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Sam Gordon: The Post-Feminist Flash Gordon

2.21_LS0508_Peewee
02/21/14
In the Magazine
Samantha “Sam” Gordon is outrunning all the boys on the peewee football field. Ashley Morfin

A track of pump-you-up, "Eye of the Tiger"-esque percussion beats blasts at the start of Sam Gordon's football highlight video. Almost immediately, stats flash across the screen: 35 scores; 232 carries; 1,911 yards; 8.2 yards per carry; 65 tackles. As the vaguely familiar rock-and-roll pulse comes faster and louder, the camera steadies on the players lining up for a snap. At first it seems as if it will be virtually impossible to spot Gordon in this sea of pint-sized lookalikes, but as soon as the ball is live, a lone helmet escapes the pack. It's Gordon, charging furiously past every other player on the field, sprinting for over 50 yards to score her - yes, her - first touchdown on her very first play.

Samantha "Sam" Gordon was 9 years old when her father, Brent Gordon, made that video of the best of her 2012 season and posted it on a Brigham Young University sports message board that fall. Three hours later, the Ellen show called. The next morning, Good Morning America was at their house near Salt Lake City. Within three days, the video had 5 million views and America had its female darling of the football world.

"I've always played sports and done football with my older brother and my dad," Sam says. "So it didn't seem like [playing football] was going to be a big deal. It just seemed like another sport I was going to play - and then this happened."

This being the windfall of attention she has received since her father showed the world that a girl can outrun all the boys on the peewee football field. Sam has appeared on many TV shows, including Good Morning America, ESPN SportsCenter, the Katie Couric show and on the Cartoon Network. She got her own Super Bowl ad last year, appeared in a skit with Alec Baldwin at the NFL Honors award show, and watched the game as a personal guest of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. She has practiced with the San Francisco 49ers. Tackled Hall-of-Famer Marshall Faulk on the NFL Network's Game Day. Promoted her Wheaties cereal box on the Conan O'Brien show. And her book, Sweet Feet, came out last fall. Former NFLer and ESPN analyst Desmond Howard tweeted that she's his pick for a future Heisman Trophy. She also inspired the NFL's Together We Make Football campaign, which invited people to share their stories about how the sport has touched their lives.

"The Super Bowl was a favorite, because it's the Super Bowl," says Sam, now 10. "And I would also have to say going to Nike, because that's awesome. And practicing with the U.S. women's soccer team, because they're my idols."

We were sitting in a quiet corner of a yawning corridor at the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, Calif., where the first MAKERS Conference was taking place, a gathering of prominent leaders and innovators to reset the agenda for women, work and family in the 21st century. All around us were women walking and talking and networking and brainstorming in an array of power suits, pencil skirts and chic jean-and-sweater concoctions. Sam, who wore a periwinkle zip-up sweatshirt, her dirty blonde hair falling past her shoulders, squirmed around in her seat. Her father sat next to us.

Gordon, a lawyer, let his daughter do all of the talking. There is a relaxed, Midwestern authenticity about him - the crew cut, the familiar plaid button-down shirt and gray zip-up sweater, his accessible smile that never quite fades. He listened, beaming, as she chattered on about who she looks up to (American soccer players Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan); her favorite color (purple); her favorite song (Pharrell Williams's "Happy" from Despicable Me 2) and her favorite sport (soccer, which she started playing when she was 4 years old).

Sam, who has three siblings, grew up playing football with her older brother and two-hand touch football with the boys at recess. It wasn't until she started beating the players on her brother's football team during speed drills that she knew she wanted to try tackle football.

During tryouts, she competed against 172 boys - and took first place in every speed and agility test. Still, she was placed on the seventh team out of nine; Gordon estimates there were roughly 80 boys picked ahead of her. And he was furious. "I had to make a decision," he said later that day. "Am I going to escalate this conflict right now and try to force Sam onto a team where a coach didn't want her, and passed her up because she is a girl? Or, I can let her play with the coach who did want her. And her coach told me she was his first pick. He said all those other coaches were idiots to pass her up."

He adds that he decided to make a highlight video when Sam was still in tryouts. "I thought, Even if nobody watches it, this will be fun for her when she gets a little bit older. When Sam would have a bad play or she'd get upset if the team wasn't winning, I'd say, 'Sam, don't worry about that, just go make me a highlight.' It was a theme throughout the season: Make a highlight."

It worked: the video went viral in a matter of hours. After a few days, Gordon had to take down his original (along with its 5 million views) due to copyright issues, but dozens of copycats popped up online. Sam, who attends year-round school, spent the next month doing interviews around the country with her stepmother. (Her mother and Gordon divorced when Sam was 4; he has sole custody of their three children.)

"At first I was just like, Okay some people are gonna see it, and it's gonna be fun to see how many views I get," Sam says, shifting around in her chair. "Then I walk home from school and my brother comes running out, 'Sam! Sam! All these TV shows are calling! You're famous!' It was like, all at once. It was just like, 'Wow!"

