On Saturday, Sept. 23, Shenandoah University junior safety Haley Van Voorhis became the first woman who wasn’t a kicker to play in an NCAA football game. Van Voorhis recorded a quarterback hit on a third and long play to help Shenandoah’s defense get off the field in the first quarter of a 48-7 win against Juniata.
With football becoming a global sport and positioned to showcase a version of itself on the Olympic stage in 2028, accomplishments like Van Voorhis’ are becoming increasingly important to achieve Football For All® and equality in sport.
However, if you only saw the news story briefly tick across the bottom of your screen or appear in the top headlines section of your favorite sports website, you missed out on the years of devotion to the game and tireless training it took Van Voorhis to get a small taste of her goal. She wants to play more, and she’s willing to put in the work to make it happen.
Van Voorhis grew up a Washington fan, devoting Sunday afternoons to watching her favorite team and attending the occasional NFL game with her family. She credits this early exposure to the game with jump starting her interest in the sport.
“I think that it really helped me build an understanding of the game and find my love for football even though I wasn't playing,” Van Voorhis said in an interview with USA Football. “I would never have picked up a football if I didn't see it on TV, so it definitely propelled my love for the sport.”
Her fandom quickly turned into a desire to get in on the action.
“The first time I saw it on TV, I knew I wanted to play,” she said. “I would watch the game, and I'd get so excited because back then Washington was a pretty good team. It was just exciting to see, and I knew it was something I wanted to play.”
Van Voorhis started her journey playing fifth grade flag football as the only girl on her coed team. She transitioned to tackle in sixth grade, following the pattern of many eager athletes who transition from the non-contact game-type to full tackle.
Shortly before becoming the first girl to play high school football at Christchurch School, Van Voorhis attended USA Football’s 2017 Middle School Bowl Games and later went to a USA Football middle school training camp that same year. She credits camps and events like USA Football’s for helping her prepare for the high school game.
“I think they helped a lot going into high school because, like it is for any middle schooler, high school is a big jump for football,” Van Voorhis explained. “You could play on JV or varsity, and the difference in the levels is huge. Going to those camps and competing with hundreds of the top guys out there gave me a lot of confidence going into high school football. I knew if I could compete with those guys that I would be just fine.”
Van Voorhis was a Virginia All-State Honorable Mention for football in 2019 as a wide receiver and defensive back. She was also the MVP on Christchurch’s girls’ basketball team and participated in lacrosse. Unfortunately, Van Voorhis didn’t have the opportunity to play football as a high school senior because of the pandemic, so she turned to the D.C. Divas of the Women's Football Alliance for a chance to stay in the game.
“It was truly amazing. It was a last minute thing as I had lost my senior season. When I knew I wasn't going to be able to play that fall or spring, I knew I had to play football because skipping a season and then going into college is hard,” Van Voorhis said. “I just missed playing the game, so being able to play with the Divas was definitely a new experience for me. Being able to meet all those women who not only play for the Divas but also played on [USA Football’s] U.S. Women's National Team for gold medals was memorable.
“It was cool to see how grown the women's game is and to get a look at it from the inside. You see it from the outside, but you never really know what it's actually about until you start playing. I gained a lot of insight and met a lot of cool women who have been playing for way longer than I have.”
Van Voorhis spent a short stint with the D.C. Divas before beginning her college career at Shenandoah University. She immediately went to work in the weight room, focusing on building muscle and stamina to match the physicality of college football. A wrist injury that required surgery during her freshman year set her back, but facing doubt and adversity was nothing new for Van Voorhis.
“My whole football life, I've always been doubted. Being female helps you stick out in football, but people are always going to bet against you. The doubt never phased me because it has been part of the game my whole life,” Van Voorhis said. “The injury was hard because I just got into college football. I see athletes out there all the time who get injured but are able to turn their injuries into positives. Seeing that really helped me overcome the wrist injury.
“I knew coming in that it was not going to be easy to get on the field, so my expectations were pretty high. I knew I was going to really have to work. I didn't think I was just going to come in and play, so everything was sort of expected except the injury. I knew that if I kept working and just went out there and had fun that the day would come when I got to play.”
That day finally came in Van Voorhis’ third season with the program. She was dialed in on the play, and her achievement didn’t register right away.
“In the moment, I wasn’t even thinking about making history. It was more about doing my part, making sure I was doing my eleventh and making the most of any opportunity I see on the field,” Van Voorhis said. “I was lining up in a position I never practiced in, but I figured it out. I'm going to do my job wherever it is on the football field, and I’m going to make a play. It was exciting, but I don’t think I really realized what I had done until I was on the sideline after the play. It was a fun moment, and it’s exciting to see how it's going to help other women in football.”
Van Voorhis is very grateful to her parents for believing in her dream and credits her success to their ongoing support.
“Their support has meant everything. I tell people this all the time, I don’t think I would be in the position I am today without them,” Van Voorhis said. “From a young age, my parents took me to camps to get recruited and to become a better football player. It would’ve been really hard to get to where I am today without them.”
Additionally, Van Voorhis recognizes the amazing environment fostered by Shenandoah University head football coach Scott Yoder’s staff and the brotherhood she has formed with her teammates.
“It's a lot easier to come into a place where everyone is accepting of you even though you stand out,” Van Voorhis said. “It’s a new thing for a lot of my teammates. I know only a couple of them had female kickers on past teams. To just jump right into football without having to worry about how I'm viewed is great. I know a lot of women who came before me were not welcomed by their teammates or coaches, so to have my teammates and coaches be welcoming and willing to help me get better has been amazing.”
USA Football strives to increase the pathways for women to stay involved in football past high school to match the sport’s growth and increasing popularity. Van Voorhis recognizes how quickly the game is expanding and offered some advice for athletes who are considering getting involved in football.
“You're not going to know how you feel about football unless you try it out,” she said. “With the sport growing so fast for girls and women in all aspects, I think there's no better time to try. I was hesitant about getting into football when I was little, but being able to try flag first helped. For younger people, just hopping into flag that first season to try it out helps you see if this is something you want to pursue, and if you love flag enough, go try tackle. There are so many women in football right now. It’s amazing. It’s much easier to get into it now than it ever was before.”
(Photo Credits: Shenandoah Athletics)