CHICAGO (CBS) — Tessa Kucharski isn’t the first girl who’s tackled playing football with the boys.

But the toughness shown by her has touched both her teammates and her mother. CBS 2’s Megan Mawicke has the story from Naperville.

“The Neuqua Valley football team and coaches proves that kindness does exist. That acceptance and tolerance do exist.”

Kristen Kucharski wrote an open letter to the Nequa Valley football team for allowing her 16-year-old daughter Tessa, to be a part of the team.

“I was friends with a lot of the football players and they told me how they had morning lifts coming up, and I was like I really still want to do football. It’s always been my dream,” said Tessa.

She wanted to play football since the 7th grade but her mom was apprehensive. So she turned to cheerleading. But in January she approached coach Ellinghaus. He said she needed to build up her strength to handle tackling and play safety.

She started lifting weights with the guys four days a week at 5:45 in the morning.

“I didn’t miss a day at all because I wanted to show to everyone that I want to be here. I want to stay committed to the team,” she said.

“She’s out here every practice. She doesn’t skip for anything. She’s just other teammate to us,” said senior running back Will Chevalier.

“It was about a 95 degree day. We were rolling around in the mud, doing fireman carry and she’s out there with us and is as muddy as anybody else,” said coach Bill Ellinghaus. “I think the guys were like, ‘Tessa is going to make this.'”

Track safety is the biggest concern because she’s only five-feet three inches tall. She plays mostly on JV, some varsity and Tessa just had her first interception in a game.

“There was a moment against Waubonsie where I tackled a guy by myself and I could hear the guys and the varsity guys cheering my name,” she said.

“She’s is giving away 100 pounds to a lot of these guys,” said coach Ellinghaus. “She got hit pretty good sometimes.”

When asked what she wants other young girls to think of what she does, Tessa said “that you can do whatever you want.”

The text of the full letter written by Tessa’s mom Kristen Kucharski:

It’s not about the girl….it’s about so much more……

Its one thing to talk about kindness, acceptance and tolerance but to put your words into action is sometimes challenging for people, especially teens.

I have been sitting back quietly watching an entire team of players, coaches, and parents respond to a girl joining the football team at Neuqua Valley High School.

She’s been asking me since middle school to join the football team and I was worried about the social atmosphere. I was worried the girls in middle school would isolate her as “different.”

I wasn’t sure if she was mature enough to handle the general awkwardness and hormonal imbalance of middle school on top of being a part of an all-boys team, versus bonding and connecting with girls to form traditional social relationships. 

Perhaps shame on me for not trusting her or her peers at that time, but I had heard so many stories of “girl drama in middle school.” I didn’t want to add an element of chaos that seemed avoidable through other sports that she was not only talented at, but enjoyed as well.

It seemed like a responsible decision at the time for her overall well-being to thrive academically and socially in middle school. She was athletically involved in Scullen Volleyball, NV Ultimate, and TI Cheer. She seemed content.

We came through middle school mostly unscathed. I thought she forgot about football. She went to Neuqua Valley High School and participated in the NV Ultimate Club and joined the Neuqua Valley Cheerleading team.  Another good year academically and socially, mixed with your typical teenage years.

As sophomore year was in full-swing, she told me she was going to start lifting with the football team at 5:30 a.m. in November. So we got in the car each morning and I drove her to school before the sun rose and I thought surely she will not want to do this long-term.

It was early! It was dark! Each night she would tell me “lifting in the morning” and each morning, we would go. 

Each afternoon, she would come home from school and tell me about how much more she squatted and what drills they did (and just a few peeps about a few guys that didn’t believe she should be in the weight room with them. She was a girl after all, and this was a boy’s football team lifting session). 

I worried.

I didn’t want her to have social issues at school, but it seemed with the few negative comments came many more positive comments and guys that stood behind her and wanted to see her succeed. I still worried. I just listened. I desperately wanted to call the coach to check-in, but didn’t. She seemed to be handling what was happening, negative and positive.

The dark mornings turned lighter, spring was finally here, but that also meant the fliers were coming home about summer football camp. 

She wanted me to sign her up.  This was really happening.  It was decision time. Do I let my 16 year, 5’3” daughter join an all-boys Varsity football team having never played the game?  She was athletic, she had the grit and brawn, she had the will and determination, but would she be safe? Socially and physically? I called Coach Ellinghaus. 

Respect.

We didn’t talk long.  I knew he knew what I was thinking before I said the words. He has five kids.  He’s a dad. He’s a football coach. He’s passionate about both. We were on the same page. She had to be safe, but he believed in her. I believed in her.

She believed in herself. I trusted him both as a father and as a coach to keep me in the loop if he had any concerns and to be honest with Tessa along the way.

Clocked.

She made it through June and July’s camps. She did great. She learned a lot. She was improving. She loved every minute of the hard work. 

August came and full pads and gear came too, along with full tackle. She got clocked. I got the call from Coach Ellinghaus. He was concerned, but not ready to cut her.

She had met all of his expectations, came to every practice, and did everything he asked of her. She was clear of any concussions and she had zero interest in quitting. She was ready to get immediately back on the field.

Game Time.

Friday Night Lights. She stood with helmet off, hand on heart and listened to the National Anthem. Her heart was racing. She accomplished her goal that night. She was uniformed and ready. 

Saturday morning came. She was bused to Glenbard North High School for the JV game. I sat in the stands and listened to the parents behind me. “I wonder if #33 will get to play today” someone said. “I hope so,” said another.

“I would be afraid she will get hurt,” said someone else.

“Hey, your daughter is going in,” commented another person. My heart raced and I knew hers was too. I wasn’t worried for her safety. I watched her play lots of sports and sacrifice her body for the play. I did my usual routine. I stood up and followed the play to where she was at on the field. 

“Oh my God – she just tackled him,” someone said.

Game on.

I watched the players’ coach her on the sidelines. I watch the coaches give her tips. I watched a team truly accept my daughter, regardless of her gender. 

The point.

In a world of adversity and cruelness, I should have trusted the goodness in people back in middle school. The Neuqua Valley High School football team and coaches have proved that kindness exists.

That acceptance and tolerance exist.

Thank you.

You didn’t crush her spirit – you fostered it.

You didn’t say she couldn’t – you trained her so she could.

You allowed her to believe in herself – so she did.

You provided opportunity to grow – so she will.

You walk the talk – so as does your team.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

#Inspired