- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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KETTERING, Ohio -- Rain tumbles from the slate sky and the breath of the players, sporadic wisps of vapor, drifts from behind their face masks. The mud has turned their yellow football jerseys into a canvas dominated by Jackson Pollock splashes of sepia.
Led by a dozen coaches, more than 100 boys from Archbishop Alter High School -- the freshman and junior varsity seasons are over, but the underclassmen are practicing with the big boys -- unconsciously roll through the drills they've been doing for three months. There is an unmistakable rhythm here, an unbreakable tradition that goes back to the days of Paul Brown, Jack Lambert, Larry Csonka, Alan Page, Roger Staubach and Paul Warfield -- all born in Ohio and all enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the other end of the state in Canton.
But awash in this sea of testosterone, something in the chemistry isn't quite right. There, in the cluster of players standing on the edge of the scout offense, isn't that a blonde ponytail hanging from behind the helmet of No. 79?
The helmet in question belongs to a 17-year-old girl with a friendly smile and light-blue nail polish, of all things. Her name is Holley Mangold, and she is making history. Never before has a girl played a down from scrimmage at this level of Ohio high school football.
"I've always been a big kid," Holley said. "You couldn't really tell with my helmet if I was a guy or a girl. I would always have my mother braid my hair so it could stay under the helmet. It wouldn't come out.
"And I never I didn't want to just be that girl that was there for show."
Alter Archbishop High School (14-0) defeated New Albany, 31-7, to advance to the Ohio Division III Championship game Saturday at 3 p.m. against Steubenville. Holley played two or three series in the fourth quarter. This will be Alter's first trip to the championship game, meaning Holley has a chance to do something her brother Nick never did -- win an Ohio state championship.
Every other time Alter scores a touchdown, Holley -- who stands at 5-foot-9 and weighs 310 pounds -- runs onto the field for the point-after attempt with the rest of the second line. She is a guard and, if form follows, the junior will play a few series when Saturday's game is no longer a contest.
If you are more than a casual fan of football, you may recognize the name. Nick Mangold was a legend at Alter High and starred up the road at Columbus for Ohio State. He is a rookie starter for the New York Jets, and scouts will tell you that he might be the best center to come into the NFL in 15 years.
Nick never played for a state title -- Alter was just starting to find some traction when he played there -- but five years later, his little sister just might. Nick has been supportive of Holley, but has said that if she were his teammate, he might lean the other way.
"It's been so ingrained that this is just normal," Nick said. "But if you step away for a second, it's definitely a different and weird situation."
Level Playing Field
Everything, of course, begins with Nick. Without Nick, the family agrees, there would almost certainly be no Holley on a football field.
"We all don't look at Holley as 'Oh, we have a girl on the team.' She's a player on the team."
Matt McKean, senior tackle for Alter High
"It's probably real true that she saw how much fun I had, and wanted to see if it was as fun for her as it was for me," Nick said.
Funny thing is, Nick almost didn't get to play. Nick's mom, Therese, who was a swimmer in high school, didn't think it was such a great idea. Vern, his dad, convinced her that it would be all right. The whole family -- including Holley and her older sister Kelley -- watched almost every game Nick played. But when Holley announced in 1997 that she wanted to play in second grade, she ran straight into a double standard: Vern.
"I kind of told my parents that summer I wanted to do it, and my dad flipped," Holley remembered. "He did not want me to do it whatsoever."
Said Therese, "He and I had numerous discussions about her playing football and he kept saying, 'But girls just don't play football.' I said, 'Well maybe they don't, but this one can.'"
Growing up, Holley was never afraid of contact; she would fly off the couch and hit the floor with a total absence of fear. Vern said he was more afraid that kids would make fun of his daughter. So a compromise was reached: Holley could play as long as Vern was head coach. For five seasons, second grade through sixth, that's how it worked.
"I think many coaches -- myself included -- have a natural, reflex reaction where we kind of overdo it on our own child, so there's no thought that they're getting unfair treatment," Vern said.
"I was probably as tough on her as I've ever been on my son playing for me."
When Holley wasn't paying attention -- a common occurrence in second and third grade -- or was just walking through a drill, Vern made her do extra bear crawls and run extra laps. Holley didn't seem to mind. She would run up the front steps of her Centerville ranch home and proudly show her mother her bruises. The Mangolds would write notes to her teachers telling them that Holley's bruises came from football.
Somehow, after five years, it all seemed completely normal. The boys (and their families) who had originally made a fuss came to accept her. Nick, meanwhile, became one of the best players in the school's history and got a scholarship to Ohio State. In Holley's mind, anyway, there was no question she was going to play football in high school.
Coach Ed Domsitz, an old-school guy, wasn't so sure.
"The first time we had a serious conversation was at Nick's graduation party, and I tried to encourage her to pursue a career in cheerleading," Domsitz said, laughing.
Said Holley, "I would always joke with him, 'No one wants to see me in a cheerleading skirt, so don't even try it.' He definitely didn't think I was serious until seventh or eighth grade when he realized, 'She's actually going to come here and play football.'"
A Delicate Balance
The subject of weight and high school girls is a delicate and potentially combustible combination. With Holley, not so much. Clearly, her family history, her DNA and her personality make her a perfect candidate for handling the physical rigors of football -- and the emotional fallout that can come from being a woman in a man's game.
