At halftime of a Vista PEAK football game last fall, Leilani Caamal received the tiara that came with winning the coveted title of Homecoming Princess.
Caamal replaced the football helmet that housed her head minutes earlier with the bedazzled plastic crown, which planted her firmly in two worlds as both a female and a football player, things that rarely, if ever, went together in the past.
The 17-year-old flashed a smile as she posed for pictures with the rest of the school’s homecoming court and acknowledged the crowd before she headed back to the lockerroom, where her teammates talked strategy about how to win a key late-season contest against Aurora Central. It was a moment many of those in attendance at Aurora Public Schools Stadium likely won’t forget, but it will be burned into Caamal’s memories forever for what it meant.
“I feel like it was a statement, that was I was wearing a princess crown while still in my football uniform,” Caamal recalled. “It was like ‘I’m a girl, but I’m a football player, too.’ It was surreal. I was conflicted about leaving the lockerroom, but I’m glad I did. It was an awesome moment.”
Everything about Caamal has come to be a statement, poignantly in a year in which the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of the passing of Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in publicly-funded education, which includes athletics. In its time, that legislation has reshaped high school and college sports and opened the doors to a multitude of professional opportunities for women
The ever-widening path allowed by Title IX has led to somebody like Caamal, who has taken full advantage of what those before her made possible.
She plays women’s semiprofessional football (unheard of even a decade ago), she suits up and plays regularly with the Vista PEAK boys football team (still a rarity) and she also stars in girls wrestling, which is in the early stages of an explosion across the country after girls previously only could wrestle on boys teams.
Best of all, Caamal is inspiring a new generation that will have even more opportunities going forward than even she has at the moment.
“Trendsetting doesn’t do what Leilani does justice,” Vista PEAK head football coach DaVaughn Thornton Sr. said. “She should be on the face of Title IX. If anybody says it’s not working, she is her.”
‘Grateful to be born in this time’
Leilani Caamal knows how fortunate she is to be able to do all of the things that she loves.
She only recently found out how fortunate.
As part of a school project, Caamal researched the history of women’s football, a subject she is very interested in as a player with the semipro Mile High Blaze of the Women’s Football Alliance. Her research brought her to an audiobook that illuminated the subject and gave her a heavy dose of perspective.
“I listened to the history and how a lot of women had to really fight to be able to play and now I’m privileged to be able to play and not be discriminated against or told that I’m not allowed anywhere near a football field,” Caamal said.
“I feel really grateful, and I feel like I’m still paving the way because the job isn’t done. The path is still being built. I have the freedom now to play with an all-women’s team and to letter in football with my high school boys team.
“I’m grateful I was born in this time.”
College scholarships for flag football and a semiprofessional league (the Women’s Football Alliance) make a football future possible for females, which makes for an unprecedented time for Caamal and others.
Female athletes have made inroads in a variety of sports for quite some time, but football has long been viewed by many as the domain of male athletes.
Male players generally get exposed to the game early — some joining competitive teams as early as 4 years old — and inherent physiological advantages bring a lot of danger to the sport, especially when it progresses to the high school level.
Females have joined boys prep football teams before, but often as placekickers or specialists that only appeared on the field for a small number of plays.
Vista PEAK head coach DaVaughn Thornton Sr., who played Division I football at the University of Colorado, said he never saw females on the field during his high school era while he was an All-State performer at Denver East High School.
“When I graduated in 2009, having a girl on the varsity football squad would have been something written in a book, it would not have been a reality,” he said. “Maybe we were behind and didn’t understand what young ladies could bring.
“But not only has Leilani made the team, she is not a kicker, she’s a linebacker. She would not feel comfortable playing any other position. It’s a testament to the work she puts in that her teammates accept her and value what she can bring to a team. She’s played high level football for four years and I’m blessed to be able to coach her.”
Caamal has hung with the boys for a long time.
Aurora Central grad Rob Sandlin — her current coach with the Blaze — knew about Caamal before she came to his Cougars Youth Elite team around the age of 10.
A tight-knit group of boys that had played together for four or five years suddenly saw the arrival of a newcomer — a girl, no less — but they took her in immediately based on what she showed on the field.
“They knew Leilani could hold her own,” Sandlin said. “Her passion for the game was apparent right away. She came right in and became ‘one of the guys’ for lack of a better phrase.”
