With a win against Hillcrest all but guaranteed, Memphis Academy of Health Science (MAHS) football coach Cedric Miller summoned one of his young cornerbacks, number 20, to the field. It was the freshman’s first taste of game action not only of the season, but as a high school football player.
Shortly after entering the game, Joi Gary would announce herself to the Shelby County football world by lowering the boom and making a tackle on a Vikings tailback.
When asked about it later, Gary just shrugged her shoulders as if it was business as usual. “It was fun. I got in and made a tackle,” she deadpanned. “I’ve been playing for four years,” she added. “I first started off playing flag but then I wanted to get more intense with it and just put on a helmet and shoulder pads.”
It was also no big deal for Miller. It’s not the first time a girl has suited up for one of his teams during his 17 years of coaching. “It was during registration. (Gary) came over to me and said 'Coach, I want to play football,'” he said. “I’ve had two young ladies to play for me before. Two of them when I was (coaching) at Wooddale. So it wasn’t a problem with me.”
But Miller will admit Gary’s presence on the team is significant to others, particularly her teammates. Until this season, several of the Lions’ players had never played football with a female. “Respect is demanded because of who she is,” Miller said. “She is a model student. And I think it is building character in those young men, because they have to carry themselves in a certain manner in order for her to be out here and make it successful.”
“I had never played with a girl before,” said Lions’ senior running back LaDerrius Burks. “It’s fun having her around. She’s the life of the team. If she can do it, I think many other girls can come out here and show the same charisma she does.”
Gary’s a welcome sight for fans also. Bridget Thompson, mother of Gary’s teammate Katrell Thompson, had her camera phone ready when Gary took the field against Hillcrest. She recorded Gary’s tackle and later loaded it to Youtube. “I would talk to her during games and she seemed so anxious and excited for an opportunity to play,” said Thompson. “But the first couple of games she didn’t play. I told her, when you play, I’m going to record you. She eventually did and as soon as she got in she was on a tackle.”
Gary’s main concern is not about being a fan favorite but about getting more opportunities. “You work hard in practice so you can show up, then show out, “she said.
At 5’, 0”, 130 pounds, Gary is a student of the game, according to Miller. He and Gary’s teammates are quick to point out that her spot on the roster is not a token one.
“She going to be really good,” said sophomore lineman Thompson. “She can play, and I like playing with her.”
“Overall she’s a good player,” said Burks. “I know she can handle her own.”
“She’s a good tackler,” said Miller. “Once she proved she could get it done, we told her to go for what she knows. In the future if she wants to continue to grow and come out here and play football for MAHS, she’s more than welcome. She can help us with leadership and some of the skills she brings from playing basketball.”
Gary will play point guard for the MAHS girls’ basketball team when hoops season begins. She has yet to decide whether football or basketball is her sport of choice. She feels she will never have to pick just one. “I want to do both,” she said. “I can’t picture myself not doing one or the other.”
But what Gary has chosen is her favorite football player and it’s not Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman or Jets’ shutdown corner Darrelle Revis. Her favorite player is “(Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady,” she said.
Why? “He’s a winner and I like to win.”