Shelby Osborne Follows Female Trailblazers Toward College Football History

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Shelby Osborne Follows Female Trailblazers Toward College Football History
Photo Courtesy of Shelby Osborne

The home crowd had plenty to cheer about at Jeffersonville High School (Indiana) on Aug. 30, 2013, as the Red Devils put the finishing touches on a 61-7 victory over Seymour High School in the team's conference opener.

An elated group of fans at Blair Field celebrated nine Jeffersonville touchdowns but saved their best for last.

A reserve Red Devils defensive back sprinted onto the field, and the crowd began to chant in unison:

Shelby! Shelby! Shelby!

Just like that, Shelby Osborne became a varsity football player.

"I hated it [the chanting]," she said. "I just wanted to be on the field to play. ... It wasn't fair to the other guys."

And so it goes with Osborne, who is set to make college football history. As the nation focuses on her gender, she's only concerned with her footwork and upcoming college debut at Kentucky's Campbellsville University.

"I’m just one of the guys," she said. "I want the same treatment, to hit just as hard."

The 5'6", 140-pound cornerback is about to become the first female defensive back in college football history after signing a letter of intent on June 4.

Some have called Osborne a trailblazer. She'd prefer to be referred to as a football player.

"I am fully and wholeheartedly in love with this game," Osborne said.

Photo courtesy of Shelby Osborne.
Osborne used resistance training to build strength.

 

Planting the Seed

Osborne has always been an athlete. She played tennis and soccer as an underclassman, and also joined the track team.

Her ambitions changed in November 2012.

Osborne was in attendance for the Red Devils' postseason matchup against Castle High School. With a trip to the Class 5A (currently in 6A) state quarterfinals on the line, Jeffersonville suffered a lopsided loss and provided one member of the fanbase with a fascinating thought.

"We weren’t playing so hot or even to the best of our ability," Osborne recalled. "I said to myself, 'I could play better than that,' and that’s what planted the seed."

Rather than deliberate the idea internally and open the door for self-doubt to creep in, she decided to approach the one person who had the power to stand in her way.

"The first person to find out was coach Lonnie Oldham," Osborne said. "I went up to him and explained who I was and why this tiny little girl was talking to him."

Oldham, hired as the Red Devils head coach in 2011, is a gridiron veteran who previously led a pair of high school programs in Kentucky. He gave the tiny little girl a green light to join his team, but it came with a succinct condition.

"I told her, 'You can play, but you have to do everything that everyone else on the team does,'" Oldham said. "If she put the time in the weight room, then she could be on the team."

It's a different response than the one Jen Welter received when she revealed her intentions to play high school football.

The former Boston College rugby star became the first woman to suit up at a position aside from kicker or holder in a professional men's football league earlier this year. She signed with the Texas Revolution of the Indoor Football League and earned her first carries at running back in February.

Welter's football journey began later than she would've preferred.

Like Osborne, her youth was filled with athletic involvement. Welter served as a team captain on the soccer team while attending Sebastian River High School near Vero Beach, Florida.

Though she commanded plenty of respect for her soccer prowess, Welter would look longingly at the football practice field. She wanted to give the sport a shot, but it was radical and largely unheard of almost two decades ago when Welter attempted to talk head coach Randy Bethel into it.

Bethel was blunt about her football prospects.

"He told me, 'You’re a heck of an athlete and I think you could help this team, but I don’t want you to do it because someday you’ll make a guy look really bad on the field. He’ll be embarrassed and retaliate. If you get hurt, it would be tough for me not to go after him,'" Welter said.

Instead of feeling disgruntled, she took time to digest his words.

"It was such an honest breakdown of what it might be like on the football field for me," Welter said. "It wasn’t about questioning my athleticism, it was about who I’d be going up against. There is a sheer size difference."

She would return to train with Bethel during her transition from Boston College rugby to professional women's football.

Welter, who stands at about 5'2", 130 pounds, understood the risks involved. So did Osborne.