Age doesn’t matter on the field
Sandlin has coached the Blaze for the past four years, and he was thrilled when Caamal — who supported the team, which plays some of its home games at Aurora Public Schools Stadium, from the stands — came aboard as a 16-year-old.
The Blaze feature a variety of women from all walks of life with a variety of experiences and all along the spectrum of age that extends into late 50s. Most have played the game for only a few years, if at all.
So there was no reservations about adding Caamal, who became the the youngest player on the team, but also one its most experienced in terms of football. Her physicality and football knowledge were welcomed quickly.
“The median age of our team is about 30-31, so many of the players were twice Leilani’s age when she joined,” Sandlin said. “Most of the players already knew her from being part of the fan base for the Blaze, so they welcomed her completely as the future of where we all see women’s football going. …She’s not much of a vocal leader on the Blaze and there are other players that are more vocal, but they know they can depend on her to do what it necessary. I think her age really doesn’t come into play.
“The minute you put on that helmet, they don’t ask for your ID. They realize she is here to play.”
Caamal said it was slightly awkward at first to be a tone-setter on a team full of players that were much older than she was — save Stefania Jaramillo, another high schooler — but she got used to it.
“It’s a bit weird because I see a lot of them as authority figures and some of them are as old as my mom or as old as my grandma,” she said. “It feels strange telling them what to do, but they ask me and want me to tell them. They want me to lead them and guide them. They know I’m more ‘grown up’ in the football sense.”
Caamal plays like much more of a veteran in the women’s game, the product of her many years of playing football and how much playing with the pace, intensity and technique required to hang in the boys game has elevated her level.
As a linebacker, she often felt like a “glitch” in the women’s game, where she recognized what opponents were trying to do and disrupted it often.
“The game is much faster with the boys and a lot of them are bigger than me, so I have to make faster decisions,” Caamal said. “That helped me with the Blaze sense, because sometimes I would move too fast and overshoot plays. I was able to slow things down and really start to understand more. With my high school team it’s like ‘go, go, go, go, adapt, adapt, adapt, adapt,’ but with my Blaze team it is slowed down.
“I feel like I have time to think and understand why the play is the way it is or why we need to run a certain coverage a certain way.”
Repetitions are the key to improving as a football player and the amount of times Caamal gets to see plays and learn the right reaction is a noticeable advantage.
Whenever Thornton Sr. watches Caamal in practice, he can see how much she has soaked in and how it helps her overcome any deficiencies when playing against boys.
“If we’re being critical, she’s playing against young men, there’s a gap there in the makeup of her body and the makeup of a future Division I athlete,” Thornton Sr. said. “But where she does close that gap in physicality is with her football IQ and it’s from playing female football. Football is the same, whether you are male, female, 12 years old or flag football. When you line up in a certain formation, there’s only so many things you can do.
“Leilani brings physicality to the game and I think that comes from the confidence of seeing so many football plays. She’s blessed to have played with that team in that she’s seen formations and failed at times, so she knows ‘if I see this in this situation, I need to be here.’”
Caamal played on both sides of the football in her first season with the Blaze, but the development of some of the team’s offensive players allowed her to concentrate her energy on her passion, playing defense, this time around.
She flourished in that spot and helped the team’s defense allow just 69 points, the second-fewest among the 10 teams in the WFA’s Division 2. In eight games, the Blaze had three shutouts and allowed only two opponents to reach double figures.
Caamal was one of four Blaze players to earn WFA All-American first team honors and she helped the team win its way into the Division 2 championship game, which was played July 9 in Canton, Ohio, home of the National Football League’s Hall of Fame.
On the same turf at Tom Benson Stadium where the Jacksonville Jaguars and Las Vegas Raiders would play the Hall of Fame NFL preseason game — and in front of a national television audience on ESPN2 — Caamal and the Blaze edged the Derby City Dynamite (out of Louisville, Kentucky) 21-20 to become national champions.
There was a lot of pomp, a lot of circumstance and an experience that a good number of male football players never get in their careers.
“It was amazing, I really felt like I was in the Super Bowl,” said Caamal, who had her parents Samantha and Vic on hand to watch. “I wish they had the confetti that comes down after the Super Bowl because it would have been awesome to make a confetti angel, but the whole experience was amazing.”