Throughout our conversation, conference attendees stopped by to introduce themselves to the 10-year-old football star.

"I'm so excited you're here!" one said.

"I love your video!" exclaimed another.

"Of everyone coming to this conference, I'm so excited to meet you."

"It's weird to think about it like, Wait, people know me," Sam says. "But it's fun because you get to do experiences like this."

Watching the three-minute video of Sam outrunning packs of tween boys, chasing down opponents on defense and taking serious licks herself is like seeing Walter Payton shedding defenders in his prime - only in a miniature, dollhouse-sized universe where the star has a long ponytail dangling from her helmet. As her father puts it, "she can run." Sam says she never felt she was treated any differently being the only girl on the football team. "When you get tackled, it's sort of like, all at once," she explains. "There's a guy in front of you and then suddenly you're on the ground."

Gordon seems to be less stressed seeing his daughter get tackled than he is watching her give live interviews. "Every interview I'm thinking, She's only 9 or 10 years old. What is gonna come out of that mouth, you know? She's on national TV - and it's live! My heart's beating, but then she nails it every time," he says.

One of Gordon's favorite stories about Sam took place more recently. He was coaching her basketball team at the local rec center. A couple of girls were late, so while Gordon waited for them in the hallway, Sam was on court playing. Suddenly, six boys, all around Sam's age, appeared nearby. "Hey!" Gordon remembers one of them yelling. "Guess who's in here playing basketball? Sam Gordon is!"

"No way??" shouted another. "Are you serious? Is she here?"

"I'm not making it up," the first boy said. "Sam Gordon is here!"

Gordon leaned back in his chair and smiled at Sam. "I've seen that quite a bit, where other boys her age look up to her. And I think that's great. That's one of the things that happened on her football team as well. She was one of the ones they looked to to win the game, and I think that's a really positive statement. Those boys, I think, will be different from that experience."

When I asked Sam who she was most excited about meeting at the conference, she looks up at the ceiling and lets out a long, "Hmmmmmm."

"I'm not very good at remembering names, but the girl who works at Facebook?" she says. "And basically just all the people, because they're all doing such great things.... A lot of these girls here, they wanted to be something a lot higher than just getting married."

Fifteen minutes later, Sheryl Sandberg walked by surrounded by a cluster of women. "Do you know who that was?" I ask, pointing down the hallway.

"Who?" Sam replies quickly.

"That girl from Facebook."

Sam whips around in her chair, but too late; Sandberg is already gone. But a few hours later - moments after Jennifer Aniston interviewed Gloria Steinem at the conference's opening session on the main stage - Sam got to meet Sandberg.

"I like being a role model," Sam says. "A message that I wasn't meaning to send was sent by me playing football, telling girls that they can do things that they put their minds to. I like that other girls are seeing that, and that way they'll feel they can do something great and it will go on and on."

Sam didn't play football this fall so she could focus on soccer and make the Olympic Development Program, which identifies young soccer players of the highest ability level to train on a consistent basis. (She heads to the training center in Nevada next weekend.) For a 10-year-old girl who has already become one of the top 50 most-googled female athletes of 2012 - who already has an entire day (December 18) named for her in her hometown of South Jordan, Utah - what could possibly come next? Playing football again this fall and continuing to rise in soccer. And, of course, speaking at a major event in front of hundreds of people.

The next afternoon, Sam and her father walked out onto the main stage at the MAKER's conference as Katy Perry's "Roar" blasted in the background.

I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire 'Cause I am a champion and you're gonna hear me roar.

Sam, wearing a light blue button-down shirt and purple pants, danced her way to her seat. The audience erupted in applause.

"What's it like to score a touchdown?" asked AOL Chief Executive Officer Tim Armstrong, who interviewed her onstage.

"It's the best thing ever," Sam said, "because you look back and you see what you just went up against, and you scored against those people - against those boys.

"My goal, when I get older, is I want to play for the U.S. Women's National Team for soccer, win an Olympic gold medal and the World Cup," she added.

"These are all very reasonable," Armstrong replied, barely audible beneath the hoots and cheers from the audience.

That evening, at the conference's final dinner, Marlo Thomas and Jane Fonda announced that the night was doubling as Gloria Steinem's surprise 80th birthday party. Not long after Steinem took the stage to give a brief speech, Sam sprinted to the podium, grabbed the mic and told everyone in the room to dance. In an instant, she was flapping her arms and jumping up and down. The move, we had all learned earlier, was her touchdown dance, the "Sam Dance," which she isn't allowed to perform on the field because of a ban on anything that smacks of taunting. In an instant, the many cameras and iPhones that had been pointed at conference-goers posing with Steinem suddenly turned to Sam, the star of the evening... and tomorrow.

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