She launched a personal campaign to physically prepare for the demands of life as a positional player.

"I gave everything," Osborne said. "From waking up before everyone in my house was awake to run before school, joining track, weightlifting and sports-performance classes during school, to staying after with the coaches every day. ... I don’t return home from training till 8 or 9 on most nights."

Osborne also knew she would have to be mentally tough in order to turn her dream into reality. There was pressure not to play, even at home.

"The task of convincing my parents came along after [talking to Oldham], and this was no easy task," she said. "They were completely and utterly against me playing."

Many parents can probably identify with Robert and Kim Osborne, who weren't available to speak with Bleacher Report. We've entered an era of football that focuses on head trauma and player safety, so sending your teenage daughter onto a field featuring 280-pound linemen isn't exactly ideal.

Osborne felt alone on her journey at times during its earliest stages. Eventually, the process would take her to heights she never imagined.

"I was the only person in the world that believed in myself," Osborne said. "But day by day, I slowly began to change people’s minds."

Photo courtesy of Shelby Osborne.
Osborne, No. 19, attended every team training session leading up to her senior season.

 

Strap 'Em Up

Even though he gave her an opportunity, Coach Oldham never envisioned Osborne would reach the Red Devils sideline in 2013.

"To be honest, I didn’t think she’d make it through the offseason," he said.

High school football comes into focus for about three months, but it takes a year's worth of work to build a winning team. A spot on the Jeffersonville roster requires dedication in the weight room.

Just as she promised, Osborne never allowed other teammates to outpace her. They might have been six inches taller or 100 pounds heavier, but she was equally invested in the team's quest for success.

"Shelby showed up to the weight room day after day from November to May," Oldham said. "She had perfect attendance and was always on time. As a coach, that's all you can ask for."

Osborne soon became embedded as a member of the team. Fellow players and coaches respected the work she was willing to put in and her reluctance to be treated differently than anyone else fighting for time on the field.

Instead of complicating locker room dynamics, she became a team catalyst. Osborne was voted a junior varsity captain.

"It was never any kind of distraction," Oldham said. "I go by last name. When I said 'Osborne,' she was always there. We hardly noticed there was a girl on the team because she went through the same drills as every high school football player in America and was just another part of the team."

Welter also went through the process of earning respect from teammates as a new member of the pro team in Texas. She knew there was only one way to solidify her spot on the squad while competing against former college standouts.

"I earned respect by getting hit, getting my butt whooped and getting back up again," Welter said. "If you’re a football player, that’s how you earn respect. After that, they realized I’m a football player."

Credit: Texas Revolution
Jen Welter, carrying the ball, is the first woman to play a non-kicker position in a professional men's football league.

When the 2013 Jeffersonville season arrived, Osborne did her best to make sure she was strictly viewed as a football player—particularly in the eyes of opponents.

"Most of them didn’t know I was a girl because I would hide my hair and do anything possible to not show I was a girl," Osborne said. "I never wanted anyone to take it easy on me."

The payoff came during postgame handshakes.

"They only realized I wasn’t a guy when I unsnapped my helmet and my hair began to fall out of it," she said. "Shaking the hands of my competitors was my favorite part of the game because I showed I could play with them and they couldn’t discount what I did because they never knew I was a girl."

Osborne made five varsity appearances at defensive back, serving as a Red Devils team captain in one contest. The Jeffersonville bleachers erupted with chants of "Shelby" each time she sprinted onto the field.

There were no postseason accolades or grand celebrations waiting for her when the journey ended in the second round of state playoffs. Still, an undeniable sense of accomplishment overwhelmed Osborne.

It was a feeling she simply wasn't prepared to walk away from.

Photo courtesy of Shelby Osbourne.
Osborne, center, served as a team captain during the season.

 

Breaking Barriers

"I didn’t decide I was going to pursue [college football] until after the [season] was over," Osborne said. "I knew I couldn’t face a time where I didn’t hit the field each day and strap up my cleats."

