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First girl to letter in Indiana high school football: 'What the hell is going on here?'

·9 min read

Dennis Hancock heard the footsteps coming in 1989. They were loud and confident. Kathleen Trumbo marched straight into his office with determination on her face and a manner that made clear she wasn't there to ask him anything.

She was there to demand it.

"Coach," Kathleen said, "I want to come out for football."

Hancock, who was the football coach and athletic director at Corydon Central High, hadn't seen this coming. Girls never asked to play football unless it was the powder puff variety.

"I was kind of shocked," Hancock said from his Florida home this week. "I didn't think it was going to be a great idea."

But then his mind started swirling. Hancock had heard about a trend of girls going out for boys' teams when their schools didn't offer a similar sport for girls. Title IX had passed the decade before and it was slowly but surely trickling down from college sports to high schools.

Hancock went to his principal, superintendent and fellow coaches and he told them, "Kathleen is a superstar athlete. She is tough."

"Corydon Central High School student Kathleen Trumbo is out of uniform, but is a menace to opposing players when she's suited up for the varsity football team,"  read an August, 1989, Indianapolis Star photo caption.
"Corydon Central High School student Kathleen Trumbo is out of uniform, but is a menace to opposing players when she's suited up for the varsity football team," read an August, 1989, Indianapolis Star photo caption.

Kathleen was a multisport standout, a star on the basketball and softball teams. She held records in shot put and discus in track. As a young girl, she played on a baseball team.

More: Title IX at 50: 50 women who made a difference in Indiana sports

"But it wasn't just her athletic talent," Hancock said. "She was hard nosed, too, a lot more muscle than anything."

Hancock decided to let Kathleen come out for his team.

"I said to her, 'OK, you can come out for football, but you do know we won't cut any corners.'" Hancock said. "'We will treat you just like any other player.'"

Kathleen smiled and said that's exactly what she wanted.

Hancock smiled and thought: "Once we put pads on, she will be gone in two days."

'This is my only shot'

Corydon was not a football powerhouse in 1989. It was a basketball school. But the football program was known for toughness, grit and being a ruthless place to train.

There were no cuts on the Corydon team. There didn't have to be, Hancock said. Players weeded themselves out during those horrendous two-a-day practices.

Kathleen had heard from her friends and football playing boyfriend all about those practices. They would talk about how some players vomited.

None of that deterred Kathleen. She had always loved football and dreamed of playing. And she had sat watching from the stands the past three seasons.

Kathleen, now 50, married and Kathleen Smith, a real estate agent living in Louisville, remembers what she thought as she made her decision to play football more than 30 years ago.

"I was a senior. If I want to play, now is the time," she said. "This is my only shot. This is it."

There were naysayers, people who tried to talk Kathleen out of it before the season began, including some Corydon school officials. They said girls shouldn't play football.

"I have mixed emotions about her participation in the game," Earl Saulman, principal at Corydon said in an August 1989 Indianapolis Star article. "My first concern is for her safety. I would hate to see her get hurt."

Others disagreed with mixing a girl into an all-boy team. What if it distracted them? Where would she dress?

The backlash only fueled Kathleen's determination to play.

"My mom said the first thing they did wrong was to tell me, 'Don't do it,'" Kathleen said. "Because if someone told me I shouldn't do something, then I'm doing it."

'I can run with these guys all day'

A  5-8, 160-pound Kathleen headed off to begin her quest as a Corydon football player, expecting the worst at those two-a-days before the season.

"I was afraid, oh my gosh, am I going to be able to keep up with them?" Kathleen recalls.

Hancock said he will never forget the team coming out in pads on the second day when "we were really starting to hit." One of his hardest hitting linebackers was part of a drill with Kathleen.

He ran up and asked Hancock, "What do you want me to do?"

"I told him, 'Well, she's a player. She wants to be a player and she doesn't want treated any differently than any other player,'" Hancock said.

Kathleen Trumbo in 1989 as she knelt, ready to start varsity for Corydon Central High.
Kathleen Trumbo in 1989 as she knelt, ready to start varsity for Corydon Central High.

He then watched as Kathleen ran through the line and watched as she got hit, hard.

"I got a little bit sick to my stomach because she went down. She went down hard," Hancock said. He ran over to make sure Kathleen was OK, not sure what he would find.

Kathleen stood up, dusted herself off and went right back at it. "She never missed a drill, never backed down no matter who it was," Hancock said.

As the second practice finished, Kathleen said she wondered what all the fuss was about.

"I remember thinking, 'Is this it?'" Kathleen said. "I can run with these guys all day.'"

'What the hell is going on here'

Hancock quickly realized what he thought might happen, Kathleen dropping out, wasn't going to happen. She would be part of the Corydon football team.

But what position would she play?

