This fall, second grader Janiyah Hill–who regularly goes toe-to-toe at home with her ten-year old brother Izayah, a Centerville SImbas football player–decided it was time she played, too.
Meanwhile, Deneen Roundtree had been asking her co-worker at her post office in Camden, New Jersey, longtime Simbas coach Orlando Council-Pettigrew, if she could become a coach, too. He’d ignored her requests last season, so she’d upped the ante.
“Every day I came in and said, ‘Am I coaching for you?’”
So it was that nearly a half-century after the team’s inception that two females came to the Centerville Simbas in the form of a seven-year old combination running back and cornerback, and a 49-year old coach. Though one girl had played on the 115-lb. team last year, Hill was the first female to make the 75-lb. squad.
The need for role models
The team was founded in Camden by three college-educated area athletes in 1969. In a tough urban environment, the Simbas have provided strong male role models for many fatherless children and the team has been a mainstay of the Centerville neighborhood. Over the years, players grew up to become coaches, and the Simbas produced talented athletes like Rashad Baker, who was drafted by the Buffalo Bills and played for several other NFL teams. Currently under the auspices of Pop Warner, the Simbas have 130 players and 30 cheerleaders between the ages of 5 to 15, and though each player is charged $100 per season, no child has ever been refused for lack of funds.
For coach Council-Pettigrew, teaching Janiyah Hill how to play football was like fresh air. Working with the little girl “makes me excited about coaching again,” he said.
“She had no bad habits,” he said, “so she only did what we instructed her to do!”
Hill followed directions so well that during her first game, when she’d been told the quarterback would hand off the ball to her and the play went awry, she simply stopped on the field and looked annoyed.
“She felt,” said her mother, Renekia Robinson, “that it was supposed to be her ball!”
When Hill first asked to join the team, Robinson tried to dissuade her daughter from playing, telling her she was too small. Then, Hill’s father, Demetrius Hill–a Simbas coach himself–said she could join, but that she’d have to stick with it and not give up.
The coaches nicknamed her “Icebox,” after a little girl who played football in the movie “Little Giants,” and at first Hill asked if they could call her “Ice Cream” instead. “We told her no,” said Robinson, “because ice cream is soft!”
For Deneen Roundtree, a self-described “huge football fan” who grew up in Camden but now lives in Sicklerville, coaching is a way of giving back to the city she loves. Previously, she’d played softball for nearly 15 years and coached little league T-ball; she’s also a foster parent.
Roundtree had “a ball” this year and was especially pleased with the SImba parents’ participation; she says the mothers took to her immediately, but the fathers were more skeptical of the female coach. “They resisted,” she said, “but only for a moment, though! They had to be won over.”
At the last game of the season Sunday in Asbury Park, Hill scored her fourth touchdown of the season on a 65-yard run, and Council-Pettigrew was so happy, he slung her over his shoulder and carried her back to the sidelines.
Then, just after halftime, the only issue that Hill has struggled with cropped up again—her lack of “football hair.”
Hill complains to one of the coaches that her head hurts, but it is actually her hair, separated into two thick pigtails, that is making the helmet too tight. She takes ten minutes to have it braided closer to her scalp and then returns to the game.
The little girl refuses to cut her hair and at home, says her mother, is “a girly-girl,” painting her fingernails and playing with dolls.
At a pizza party after the game, Roundtree says she plans to be back coaching next season. Hill, however, is torn, having forged a close bond with Roundtree but knowing that when she moves up from the 75-lb. division to the next team, she will leave the female coach behind.
“Maybe I’ll play next year,” said the little girl. “But I want to help Coach Deneen.”
April Saul is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who spent the 2014-15 school year embedded at Camden High School and who served as advisor to the Camden High school newspaper, The Castle Crier, during the past year. She writes about Camden on her Facebook page, “Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible”