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WA makes way for first female football player

November 1, 2019

One year. Twelve months. 365 days. 8760 hours. That is how long Julia Bourque spent preparing for her breakthrough role on the Westford Academy junior varsity football team.

Every year, students gather up their skills to earn potential positions on their designated boys’ and girls’ sports teams. For decades, WA has stuck with these two different categories of teams, students trying out specifically for the team that corresponds with them. Although in some cases this system may work, there are a few instances that having teams based on gender may not benefit every player. In the instance of football, it has been considered a male sport for as long as it has been around. This year, defying stereotypes, sophomore Julia Bourque is playing for the JV team, being the first female player in all of WA football history.

Being athletic since childhood, Bourque has loved playing countless sports, including gymnastics, soccer, and field hockey. Gymnastics and soccer were major activities when she was younger, regarding them as the root of her competitiveness. However, as she grew older, Bourque dropped those sports for field hockey.

After playing field hockey all throughout middle school, and being remembered as one of the strongest players by her teammates, Bourque decided to change things up. Nevertheless, Bourque knew the shift from field hockey to football would not prove to be an easy one.

At the beginning of her freshman year, she told her mother, Susan Bourque. Though her mother is the most supportive person in her life, Susan Bourque had a few concerns regarding whether this was the best decision for her daughter.

“I was equal parts excited and scared. I was nervous that the players would accept her or be mean to her. But, the exact opposite has happened. Her teammates have embraced her as part of the team and have helped and supported her,” Susan Bourque said.

After observing the fervid dedication that her daughter had for the sport, Susan Bourque quickly learned that football had become a major part of Julia Bourque’s life. Starting to get accustomed to the role football played in her household, Susan Bourque began to plan according to football, since her daughter’s schedule was quite rigorous.

Once her decision to play football was brought to her family’s attention, Bourque consulted Coach Jeff Bunyon, the athletic director at WA. Bourque expressed her desire to participate in the sport, a desire that Bunyon was open to.

“She came to[Head Football] Coach Gendron and me with an interest in participating in the football program. We said ‘absolutely yes’ since we are all about the safety and inclusion of our student-athletes. Julia was terrific. She went to all the off-season optional workouts, and she is doing a great job by fully participating. We are very supportive of her, as we are with all the other student-athletes at WA,” Bunyon said.

So, her journey began. In the fall, she started to regularly attend practices, workouts, and meetings for the team. Determined to make the team in 2019, Bourque pushed herself to extreme limits. Regularly waking up at five in the morning, she would quickly change into her workout attire and head to school, where she would spend 45-60 minutes weight-training. Bourque would constantly test her body to make sure that she was becoming stronger.

“I’ve lost a ton of weight and overall become a stronger person. My pain tolerance has gone up, so being tackled and being able to stand up after are tolerable now. Getting into this shape was hard, and adjusting to it while I was also learning how to fit in with everyone was hard too. I remember what it felt like when everyone else went into the boys’ locker room and I went into the girls, or when they had to learn how to deal with pep talks since I could not go into the boys’ locker room. It was challenging finding my place, but eventually, I did and learned how to train like the rest,” Bourque said.

Bourque’s rigorous regimen caught the attention of Gendron who felt that Bourque’s passion for the sport was shining through her preparation for the upcoming season. From there on out, Gendron knew that Bourque would make a good addition to the team.

Aside from her coach, Julia Bourque caught the attention of the football players. Most remarked her as a determined athlete who was doing everything in her capability to make a smooth transition onto the team. The team also knew that Bourque would be a good addition to the team, witnessing all the workouts, diets, and changes she had made to her lifestyle in order to be in the best shape possible for the upcoming season.

Whereas, Bourque’s family did not view her lifestyle change to be anything out of the ordinary. Observing Bourque’s motivation to be good at her passions from a young age, Bourque’s family understood that she would push her limits to exceed at football.

“She is so brave. She loves getting the ball, which means she will likely be tackled by someone. Other than brave, Julia is competitive, hardworking, and passionate about the commitments in her life. I am very proud of her commitment. She mentioned that she wanted to play in the fall of 2018. I assumed it was a ‘phase’ and she would be onto something else by football season. She knows she still has a ton to learn, but she is putting the work to get better and be productive on the field,” Susan Bourque said.

By May, aside from waking up early to exercise at the gym, Bourque began to join the team at their weekly lifting sessions.

