Keirstan Highsmith wanted to play football. That's why she wasn't going to accept "couldn't" as an answer.
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- Keirstan Highsmith knew she could do it. That's why she wasn't going to accept "couldn't" as an answer.
Highsmith had played football throughout her childhood, first in her neighborhood with her siblings before taking the field as an eighth-grader in middle school.
She faced her first obstacle when she got to high school and was told she couldn’t play. That didn’t stop her.
“The reason I started playing football, in the seventh grade I got bullied a lot so I got to let go of a lot of aggression," Highsmith said. "Football helped me let out a lot of aggression that I didn’t need to keep in. When I got to the high school level, they wouldn’t let me.”
So she turned to Deron Donald, a coach at another Fayetteville high school, who said "yes" with a few stipulations.
“He told me as long as I could hit as hard as the boys and as long as I feel like I'm comfortable with where I'm at, he had no problem with me playing," Highsmith said.
"I’ve been playing for him ever since, and it’s always been a family environment. They don’t treat me any differently. As long as I feel comfortable and I’m giving 110 percent, he doesn’t mind at all. A lot of times, they forget I’m there.”
As a 5-foot-6, 158-pound junior linebacker at E.E. Smith High School, Highsmith told her coach and the football team not to worry about her holding her own on the gridiron.
"You just need to give me a helmet and some pads, and I'll be fine," she said. “Nobody ever knows I’m a female until I take off my helmet and my pads."
Donald described Highsmith as a "tough and gritty" leader for the team.
"She works hard ... she works in the weight room, she works in the classroom, and her attitude is just — by far — one of the best attitudes I’ve ever seen," Donald said.
“If all my guys had the same attitude and drive that she had, we probably wouldn’t lose.”
Randy Franklin, a Navy recruit and senior captain for the Golden Bulls, echoed his coach's thoughts.
“She may be a girl, but she fights like us," Franklin said. "She’s always working hard and you never have to say anything to her. She always does the little things right.”
Franklin said Highsmith entered the fold as "mighty mouse" and has found her voice as a leader in practices and on Friday nights.
"She's more commanding now," he said. "... That's what you expect from a leader."
The peak of her football experience, to this point in her career, came in E.E. Smith's 27-0 win against her former high school, Douglas Byrd, on Oct. 4. Everything came full circle on that night.
“A lot of people (think), when it comes to football, girls shouldn’t play football," Donald said.
"They told her over there (at her former school) that she would never play. After we won and she had an opportunity to get reps in that game, she just cried and just poured out full of emotions. … To see her overcome something like that and continue to be persistent and stick with it, and come over here to E.E. Smith — where everybody is somebody — you get an opportunity to do whatever it is you want to do. As long as you work hard and put in the work, and be committed, we’ll give you an opportunity. She’s done that.”
In that game, as Highsmith described it, she was no longer “that little girl that heard, 'You can't do this, you can't do this, you can't do this.'”
“I got really emotional," she recalled. "It brought me back to the time when they told me I couldn’t. At the end of the game, it was 27-0, I could say I was a part of that. I was a part of that journey and I started crying. ... I’ve changed since then because of the football team. I’m not that same person.”
A week later, the Golden Bulls celebrated homecoming with a 47-28 comeback win. Highsmith was a part of the homecoming parade and she'll be competing in the Miss E.E. Smith pageant on Nov. 1.
And her can-do attitude continues to motivate Donald and the Golden Bulls on a daily basis.
“To see her go through that plethora of emotions that night (at Douglas Byrd) because someone told her what she couldn’t do, and she was able to prove them wrong, says a lot about the type of young lady that she is," he said.