Secret Superhero Toni Harris: Leading Women to the Safety Position

There is little doubt that Toni Harris is one of the most remarkable athletes of the modern era, even though she is not widely known, and very few people have seen her play. As the first woman to secure a full football scholarship in a non-specialist position, she is a totemic and inspirational figure whose efforts in breaking through the glass ceiling may prove hugely influential to the future of the sport. 

BOYS’ FOOTBALL

Toni was born in 1996 in Detroit, but was given up for adoption at an early age and found herself in the foster care system from the age of four, living in several different homes throughout her childhood before eventually being adopted in her teens. While her circumstances were difficult, young Toni was unfazed, and would later tell reporters: “You don’t really see anything wrong with it until you’re older. I wanted to see my mother and I wanted to know who my father was. But I was always one of those kids who was very optimistic. I had my faith and believed in a lot of things that were positive.” She has since reconnected with her birth parents, but tragically her birth mother died in a traffic accident in 2018, shortly before Toni secured her remarkable football scholarship.   

Secret Superhero Toni Harris: Leading Women to the Safety Position

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There is little doubt that Toni Harris is one of the most remarkable athletes of the modern era, even though she is not widely known, and very few people have seen her play. As the first woman to secure a full football scholarship in a non-specialist position, she is a totemic and inspirational figure whose efforts in breaking through the glass ceiling may prove hugely influential to the future of the sport. 

BOYS’ FOOTBALL

Toni was born in 1996 in Detroit, but was given up for adoption at an early age and found herself in the foster care system from the age of four, living in several different homes throughout her childhood before eventually being adopted in her teens. While her circumstances were difficult, young Toni was unfazed, and would later tell reporters: “You don’t really see anything wrong with it until you’re older. I wanted to see my mother and I wanted to know who my father was. But I was always one of those kids who was very optimistic. I had my faith and believed in a lot of things that were positive.” She has since reconnected with her birth parents, but tragically her birth mother died in a traffic accident in 2018, shortly before Toni secured her remarkable football scholarship.   

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Her football ambitions began when she was just five years old, watching a family friend  participate in the national Police Athletic League championship, and throughout her childhood she would participate in neighborhood pickup games. High school football was a different story; although she initially made it onto the varsity team of her high school as a wide receiver and cornerback, she was kicked off the squad by the school’s athletic director: “He said, basically, football was a man’s sport and I shouldn’t be out there. And he was being really sarcastic. He was like, ‘So what’s your next sport? Boys’ basketball? Mens’ wrestling?’” 

IF I CAN BEAT THIS…

Toni ignored the barbs of her erstwhile high school coaches, and had every intention of continuing her football career at college level, but fate intervened with even larger challenges to overcome. At the age of just 18, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and as she later told journalists, the treatment was brutal: “The chemo was really hard to handle because my body went from 170 pounds to 90 pounds. The chemo was worse than the cancer was. Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome? And so just after the chemotherapy, that’s when I decided to go back to football and try to gain back my weight.”

She eventually enrolled at Golden West College, but was denied a place in the first team by the head coach, who later told reporters that “I didn’t think she was ready for the collegiate level. It had nothing to do with her being female.” Toni was undeterred by this setback, and took a diversion that would be surprising from someone less tenacious; she enrolled at a second college - East Los Angeles College - and took two associate degrees at two different schools, simultaneously. At ELAC she made the team, although coach Bobby Godinez was reluctant to put her in a game. “Having a daughter myself, I was nervous about what the repercussions could be. You have injuries at a high, high level in this sport. But I did tell her that if she sticks around and she proves that she belongs, things could change.” Things did change. Toni’s persistence in training didn’t just impress her coaches, but also her teammates, and eventually it was her fellow players who successfully lobbied for her inclusion in the team. She played in three games that season for ELAC, and was able to compile a highlight reel that she sent to over 200 schools in the hope of securing a full scholarship.

NO ASSUMPTIONS

Her highlight reel made waves, and before long a media campaign was building among supporters who wanted to see this remarkable athlete fulfill her potential. Toni ended up receiving six offers from four-year universities, but any suspicion of media pressure was allayed when she chose to join up with David Calloway at Central Methodist University. Calloway had been following Toni’s career for a long time, and had been making overtures towards her before she joined ELAC. For Toni he was the natural choice as “he wasn’t one of those coaches who was promising you things. I think what attracted me to this school, to this coach, was him telling me, ‘You’re gonna have to work for your spot.’ ”

Unfortunately, the disruptive impact of the pandemic meant that for much of her time at CMU, there were rarely any spots to fight for, but Toni’s scholarship has inspired other aspiring female athletes who believe they can make a career in football. Although her playing time has been limited by outside factors, her successes have still been highly visible; in 2019 she was even featured in a Super Bowl advert for Toyota. The voiceover informs us: “They said she was too small. They said she was too slow. Too weak. They said she’d never get to the next level. Never inspire a new generation. Never get a football scholarship. Yeah, people have made a lot of assumptions about Toni”, and then Toni stares down the camera and replies: “I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”

It remains to be seen what the future holds for this remarkable Secret Superhero, who is now branching out into careers in acting, modeling and as a stunt double, while also pursuing her main academic interest in criminal law. Whatever the future holds, as the first woman to secure a full college football scholarship in a non-specialist role, she has already provided a watershed moment in the history of women’s football, and is delighted to serve as a mentor for those who follow her. As she told journalists: “There have been so many women — I can’t even count, like over probably 100 or 200 — that contact me every day, whether in middle school, high school or getting ready to go to college, that want to play [football] at the next level,” she says. “They say I’m an inspiration and ask if I have any tips on how they can become better football players. I tell them to just keep pushing and working hard, and just never give up believing in yourself.”

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