Players were asked to fill out a form telling Hancock what they thought their assets were, where they saw themselves playing on the field.

Hancock expected Kathleen might ask to be a kicker. He laughs about that now.

"No, she wanted to be a defensive lineman," he said. "I thought, 'What the hell is going on here?'"

As the season kicked off, Kathleen was featured in an August 1989 Indianapolis Star article.

"I don't think anybody that is out there playing is worried about me getting hurt now," she said at the time. "Like one coach says, I take a hit as good as anyone on that team. I may not give one as good. But I can take one."

Player Keith Holland disagreed. "She hits us hard. We hit her hard. We don't treat her any different than anybody else."

The only thing different for Kathleen on that Corydon team was that she dressed separately from the boys' locker room. And when stories were written about her, they often mentioned her long blonde hair and how she braided it before the game so it could be stuffed into her helmet. And how she had gone down two jean sizes since joining the team.

But as the season played out, a lot was different for Kathleen. She was the only player getting national attention.

'She's made believers out of us'

One fall night, a helicopter hovered, then landed by Corydon's football field. A crew from ESPN stepped out.

Another game, a sports reporter drove his RV from Texas to this small town in southern Indiana to see what this girl defensive tackle was all about. The Chicago Tribune wrote a story on Kathleen.

''You don`t realize she`s a girl, not the way she plays,'' Hancock said in 1989. ''She`s made believers out of us.''

Kathleen said she didn't like the attention, but her mom, Debbie Trumbo, encouraged her to do the interviews.

"She said, 'People are interested in what you're doing. They want to know,'" Kathleen said. "I'm like, 'OK. I'm just playing football.'"

No. 66 Kathleen Trumbo, a starting defensive tackle for Corydon Central in 1989.
No. 66 Kathleen Trumbo, a starting defensive tackle for Corydon Central in 1989.

Throughout that 1989 season, Kathleen wasn't a regular starter, but she got plenty of playing time. She started her first game on Corydon's senior night.

"It was a good excuse to save the boys' egos," Hancock said in an Indianapolis Star article in 1989. "But she earned it." Kathleen was in that game for all but a few defensive plays.

"She wasn't blowing anybody back, but she wasn't being blown back either," Hancock said. "I put the varsity player in and he got blown back six feet."

In other games, Kathleen was brought in when Hancock thought his other players weren't giving their all. He knew Kathleen would.

In Corydon's sectional game against Tell City, Kathleen played all four quarters. The team lost, but Hancock was amazed once again by his only female player.

"We were outmatched. Tell City was just beating the hell out of us. I had one guy come out injured, another guy come out injured and we lost one of our defensive tackles," he said. "And there she is standing beside me."

Hancock told Kathleen to go in and look at her opponent and say, "I'm a girl."

"That's going to stun him and he's going to take it easy on you. Then use your forearm and hit his chest as hard as you can," Hancock told Kathleen. "I don't know what she said to him but he obliterated her. She didn't make a tackle but she didn't back away. She never backed away from anybody."

Kathleen finished the season that night, proving to all the naysayers, some who had made bets she wouldn't finish, including a guy who bet Hancock.

And Kathleen became the first girl in Indiana high school football history to earn a varsity letter.

"It was not a give-me. It didn't come easy," Hancock said. "She earned that letter. She earned it as much as any other player."

'You realize you opened doors'

Today, Kathleen is a real estate agent in Kentucky and the mother of two daughters, one who just won a state softball championship at Ballard High. Her husband, Greg Smith, played on a state champion basketball team at Ballard.

They often tease her: "What's it like to live with two state champions?"

Kathleen could, of course, retort. "What's it like to live with the first girl to letter in Indiana high school football?"

Kathleen (Trumbo) Smith was the first girl to letter in Indiana high school football.
Kathleen (Trumbo) Smith was the first girl to letter in Indiana high school football.

Kathleen has a sports radio show that airs Tuesdays on Eaves Sports Radio 1080-AM in Kentucky. Her football prowess has come up a time or two on the show.

People call her a trailblazer. A pioneer for women. A perfect example of what Title IX was all about.

As a 17-year-old football player back in 1989, she didn't think about that, Kathleen said.

"When I played, I just wanted to play," she said. "At that age, it wasn't about Title IX or I want to do this for all other women. Now that I'm older, it's totally different. You see girls and what they get to do today and you realize that by doing that, you opened doors."

Hancock still remembers Kathleen's footsteps as she walked into his office in 1989. And he still remembers two boys who came up to him at a store and asked, "Hey, are you that guy who coaches that girl football player in Indiana?"

He told them yes. Those boys walked away laughing,

"And I thought, 'You did not see her play,'" Hancock said. "'If you'd have seen her play, you wouldn't be laughing."

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Kathleen Trumbo, first girl to letter in Indiana high school football