An unabashedly big woman.
"If I was a big girl and did nothing, I probably would hate myself," Holley said. "It would be horrible to go through high school and be a fat girl and not do any sports. I couldn't imagine that.
"If you looked at me just walking down the street you would think, 'Wow, she is probably out of breath just walking down to McDonald's where she is probably going to go to eat.' But I love proving that I do have muscle, and I love to use it."
Are there people who can't see past her size?
"There are some people," Holley said, "and I just really feel sorry for you, because I really could care less."
"I think occasionally if you get her on moments, she will think about it," Therese said. "But it doesn't consume her."
There are critics who wonder, in the public forums of online message boards, what she's doing. Sometimes, Holley can't help herself. Sometimes, she reads the cruel comments written about her.
"Kind of like a circus show or a side act," Nick said, "You know, go see the three-legged man or something like that, it's just something that's an oddity that won't last. I think that's one of the big things she has to fight...is she's playing football and she's not some kind of act out there."
Holley started as a guard on Alter's undefeated freshman team and even played fullback and scored a touchdown. Her sophomore season, spent largely on the sideline, was a struggle.
"There were a lot of times I thought, 'Why am I doing this? I am short, I am slow. I don't think I have a career after high school,'" Holley said.
"I thought it was hopeless."
Every time she was on the verge of quitting, it was her father, the first skeptic, who kept her in the game.
"I kept reminding her of what Nick was like junior and senior year," Vern said, "and the thrill you get Friday night, under the lights, playing in front of a big crowd and how much fun that is."
This season, Holley made Alter's varsity team and, on Aug. 25, she made history. She became the first female non-kicker to play in an Ohio Division III High School football game. She entered the game against Fairmont in the fourth quarter for a point-after attempt.
"She's blocking down on the lineman, then peeling off the linebacker and she had a two-bagger. She got the lineman, and put a chip on the linebacker. I had a tear in my eye. I did."
Vern Mangold, talking about Holley's first play from scrimmage in a varsity game
"It was definitely one of the high points of my football career," she said. "It was amazing just like anyone going on Friday nights under the lights.
"It's something that happens once in a lifetime and it's great."
Later, in Holley's first play from scrimmage, her team ran a 31-dive play. The old coach still has the play frozen in his mind's eye.
"She's blocking down on the lineman, then peeling off the linebacker," Vern said. "And she had a two-bagger. She got the lineman and put a chip on the linebacker. I had a tear in my eye. I did."
Two weeks later, after attending Nick's Jets game against the Titans, Holley bragged to her brother that she had played in her first varsity game. Granted, he was exhausted, but, curiously, there wasn't much of a reaction.
"'Uh, that's cool,' that is pretty much all he said," Holley said. "I have been doing it forever it seems like. So me getting in and playing is 'Well, that is nice. When you start, then you can come talk to me.' That kind of thing."
The father and the brother are football men, through and through. They understand the difficulties of the sport. When it comes to Holley, they have a history of -- ambivalence isn't the right word -- semi-tough love.
"She doesn't need another cheerleader in her ring," Nick said. "She needs another trainer, another coach, and I see myself in that role."
Said Therese, "There are only a few people in this world that motivate Holley, and Nick is one of them. And Nick does it quietly. Very quietly."
"Nick and I are very much the same in that regard," Vern acknowledged. "I don't give Holley a whole lot of praise myself. In fact, she'll probably tell you if she's candid that I'm her chief critic.
"That's the way we do business in our house."
Surprisingly, there have been few objections -- outside of the occasional taunt in the trenches -- from the football world.
"We all don't look at Holley as 'Oh, we have a girl on the team,'" senior tackle Matt McKean said. "She's a player on the team."
Said Paul Kolbe, another senior tackle, "She just wants to be one of the guys, and she really is. She's treated no differently.
"We treat her like one of the guys, and she wouldn't have it any other way."
As it turns out, football isn't even Holley's best sport.
She's an accomplished track and field athlete, and last winter, she set a national AAU women's record with a squat lift of 525 pounds. She's done 570 pounds in practice, and her coach thinks she could approach a 700-pound squat by the time she gets to college. Holley isn't likely to play football at the next level; she's hoping for a Division I scholarship to throw the discus or shot put. Ohio State, Nick's alma mater, is the goal.
But in some minds -- perhaps even Holley's -- all of that may never be enough.
"Unfortunately, she has a certain fear that she's going to be compared to Nick," Vern said, "and that comparison's not fair, obviously. But she has that fear. She has to walk in his shadow."
"He has got everything going for him," Holley said. "He seems like the golden boy or the perfect child because he went to Ohio State, he won and now he's in the pros. It's just things that are almost impossible to live up to, so it's kind of hard to follow in his footsteps."
Said Nick: "I didn't want her to say, 'If I don't do this, I'm not as successful as Nick was.' And that's something she doesn't need to be worried about. She needs to do her own thing and be successful in her own right."
"I know I'm never going to be as good as him," Holley said. "I know that I'll probably never do the same things he's done, but I don't want to.
"I want to make my own path."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
She made history by being the first female non-kicker to play in an Ohio Division III prep football game, but at 5-foot-9, 310 pounds, Holley Mangold deals with more than just following in her big brother Nick's footsteps, writes Greg Garber.