Yes, Karlie Harman won the regional Punt, Pass and Kick competition for 12-year-olds, outdistanced all the boys, and finished eighth in the nation. But at 13, when the Aldie girl signed up for 130-pound tackle football with the boys in the Fairfax County Youth Football League last summer, she had never played a down of organized ball. Never seen a playbook. Didn’t know what a wide receiver was.
That all changed quickly. Her coach made her the quarterback. And the free safety. And the place kicker. And the punter. And then she became the first girl ever to lead a team to the county title game, where she had her biggest highlight for the Dulles South Thunder on defense, Coach Bob Thomas said.
“The very first play, Springfield had the ball,” Thomas said, in classic coach-play-by-play style. “They were going to test her. They threw right at her. We were in a cover-2, and she came over the top and intercepted. The very first play, she set the tone.”
The Thunder lost the game, but Harman was later named Player of the Year from Dulles South Youth Sports, the first female quarterback ever to win that honor in the Fairfax County league, one of the largest independent youth football leagues in the country, covering Arlington, Alexandria, Loudoun and Prince William. On Sunday, she was honored at an awards banquet for the Northern Virginia Football Hall of Fame, where she also launched her own line of athletic apparel (“KAR-D-O by Karlie”) with some of the proceeds going to VETSports, a wounded warriors’ sports group.
The next time Harman pulls on a jersey, it may be as a freshman for Loudoun’s John Champe High School next year, possibly as a kicker, though she wouldn’t mind taking some snaps from behind center. (Her parents would mind.) But she’s also an elite basketball and soccer player, so football will be only one of her options.
“She’s one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever coached,” said Thomas, who has coached and run local football leagues for more than 20 years, including coaching Evan Royster and Owen Schmitt, both NFL running backs from Fairfax. “It was just a remarkable year.”
Harman is an eighth-grader at Mercer Middle School, the daughter of Jim and Karen Harman, and younger sister of Michael and Nick Harman. But she said she never played much backyard football with her older brothers.
“I always loved watching football,” she said, “and playing with the neighborhood kids. I’d pass the ball around with my brothers.” But for organized sports, it was always soccer and basketball with the girls. She agitated to play football in the boys’ league, but her parents weren’t on board.
“I’ve always wanted to play tackle,” Harman said. “I like contact.”
Though her parents weren’t big on the idea, they were encouraged by her win in the Redskins’ region of the national Punt, Pass and Kick contest as a seventh-grader. They also knew she was fiercely competitive.
“She was born with sneakers on,” Karen Harman said. “She’s a self-starter, a self-motivator. She wanted to tie her own shoes at 2. She swam without floaties at 2. And she doesn’t care what other people think.”
So in addition to playing AAU basketball and travel soccer — as a goalie, she once scored two goals in a game with her punts — she signed up for Dulles South’s 130-pound boys football team. In a preseason camp, Thomas said he heard that she was a Punt, Pass and Kick champ. “I wanted her on my team, as quarterback,” the coach said.
There was only one problem: “She didn’t know how to do any of it fundamentally,” Thomas said. “How to take snaps. How to do proper handoffs. She had no idea. We had to teach her everything. She didn’t have any bad habits, because she didn’t have any habits.”
Harman wasn’t familiar with the terminology or the names of the positions, and Thomas had a variety of offensive sets and defenses. Harman said she mastered it quickly, and Thomas agreed. “She learned where everyone was supposed to be and could tell them where to be,” the coach said.
And the all-boy rest of the team? “Once she showed that she could take a hit,” Thomas said, “once she showed she could lead the team, they started respecting her.” He said other teams “tried to rattle her. Blitz a lot. It didn’t work.” Harman said she heard very little trash talk during games. “Some wanted to hit me more, some wanted to hit me less,” she said with a shrug. Opposing parents often congratulated her after games. Her team was 4-3 during the season, won its first playoff game, then lost in the championship.
Tommy Thompson, the chairman of the league, said Harman’s “enthusiasm embodied the game. No fear. She played football the way it’s supposed to be played.” Every club in the Fairfax league names one player of the year, and girls have been picked before, but never a girl quarterback, Thompson said. Don Stitt, who officiated the 130-pound title game, said: “She was excellent. Her attitude. Her leading all the time.” Stitt said if Thomas hadn’t told him, he wouldn’t have known the quarterback/safety/kicker/punter was a girl.
Harman may try to kick at the high school level next year. But she is really interested in basketball. She said she hopes to earn a scholarship, perhaps to Baylor University, then play in the WNBA. Then possibly be an actress or a police crime scene investigator.
“My goal is to be famous,” she said. She is off to a running start.