By BRIAN RICKERD
Ma’Kiyia Wheeler raised more than a few eyebrows around her household some 30 months ago when the then 5-year-old expressed a desire to follow in older brother Antonio Jr.’s footsteps and play youth football.
“I wanted to do it because my older brother did it,” Ma’Kiyia said.
Ma’Kiyia is just 4-foot-3, 64 pounds now, at age 8, and she was considerably smaller than that when she said she wanted to play football against the boys in the Frankfort youth leagues.
The family reaction had a common theme.
“At first, I was afraid,” Ma’Kiyia’s mother, Sharita, said.
“I was nervous, too, to be honest,” adds Ma’Kiyia’s father, Antonio. “And my wife said, ‘No, don’t let her play … I don’t think she should.'”
That give and take prompted a backyard session where Antonio Sr. dressed Ma’Kiyia up in football equipment and let her work out, in so many words, with Antonio Jr., who’s a year-plus older than Ma’Kiyia.
“I let her get in the back yard with her older brother with the football equipment on, and let her take a couple hits to see how she liked it,” Antonio said. “And she got right back up. So I figured she should be able to play football.”
Ma’Kiyia was keenly aware of her parents’ concerns.
“My mom was scared until I went in the back yard in pads, and they were throwing me 10 feet in the air,” Ma’Kiyia said. “It was funny.”
“After I saw her daddy in the back yard with her, and saw she thought it was funny hitting the ground, he (Antonio Sr.) was like, ‘Oh, she’s okay, let her play,” Sharita said.
It all appears to have worked out for Ma’Kiyia and the Wheeler family. In her second season with the Rams’ PeeWee team (7-under) in the Franklin County Youth Football league this fall, Ma’Kiyia turned into a bona fide star, both as a running back and linebacker.
She rushed for team-leading totals in yardage, gaining nearly 100 yards per game in a league where games last only about half as long as high school games. Ma’Kiyia also led the team in scoring. And on defense, she utilized remarkable speed and strength to hit as hard as anyone on the Rams.
League President Leroy Brock said it’s not unprecedented to have girls play in the area youth leagues, which start with a 7-under division and include 9-under and 11-under brackets. Ma’Kiyia just turned 8, so she was able to play 7-under this season because her birthday fell late enough in the cycle.
“We may have one girl a year who wants to play,” Brock said.
Asked then, if Ma’Kiyia’s participation is not a big deal, Brock’s eyes light up and he says emphatically: “She IS a big deal. Rarely are the girls as good of an athlete as she is. She’s just a lot tougher than not only the girls, but most of the boys out there.”
“I’m not afraid of her getting hit,” Sharita said. “She knows how to get back up. She’s a tough cookie.”
“She’s strong, she’s fast and she’s aggressive,” Antonio said of his daughter. “She’s not afraid to pursue the ball. That’s what makes her good is she’s relentless. She doesn’t give up.”
“She’s probably one of the toughest kids in the league,” said Rams coach Matt Karsner. “She hits harder than most of the boys do. She’s been a leader on our team all season. She’s a beast.
“Plus, she’s football smart,” Karsner added. “She can read plays, and she knows what holes to hit. She does it all for us — tackles, touchdowns, rushing, receiving. So they really enjoy having her on the team.”
Everyone involved will tell you Ma’Kiyia has been accepted by her male peers in the Franklin County league, along with opponents who come from as far away as Louisville, and include teams from Shelbyville, Oldham County and Spencer County.
Her teammates on the Rams accept her because they know how good she is. Opponents accept her, well, because they usually don’t even know she’s a girl when she’s dressed in full uniform, with a helmet covering the buns in her hair.
“They just assume she’s another football player,” Brock said.
“Most every game after she takes her helmet off, coaches are in shock that it’s a girl who just put up four or five touchdowns on them,” Antonio said. “They’re like, ‘They’ve got a GIRL on their team?’ The whole game they think she’s a boy until then.”
Karsner suggests it’s more the occasional opposing coach who “flips out” when they realize Ma’Kiyia is a girl wreaking havoc on their team.
“They can’t believe it,” Karsner said. “We had two coaches who stopped the game to let their players know — ‘Hey, this is a GIRL out here putting it on you!’
“She’ll be dragging 10 kids at a time some games,” he added. “She is that strong.”
Said Sharita: “I’m used to her being one of the boys.”
The Wheelers have four children in all, including 6-year-old Zyeaire, who also plays for the 7-under Rams; Antonio Jr., who plays for the Rams’ 9-under team, and 12-year-old daughter Shakeira, who plays sports at Bondurant Middle School.
“The kids are very close,” Antonio said. “And they’re extremely protective of each other. I mean, they may argue and bicker, but they’re as close as can be. You couldn’t drive anything between them.
“Antonio Jr. is very protective of Ma’Kiyia,” Antonio added. “He’s a typical big brother. If they were on the field at the same time, I think he’d be quite upset if somebody tackled her too hard or cheap-shotted her.”
All parties involved say that Antonio Jr. is the inspiration in most all that Ma’Kiyia does in sports.
“It’s close between her and her big brother,” Antonio said when asked the best athlete in the family. “They are neck and neck. She’s very athletic, but he’s very good, too. I think that’s what drives her is she wants to be better than him.”
Despite their obvious enthusiasm for Ma’Kiyia’s progress in football, the only Wheeler who appears to have a great desire for her to continue in the sport, to move up to the 9-under division next year, in other words, is Ma’Kiyia.
In a recent interview, talk of Ma’Kiyia’s football future went something like this:
Do you want to continue to play football next year?
“Yes,” Ma’Kiyia said without hesitation.
Will that happen?
“No, because my dad won’t let me,” she added.
“Her dad says she can’t play next year, but I think she’d do OK,” Sharita said.
“I’ll have to think about it,” said Antonio, who coaches the Rams’ 9-under team. “The next level up, the boys are a lot stronger. I think she could handle herself fine. She does practice with her big brother’s team. But I don’t want her taking those hits growing up.”
Antonio paused and added: “I’ll leave it up to her. If she wants to play, I’ll let her play.”
If this is it for Ma’Kiyia in football, however, the Wheelers say she won’t be spending her time in front of a television for lack of something to do.
“She doesn’t watch much TV,” Antonio said. “And if she does, it’s usually something educational.”
Like all the Wheeler kids, Ma’Kiyia plays multiple sports. Her strength, aggressiveness and speed are assets in them all.
Ma’Kiyia is a state level wrestler, though she says her best sport may be softball, and Antonio said her best sport long-term is basketball.
When asked if he worries about Ma’Kiyia getting hurt playing football, Brock laughed and replied: “No. I saw her wrestle last year. She took my son all the way to overtime, and my son should have won the state
championship. I’ve seen her whip a lot of boys on the wrestling mat. She’ll do just fine.”
Given her speed and aggressiveness, one would think Ma’Kiyia would be well suited for soccer, but Antonio said Ma’Kiyia “has never expressed an interest in soccer.”
Antonio then laughs and adds: “Soccer is brutal, man. I’ve seen some soccer games, man, and it’s worse than football sometimes. If she wanted to play soccer, I’d let her, though.”
But Antonio insists basketball is the ticket for Ma’Kiyia.
“This past summer she played AAU basketball,” he said. “She was on the fourth-grade team when she was in the second grade, and she was the starting point guard. She’s really good at basketball because, again, of her speed and aggression. She can handle the ball really well, and she’s not afraid to go to the rim.”