Basketball, possibly. It all depends, I guess. But she is only 9. Who knows, tomorrow could change everything.’’
In many cases, girls who maintain a desire to play football end up as kicking specialists, in various roles of punting, kickoff, or field goals, limiting the instances in which they might face contact. Not surprisingly, Joudrey won’t entertain such a suggestion.
“Yeah, not me, that’s not happening,’’ she said. “I can kick it good, but . . . ’’
Of the 28 plays she has listed on her forearm sleeve, only two are passes, a bootleg to the left and another to the right, one of those often meant for her brother Sean, her favorite receiver. Four others are designed for her to run the ball, and she was repeatedly in running mode last Sunday in Taunton. Her favorite quarterback is Tennessee Titans rookie Marcus Mariota.
“I like Tom Brady,’’ she said, “but I like Marcus much better.’’
Prior to her surgeries, said Joudrey, she only asked Dr. Emans if she would be able to play once she recovered from the operations. Assured that would be the case, she began focusing on the next set of downs.
“She is a very strong-willed kid,’’ said Jenn Joudrey. “She thinks she can will things away. I’ve told her her scoliosis could worsen over time, and she’ll say, ‘Mom, I won’t let that happen to me . . . I won’t let that happen.’ I don’t know if she really believes she can will it away or that she just doesn’t have the intellect yet to know that is just not possible.’’
Noting that his daughter is a “tough chick,’’ Paul Joudrey said he hopes Haylee’s story encourages other children, especially those with scoliosis, to get out and play.
“As long as the doctors at Children’s are OK with it, I’m OK with it,’’ said Jenn Joudrey. “Because, quite honestly, I can’t stop her from getting hurt. She can get hurt in the house, in the backyard, or someone else’s house. If the doctors are OK, I’m OK. They are the best in the world up there, and that’s where I’ll put my faith.’’