Growing up with three brothers, football has always been a part of Makayla Podufalski’s life. The love of the sport stuck with her, and she went from playing in her yard to suiting up for the Ithaca High School varsity football team on weekends. Starting out in eighth grade on the modified team, Podufalski (Pod-you-fall-ski) is now a junior and is in her fourth year playing the sport.
The initial push for Makayla to make the leap onto the gridiron was from two of her teammates, Payton Waight and Tyler Driscoll, as well as her cousin Dakota Podufalski. Dakota was a member of the Little Red football team and graduated in June.
“They were like, ‘You should play, we could use players. You’re really strong and I think you’d be good at it,’” Makayla said. “And that’s kind of what pushed me to football.”
As expected, it wasn’t smooth sailing at first. Football is a sport dominated by men, so having a girl join the team sparks an interesting dynamic.
“It was kind of awkward the first week,” Podufalski said. “Football was the first sport that I actually joined or did in school, so it was really awkward when I was surrounded by a bunch of boys like, OK, this is going to be weird.’ But it started growing on me that, while some boys are mean, these guys are nice. They’re accepting.”
In the eyes of head coach Clarence Welch, the experience of having a female teammate has helped his players grow as people.
“You don’t see too many teams across America with females playing. So, to have a different perspective, a different teammate of a different gender, I think it’s unique,” Welch said. “It makes them more aware - sometimes - of what they say around Makayla because she is a female. I think it’s mostly a character-building aspect for the young guys that having a female teammate just makes football different for them.”
The bond between Podufalski and her teammates has grown over the years, but there was a possibility that she’d walk away from it this year. The junior joined the cheerleading squad to start this year but quickly returned to football when she realized her place was on the field, not the sidelines.
She has nothing against cheerleading; there was just something special pulling her back to the pigskin.
“It was more of me missing my family, my brothers, more than anything,” Podufalski said. “I consider my team my family.”
The hesitation she had this year was due to a jump in competition level, moving from junior varsity to varsity. However, she is undoubtedly going to play in her senior season.
“When you go from modified to junior varsity, there’s a slight difference. But when you go from JV to varsity, it’s a huge difference,” Podufalski said. “Guys grow taller, more muscular. Girls, their bodies form differently. So, I was kind of scared at the thought of being hurt. But then I thought, ‘I did this last year and the year before.’ So, I’m excited to go into senior season.”
Makayla’s hard work over the years on and off the field has coach Welch considering her a “true member of the football program.” Being a member of the team has not only helped her grow physically but mentally as well.
“It’s helped me learn that not everything you do has to be physically done. It’s a lot of mental stuff, like if you think you can’t do something, you can do it,” Podufalski said. “You have to have a certain mentality, and it really pushed me to have a certain mentality with a lot of things that I do in life. It pushes you to go hard in school.”
Welch ensures his players maintain good grades in school with yellow cards. Once a week, the athletes must go to their teachers, who write down their current grades on a card that makes its way to Welch.
Podufalski credits the system for helping ensure that the team maintains eligibility and does not “fall apart” due to shortcomings in the classroom.
On the field, Makayla is on the offensive line. It’s hands down the most physically grueling position on the field, getting hit every play, and the bumps and bruises are all worth it for her.
“Sometimes I think about it like, ‘Oh my god, I can really get hurt,’” Podufalski said. “But I really just put myself out there. I don’t feel like, ‘Oh my goodness, run away from the people coming at me.’ It’s just natural. You just go out there and you do it. You don’t really think twice about it. If you get hurt, that’s part of the sport, you signed up for it.”
And Podufalski is glad she did sign up for it this year.
“It’s a good outlet for some things. You can go there and just be yourself and not have to stress about homework, school, what’s going on at home or anything like that,” she said.
Her first experience on the varsity team has gone smoothly and with one year left, Podufalski will continue to be “a true member of the football program” in the eyes of coach Welch.
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