LONGMONT -- When she signed up for an exchange student program at Longmont High School, Emma Ulvonas wanted the most American experience she could get. What could be more American than playing football?
But Ulvonas is a girl. Girls don't play football, right?
Maybe American girls don't. But Ulvonas is from Stockholm, Sweden, so she doesn't care.
"I didn't know anything about football when I got here and I really wanted to experience something so American," Ulvonas said. "I guess I thought football was a good idea."
Ulvonas had seen only a few clips of football on television but never a full game. Still, she could not resist the romance of America's game.
During the Trojans' first preseason practice, she sat on the bench next to one of the players and had him explain what she was watching from huddle to whistle.
"I told him I didn't even know how it works," Ulvonas laughed. "He was like, "OK, it starts out like this and then they do this.' I was like, 'I don't see it.'"
Ulvonas approached Trojans head coach Doug Johnson about playing. He told her to go home and think about it. She did. She wanted to play.
The next day, Ulvonas was on the Trojans' C team. She started out playing special teams and eventually moved to second-string offensive tackle.
Ulvonas came home from her first practice covered in bruises. As she developed the nickname "Bruisie," many people, including her host mother Derice Pfefferkorn, asked her why she was doing this. But to Ulvonas, the minor injuries were badges of honor.
"She was very proud of every bruise she got," said Pfefferkorn, who was also pleased to get the chance to be a football mom. "I was so impressed."
Ulvonas never felt like quitting at any point in the season. But just about everyone else had doubts.
Ulvonas' parents were worried about her safety. Her host parents were worried she wouldn't be allowed to play.
"We really told Emma not to get her hopes up," Pfefferkorn said. "I didn't realize that Title IX was so well ironed-out and that it really is happening here, which is cool."
Johnson has seen three or four girls come out for football during his coaching career, but Ulvonas was the only one he's seen finish an entire season. Honestly, Johnson said, he was a bit uncomfortable with it at first, but Ulvonas eventually won him over with her tenacity.
"I didn't want her to get hurt," he said. "But when she got out there with the boys, she did a great job wanting to be a football player. She mixed it up with them and did what we asked her to do."
There were even a few opposing teams that reacted distastefully to the Trojans putting a girl in pads and a helmet.
"Sometimes, on the field, guys don't really like having a girl there," Ulvonas said. "We had one game when this guy did not like me and decided to come after me and hit me in the back a few times. It happens. When I came out a bit later, my friend on the team came out too and was like, 'Emma, that guy who was messing with you, I took care of him.'"
Ulvonas has become known around school as the girl who plays football, which works for her as it's a good conversation starter and an easy way to meet people. When she called home with stories about her football buddies, her parents would tease her about not having any female friends.
There are no high school sports in Stockholm, only clubs. Ulvonas has played European handball goalkeeper for 11 years, which she said helped her understand football plays and formations.
She is currently swimming for Longmont's junior varsity and, though it's pretty European, Ulvonas is thinking about playing soccer in the spring. After coming to Colorado in July, the 17-year-old junior will return to Stockholm, where she has two more years of school, in May.
Ulvonas wore number 61 on the football field and was sad to turn it in following the C team's successful conference season. Proving she was not just a girl but also a viable player, Trojans C team offensive coordinator Jarod Hansberry said she earned it.
Ulvonas wanted an American experience. In her own way, she might have found as uniquely American an experience as any foreign exchange student ever could.
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