Plenty of former players can identify with that sentiment. The vast majority of athletes reach the end of their competitive football careers as high school seniors.

Against all odds, Osborne searched for a way to avoid that fate.

"I didn’t send a single letter to colleges about Shelby, but she was relentless," Oldham said.

He estimates Osborne sent letters to at least 200 schools regarding the possibility of earning a roster spot. However, college coaches weren't clamoring for a 5'6" prospect with one year of experience.

Things changed when she attended an open recruiting event at Campbellsville University, located in central Kentucky. It was the atmosphere Osborne always wanted.

"After I left from a visit, half the team and recruits hit me up on Twitter or Instagram, messaging me and expressing how cool it is of me to be trying," she said. "They were actually more accepting than my high school team was at the beginning."

Conversations with the coaching staff led to Osborne's historic signing:

Campbellsville competes in the Mid-South Conference. It featured a student population of 3,318 last spring.

Just like in high school, nothing is guaranteed for Osborne at the next level.

"She wanted to play college football, and now she has the chance," Campbellsville head coach Perry Thomas told Jonathan Lintner of The Courier-Journal. "I think she understands the grind and so forth it takes to come in here and do that."

Support swiftly arrived from her future teammates on Twitter.

"It'll be an honor to play the defensive back position with you next year," wrote Alex Franklin, an incoming freshman from Somerset, Kentucky.

Senior defensive lineman Shane Williamson made it clear Campbellsville is ready to welcome Osborne with open arms.

"She's a girl. She's our teammate. Who gives a damn," he wrote. "Worry about your game. She gives her all. She's cool in my book."

Osborne is the first female athlete to pursue a collegiate career at her position, but others helped pave a path for women in the past.

Placekicker Katie Hnida is one of them. She remains the only woman to score a point in Division I-A (now known as FBS) competition, breaking the barrier with New Mexico in 2003.

Her historic career started at Colorado, where she became the first woman to suit up for a bowl game in 1999. However, she dealt with dark times in Boulder before deciding to transfer.

"When I was at CU, I kind of shut down," Hnida said. "I wasn’t reaching out for help from the people I was close to. I thought I could just handle it all myself. College football is very challenging and demanding, and that’s true for both men and women. But when you’re always under that microscope, it’s very difficult."

ED ANDRIESKI/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Hnida began her career at Colorado but soon transferred.

Hnida helped set the stage for young women to view college football as a possibility. She's communicated with Osborne in the past and reached out to her immediately after hearing about the signing.

"Every girl who goes out and does this is still breaking some kind of barrier," she said. "As long as you’ve got the size, speed and ability, who cares if you’re a girl, boy or Martian."

Osborne expressed deep appreciation for the guidance Hnida has offered.

"Every time I needed help with the process of recruiting, she was there willing to help," Osborne said. "She really is a remarkable person."

Photo courtesy of Shelby Osborne.
Osborne, left, has come a long way since first strapping on a helmet last year.

 

For Love of the Game

The next challenge that lies ahead for Osborne is to prove she can handle the rigors of playing a position that can require you to cover 6'3" receivers with speed and tackle 230-pound fullbacks.

Osborne will also be among the most inexperienced players at Campbellsville, still learning the nuances of her new passion after five varsity appearances.

It certainly sounds like a tall task, but it's something she's willing to try. Her heart won't let her leave the game she loves just yet.

It's a love that millions of players can comprehend, whether their career ended in high school or the NFL Hall of Fame.

"The No. 1 thing is about someone being able to do what they love regardless of their gender," Hnida said. "It’s a beautiful thing."

Osborne leaves behind a legacy at Jeffersonville High School, regardless of how many varsity games she played. Coach Oldham hopes she inspires his Red Devils in the future.

"I’ve already used her as an example as we start a new season," he said. "You’ve got to advocate for yourself in order to achieve goals. A lot of people talk about doing stuff, but that’s just talk. Shelby wanted to play football, and she went out and did it."

 

All quotes obtained firsthand by B/R college football recruiting columnist Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.

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