Laura Bakken is Minnesota's first female collegiate football player.
Bakken joined The College of St Scholastica's Division III football team as a sophomore. After having her football dreams crushed in grade school when she attempted to attend the pre-season meeting for her district's middle school team and was kicked out for being a girl, Bakken decided to give it another shot.
"Getting kicked out of that meeting made me feel ostracized," said Bakken. "I never quite got over that. I was scared it would happen again, but it never did. I was impressed."
Fortunately for Bakken, her second attempt at playing football succeeded.
"I always wondered if I would be good at kicking, since I was in soccer for a very long time. I contacted the head coach, Greg Carlson, to see if I could get some drills that I could work on, but one thing led to another, and he invited me to start off-season lifting," said Bakken. "The idea was that if I did end up joining the team, the guys would have an easier time accepting me after participating in off-season lifting, rather than showing up in the fall."
At first, Bakken's boyfriend, Tyler Gregg, was skeptical of Laura's decision.
"I would be lying if I said I hadn't been slightly concerned when she first brought up the idea of playing football with 80 other college guys, but the team and coaching staff have been nothing but friendly and totally professional," said Gregg. "I was just happy she had the opportunity to play a game that she seriously loves more than 90% of the guys I know."
For Laura's older brother Alex, the excitement of seeing his little sister play football combatted with a slight sense of fear.
"It's hard to describe the feeling of seeing her all geared up. I was nervous; I didn't want her to get hurt in practice or anything. It's a big brother thing, being protective," he said.
Eventually, excitement for his sister overweighed the nerves.
"I was excited for her because she's always been a really big football fan, so it was cool to see her manifest that love of the game and then take that passion and put it forth," he said. "It was brave of her to take on such a male-dominated sport, and neat to see her step up and put that effort out there. I'm really proud of her."
However, despite her commitment to the team, Bakken struggles with people's perception of gender roles and the idea that women don't play football.
"I just want to tackle the whole sexism thing, because people bring it up to me a lot, and I'll be frank; I have never played in a game. After hearing this, sometimes people blame sexism, and that's extremely false," said Bakken. "College football isn't charity. They aren't going to put someone in just because ‘they try really hard.' It doesn't work that way. They put in the starting kicker, Mike Theismann, because he is an excellent athlete and the best person for the job. He has earned his starting position a thousand times over."
Ignoring the assumptions of the people around her, Laura continued to shatter the "girls don't play football" stereotype.
"I think the big thing is just the fact that she tried out and then stuck with it for 2 years instead of trying out, making it, and then quitting to make a statement," said Alex, "she was following her passion."
Though she has never set foot on the turf during a game, Bakken is still important to her teammates.
"Laura was a valued member of our team that added character and kept some of us in line. I believe that she worked just as hard as the rest of us," said corner back Shane Mogan. "I know everyone really enjoyed the fact that even though she might not travel with us some weeks, she was always at the buses to give us traveling treats like cookies and puppy chow. That lifted people's spirits and made the start of every trip enjoyable."
Bakken, it seems, isn't the only person on the team to get irritated with gender stereotypes.
"It was very annoying that some of the other teams would try and make fun of us for the fact that she was on our team," said Mogan. "But we got past those issues as a team."
Sometimes, dealing with gender issues as a team meant getting creative, especially when it came to team meetings and changing before games. For home games, Bakken shared a locker room with the women's basketball team. At away games, she was usually subjected to a public women's bathroom.
"I go to the men's locker room area at the game for half-time, because half-time usually consists of drinking water, chowing down on Snickers, and position meetings. There's no clothing change or anything, so there's no problem with me being in there," said Bakken.
"But honestly, being a woman on the football team is lonely. There is a lot of bonding that goes on in places I can't go, such as the locker room. It's not as easy for me to make connections and that's tough sometimes."
Not many women can relate to Laura's position. According to Gregg, Laura is the only woman in Minnesota history to play men's collegiate football. However, to combat the loneliness of playing football, Bakken turns to a group she has been able to bond with: the basketball cheerleading squad.
Originally a football cheerleader, Bakken started her cheer career at CSS her freshman year. She switched to cheering for basketball when she joined the football team. Bakken serves as assistant captain this year, and will become a co-captain next season.
"We really lucked out both years having great girls on the squad. We goof off, have fun, and we don't take ourselves too seriously," said Bakken. "We enjoy watching the game and cheering on the boys. Having a tight-knit group of girls to hang out with, dance with, and stunt with multiple days a week has been extremely special to me during my college career."
As a cheerleader, Bakken feels like part of the game.
"I'm a self-proclaimed sore loser, so I hate watching the team lose games. Sometimes, you just want to jump in and help the team," Bakken said with a grin. "Don't worry; this isn't me announcing that I'm joining the men's basketball team next."
Gregg, a devoted spectator, loves watching Bakken perform.
"I know that it is something she's super passionate about, so I'm glad it's something she's able to do," he said. "I enjoy getting to go to the games and watch her cheer. I've gotten to go to those games ever since our senior year in high school. Even though we went to different high schools, I think I made almost every boys' basketball game at Cloquet that year. It's always fun to watch her cheer because she makes such a great, upbeat cheerleader."
Gregg also attended all of Bakken's football games. He feels that even though she never played, seeing her on the sidelines made him proud.
"The blonde hair sticking out from the helmet always made her easy to spot," he said.
While infinitely passionate about both activities, Bakken hasn't always had an easy time balancing football and cheerleading, especially when she's supposed to be in two places at once.
"One time, I had football practice from 6 to 9 and our very first cheerleading game from 7 to 9:30. I literally wore my cheerleading uniform under my football gear at practice one day, so that when we drove back to CSS, I could run right into the gym to cheer," she said. " I had entered the bus looking like a football player, and when the lights turned on in the school parking lot, one of my teammates did a double take at me in my cheerleading attire, asking ‘when did you turn back into a girl?'"
While Bakken's cheer career will continue next season, her shoulder pads and football helmet have been hung up for good. NCAA rules state that only full-time college students are allowed to play on collegiate teams. Bakken, having earned senior status this year, will only be taking four credits in the fall. Therefore, her football career is over.
"I was a senior, technically, during this year of football. I didn't tell anyone because being a senior in football is a really big deal, and I didn't feel I had earned that kind of recognition yet," said Bakken. "I've never been in football for the attention, so if I did it over again, I still would have kept my status as a senior to myself."
Through everything, Bakken feels the most important lesson she learned was to be proud of herself.
"I've learned to be proud of myself, no matter the outcome, as long as I've given it my best effort. At the end of my football career, it's easy for me to focus on the fact that I didn't play in a game," said Bakken. "I forget to be proud of myself for participating in an intense, demanding, challenging sport for two and a half years."
Gregg, who experienced Bakken's football career alongside her, couldn't be more proud.
"I'm so proud that she stuck with football and saw it through to the end. When she first started, I was excited and supportive, but I didn't think she really knew what she was getting herself into, especially with the summer camp and the lifting programs," said Gregg. "So I am incredibly proud that after making it through all those and not playing a single snap, that she still cared enough about football to go back and do the whole thing for another year knowing she would probably never see the field."
Perhaps her biggest fan, big brother Alex is infinitely proud of what his sister has accomplished.
"She's a very passionate individual with an uncommon drive. She's going to knock it out no matter how hard it is. And she's a good person with a strong moral compass. Where I work, I see a lot of negative every day, and it just makes me more proud of her," said Alex. "And her big brother loves her."