Demadelye Navarro was not an organized-team football player until recently. A senior and the chief of staff for Central High School’s student government, Navarro said she has always liked football and tries to watch as many Eagles games as she can. But she concedes that she still makes more mistakes on the field than she does big plays.
“Sometimes, we make jokes about how we messed up," she said.
Genefif Vasquez, a senior at Northeast High School, also was a football novice. She never paid much attention to the NFL playoffs — until now.
“I was really into it," Vasquez said of the recent pro championship games. "I watched [them] and actually understood what was going on because I got to play.”
Navarro and Vasquez learned the game largely by playing powderpuff football for their schools. A version of flag football — or two-hand touch — powderpuff is popular as an intramural sport between junior and senior classes, and many schools use the game to raise money or awareness for charities or school events. Enthusiasts say the game — played mostly by girls and women — originated on college campuses in the 1940s and gets its name from the soft pads used to apply cosmetics.
At Central and Northeast, the girls used the game in November to enhance the rivalry already celebrated on Thanksgiving by the boys' football teams. The Central-Northeast boys' football game is called the longest-standing Turkey Day rivalry in the country, dating to 1892.
Michael Horwits, a coach and government teacher at Central, wanted his students to enjoy another rivalry, and he chose powderpuff football. The Lancers have been playing at least one powderpuff game since 2007.
“These events go beyond the scope of your normal competition,” said Horwits, who also coaches golf and tennis at Central. “This is the stuff that will stick out. A kid that participates in powderpuff, they’re going to remember that.”
Navarro said: “You can know nothing about football, but you can still learn from this experience. At the end of the day, I understood football more as I played, compared to before.”
There is a social element, too.
“It made our connections [with classmates] even stronger,” Navarro said.
Horwits was a student-teacher at Fox Chapel High School in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, and he saw the popularity of powderpuff football there. He took it with him when he moved to Roxborough High in 1998 and to Central in the fall of 2005.
So, on the Tuesday before last Thanksgiving, Central hosted Northeast in the first powderpuff Turkey Week game, and the Vikings defeated the Lancers, 16-0.
Horwits, the boys’ golf chairman for District 12, said he suggested the idea of a Thanksgiving powderpuff game to Northeast athletic director and golf coach Chris Riley when they were on the golf course.
"I didn’t have to finish the sentence, and he said, ‘We’re in,’ ” Horwits said.
Horwits, a 1992 graduate of Central, said his junior and senior class rosters feature 50 to 70 girls. Since the game is 8-on-8, there is plenty of competition for playing time. Horwits said he and his assistant coaches focus mostly on the basics, but the recent senior-junior game had a noteworthy wrinkle.
“We ran the Philly Special,” Horwits said, referring to the Eagles' trick touchdown pass they used in last year’s Super Bowl. "We called it the Central Special. We ran it and scored our last touchdown against the juniors on it.”
The numbers at Northeast, in its first year of fielding a team, aren’t as large as Central’s. The Vikings have 12 to 15 girls on each of the junior and senior class rosters. But Riley said more students and teachers are asking about joining the group every day.
“To me, you don’t have to know football,” said Central’s Navarro. “You learn it. It’s all about the learning experience you get from it."
Horwits said his next step is to involve more schools.