Sticking with the sport all throughout the year, many of her friends were surprised at Bourque’s ability to keep football as her major priority. Nevertheless, they knew that Bourque had set her mind to being part of the team, so it made sense that she had not changed her mind. All of her friends had supported her, having her back through the entire roller-coaster of a journey.

After completing her freshman year, Bourque committed herself to a summer dedicated to football. Fully aware that this was the last stretch before tryouts, she filled her days with laborious workouts. She continuously participated in the captains’ practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays of August, never once missing a session. All the effort Bourque put into the sport made it evident that she was devoted since Coach Bunyon had clearly told her that all workouts and lifestyle changes were optional.

Soon enough, Bourque’s hard work would pay off. Tryouts were a breeze for her. Fitting in with the rest of the players, the best a girl could, Bourque showed off her skills and physique that she had obtained from the diligent training she had done the previous year. At tryouts, many of her teammates were impressed by her abilities, specifically her quick, easy movement while performing the role of running back.

However, although Bourque made the team and left good impressions on her teammates and coaches, her battle to overcome the odds was not over. Throughout her journey, she was faced with senseless backlash from her peers. Many believed that Bourque joining the team would be detrimental to the team’s standings. Others believed that Bourque was joining the team solely for the attention it would bring. As her haters tried to shut her down, Bourque knew that she had to zone out their crude comments in order to prove them wrong.

“I got a lot of criticism towards the beginning. I remember overhearing people saying bad things about me and how I would not fit in with the team. I remember my friends would constantly come up to me and tell me that so-and-so said things such as I am not cut out for the team or a girl is not strong enough to play football. Hearing these things made me want to work harder to prove these people wrong,” Bourque said.

Even so, she openly admits to having contemplated dropping the sport.

“I remember over the summer I almost quit. The pressure and commitment were taking a toll on me, and some days when I was feeling low, I did not understand the point of continuing the sport. But, once the season started, I knew I made the right decision to play because one time Coach called me from the bench and substituted me in to play running back for a scrimmage against Billerica, which showed me that I have a larger support system than I originally thought I had,” Bourque said.

Yet, even though Bourque faced numerous days in which she almost terminated her goal of being a football player, she ultimately decided that football brought her more good days than bad. Looking back at her preparation for the season, she realizes that she has completely changed, inside and out. Her mentality altered for the better, and Bourque found out who her true friends were, since the ones who really had her best interests at heart continuously supported and defended her against her bad days as well as her critics.

Aside from finding her place amongst her peers, Julia Bourque was accepted by all of her teammates, who admire her for her dedication and commitment to the team. Colton Dyment, a fellow teammate and sophomore, believes that she has made an ideal addition to the team.

“There isn’t much of difference now that she is on the team, which is a good thing. There is no weirdness. She is a good [junior varsity] player, and she takes a few hits. She is a good player who wants the best for the team,” Dyment said.

Overall, the decision to play football has shaped Bourque immensely. Now, Bourque can understand different views of certain situations she has faced. Realizing that she would entirely alter her approach, Bourque has more discipline towards activities other than football, such as her academics, social life, and family life.

“I have become a lot more open. Before, I think I was a little bit unfocused when it came to things in my life. Football has helped me organize my prioritize and overall how to be a better person,” Bourque said.

Now, growing from her challenges of the past, Bourque plans on focusing on her physical and academic life. Physically, she wants to improve on her football skills, a desire shared by many ardent players. Her US history teacher Michael Martell sees Bourque’s interest in the classroom on a daily basis.

“Julia Bourque is motivated, dedicated, and willing to try new things. She is a pioneer, I would say, a good student. She was one of the first kids to sign up for a difficult activity in class and one of the first to present it. Overall, she shows a desire to learn in the classroom, which I appreciate,” Martell said.

Having passed over multiple obstacles to be where she is today, football player Julia Bourque would not change her last year’s decision to join the football team. Football helped her develop key skills that she feels are crucial to being a well-rounded, mature person. Teamwork, leadership, confidence, and responsibility are among the many lessons that Bourque has learned through her training and season so far. As she moves on with her season, and her sophomore year of high school, she feels freer and more capable of being herself, an independent young woman who understands how to learn and cope with pressure and attention.

“This year has been a whirlwind of emotion for me. Not only did I completely change my main sport, but all my goals for myself changed. When I think back to the position I was in last year, I realize all that football has provided me, other than the physical exercise. I have another home where I feel welcome and happy, and I plan on being part of that team for the next few years of high school,” Bourque said.

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