Sandlin felt great for all the players on the team that had put in many years — at great cost financially as players have to pay to play, and with a significant sacrifice of time — while he also believes it was extremely special for Caamal.
“For them to be able to be there and looked up during that championship weekend as pinnacle of women’s sports is amazing,” he said. “For some of these women, it has been nine or 10 years of work and going through past coaching staffs and ownership, so this is almost justification for everything they put in.
“To experience this for somebody of Leilani’s age, I think it gives her the understanding that there is no limitation for her future.”
Caamal has many big goals for her life, but one of them is competing for her country in the Olympics and chase a gold medal.
Football could get her there — especially with women’s flag football added to the World Games in 2022 with an eye towards a possible Olympic debut in 2028 — but it also might be in wrestling.
Caamal is also fortunate to be part of the vanguard in the growth of girls wrestling across the country. Girls that previously had to compete against boys have another option — which has now become a sport officially sanctioned by the Colorado High School Activities Association — and are flocking to it. Last season, the girls state wrestling tournament was contested alongside the boys at Ball Arena with thousands of spectators onhand.
Caamal earned a chance to wrestle at the state tournament and finished 1-2 in the 161-pound bracket.
“If you watch the matches today, it looks nothing like it did two years ago,” said Caamal, who said she likely would have started wrestling at a younger age if things were like they are now.
“A lot of the girls used to look like beginners, but now many of them look like pro athletes. It’s awesome to see,” she added.
Ready for prime time
Many more people at home and abroad may become aware of Caamal in the very near future.
Team Whistle — which creates original documentaries and series to be distributed on a variety of channels and media, many sports-related — contacted Blaze owner Wyn Flato about a possible subject for a documentary and she directed them Caamal, who they filmed for the better part of her junior year.
A camera crew hung out on the sidelines for several Vista PEAK games, went along with Caamal as she took her driving test and caught various other significant moments in a very memorable year. Filming wrapped up over the summer and the show — which doesn’t have an official title yet — is expected to air in the United Kingdom soon.
Helping along the future
In light of what she knows of the trailblazers who helped pave the way for her to get to where she is, Caamal doesn’t take her position lightly.
She is ready to pick up the mantle for women and continue to move the goalposts, so to speak. Caamal gladly signed autographs and took pictures with a girl who admired her greatly while the Blaze were in Canton, while she attends every game of a girl in a local youth team that she has connected with. That girl also comes to see her play all the time.
“I feel like I want to be that person that I didn’t see growing up,” she said. “I feel like I didn’t really know about it because it wasn’t broadcasted that women were playing football. When I was younger, I used to think ‘this is crazy, I’m the only girl in the world playing football.’
“I want to be a role model to show these girls that I’m here, I’m doing this and there’s more opportunity for you to grow. If I can play this sport, you can play this sport. I’m going to build this path that is going to give you the choice to do it if you want to.”
Sandlin has helped many women grow their knowledge and love for football later in life, but he knows that young players like Caamal are extremely valuable in that they can reach younger generations, which can create exponential growth.
He has already seen the effects as a youth team that once had one girl now has four, who may be on the same path.
“All of us hope that at some point, there is a women’s football league available like the WNBA where players can get paid,” he said. “If you had a team of five players with perspectives like Leilani’s, you could recruit an entire generation of kids. Her outlook is always amazing. Football, wrestling, a foot race. Whatever she does, she wants to compete and to see her ability to harness that passion into the actual skills that are required to do so is amazing to watch.”
Caamal said her goal for the upcoming Vista PEAK season, aside from winning — which she said is “always the goal” — is to earn more playing time, build up her highlight reel and “go out with a bang.”
It could lead to a college scholarship — 15 NAIA schools just launched women’s flag football and each has $15,000 in scholarship money — and maybe a pay day down the line, but she plans to play as long as possible.
Even without the game, Caamal’s future is bright. She is already taking college-level classes and has goals to major in biology in college, having given up on early dreams of becoming an astronaut. Caamal’s future could see her helping injured animals adapt back to the wild or helping with wildlife conservation.
Whatever big thing she ends up doing would not surprise anybody who knows her.
“A multi-sport athlete who is a national champion, who has high academic excellence and comes from a great family?” Thornton Sr. said. “Leilani will do some amazing things.”
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports