Esther Breitling isn't an ordinary senior in high school, and she couldn't care less who knows it.
Last Friday night, the Palm Harbor University (Fla.) upperclassman stepped away from the halftime speech her football coaches were giving to join the Homecoming court as a senior representative. While it's not uncommon for a young man on the football team to step away from halftime to join Homecoming coronation festivities while wearing a jersey and pads, it's not every day you see a young lady do it. Imagine what it is like when the Homecoming king is the queen's current teammate — two football players standing together, with 1,000-plus fans cheering them on.
That was the scene on Sept. 22 in this unique bedroom community north of St. Petersburg and west of Tampa, just a mile from the Gulf of Mexico.
"I didn't really have an expectation," Esther told FanBuzz. "Whatever happens, happens."
It's not every day you see a teenage young lady playing tackle football. In that rare instance, one might see a female football player kicking, not tackling. Often, the young lady is a stellar soccer player who can kick an extra point to help the boys of fall win a game.
It's much rarer to find one who plays in the secondary and can actually lay down the thunder and hit — as Breitling has proven over three seasons, according to her teammates and head coach. College football fans got a glimpse of this over the weekend when Haley Van Voorhis, a junior at Division III Shenandoah College in Virginia, did the exact same thing for the first time in college football history.
There is no lack of femininity in Breitling. She wanted to be Homecoming queen. She wanted to be different. Sure, she wondered how it would be viewed, but had strong enough faith not to curtail her attempt at trying it out. Apparently, the PHU student body thought it was a good idea, or it wouldn't have voted her in.
This is Breitling's story. When she was crowned last Friday night, she joined the 2023 Homecoming king — her teammate, senior leading rusher Mykehl Boebert. He handled the moment with grace and deference, showing his gentlemanly side. To an outsider, one couldn't help be but impressed with how mature and unique the situation was — the king and queen both wearing football pads, instead of a dress and a tux. Then it turned out they'd been dating for several years. The pair share a deep faith in God and are co-presidents of two student groups on campus — Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and First Priority.
"We never walked in there with the idea that we were going to win this," Boebert told FanBuzz. "We approached it like if we won, we'd be stoked and that'd be really cool and it would be an honor. I was extremely nervous after I was named, wondering if I'd see Esther's name next ... It was a fantastic experience to have a dream come true like that."
If you set the clock back about 25 years, and certainly 50 years, this situation probably wouldn't have happened. The boys likely wouldn't have accepted Esther on the gridiron. The coaches likely would have downplayed the idea as a distraction. And the young lady? She probably wouldn't have wanted the social stigma or to be hit at full speed in drills or a game. But that's how much things have changed in American culture over the years. Girls have grown up with the option of being something different, and the boys and coaches are open-minded enough to accept a young lady — as long as she's willing to put in the work just like everyone else.
That's never been a problem with Breitling.
"My teammates are gentlemen," Breitling told FanBuzz. "They are amazing. And my coaches? I truly look up to those men. They've been amazing figures in my life. I love all of them so much, they don't know how much they've done for me."
Breitling told FanBuzz the funny story of when she broke the football news to her parents, Elena Breitling and Otilio Monroy. She was a sophomore flag football player, a state-sanctioned high school sport for girls that has exploded over the past 20 years in the Sunshine State. She broke the news to her parents that she loved the game of football.
.@PHUflagfootball QB Lydia Rogers connects with Esther Breitling on a 20-yard touchdown. @PHUflagfootball 7, @EastLakeFlagFB 6, end of the 1st Q @SBLiveSports | @SBLiveFL | @FlaHSFootball pic.twitter.com/5POOad4lQp
— Andy Villamarzo (@Andy_Villamarzo) April 4, 2023
They were delighted until they showed up to her first junior varsity game and were startled to find out it wasn't what they thought it was. See, Otilio is of Mexican descent, and Elena is from Colombia. This wasn't the football — or Futbol — they were expecting from Esther.
"(Otilio) was under the impression that it was the game Americans know as soccer," Elena told FanBuzz. "It wasn't until he went to that first game and saw all of these big men in shoulder pads that he understood that it was Futbol Americano. He asked her, 'Are you sure you're in the right place?' It was disbelief at first. What would ever make her want to do that? But she loved the sport and she said she wasn't going to be in high school all her life, so she just wanted to try it and wanted our support. She said she trusted in the Lord and what was ahead of her, and she wanted us to trust her. I told her that if you have that much faith in this decision, you have my blessing."
— PHU FOOTBALL (@phufootball) September 23, 2023
Esther remembered it all well.
"He said, 'They don't need pads in Futbol,'" Esther said. "There's no way in hell I'm letting you play. My mom was laughing so hard and she told me I was crazy at first and asked me how I was going to do it. I told her I had God on my side and I had prayed about it to see if He would lead me in that direction."
Through five games in the 2023 season — a 4-1 start that is the best at the school since 2015 — Breitling has gotten into three games in the secondary. She embraces the fact she's not an all-star on the gridiron but is proud of the fact that she has seen time on varsity, and she's actually started some on JV at cornerback in years past. Let's face it, there are a lot of football-playing boys who have never seen time on varsity.
"Esther came to me at the end of her freshman year and wanted to come out for football," PHU head football coach Mike Mullaney told FanBuzz. "Right away we realized that she was not afraid of contact ... She is not a football player that is a girl, she is just a football player. Whenever my daughter is around, (Esther) always makes time to say hello and talk to her. She cares about others and I know the rest of her teammates feel the same way about her."
The macho, male-dominated stigma of "Futbol Americano" is still here today, make no mistake. Putting on the helmet, layering the protective pads and strapping on the chin strap are parts of the rites of passage of being a young man — and it goes back more than a century. You'll hear cussing, you'll hear young men ragging on each other, and you'll hear fired-up coaches barking directions to the team. That's all part of the experience, let's not sugarcoat it. Players sweat through the summer training for the honor of playing in front of their community on Friday nights.
Tucked right in with all of the above, in Palm Harbor, is an acceptance of somebody who must dress in a completely separate locker room, by herself. Yet she's not lonely. She doesn't mind it, and Esther said PHU's team is made up of completely normal guys, but out of respect for her, they do dial it down a tad when she's around.
"We were really excited when she won (Homecoming queen)," said quarterback and offensive captain Will Seibert. "I mean, Esther and Boebert both won. When we were sitting at halftime at the back part of the field, I'll admit we were anticipating and waiting to see if it would happen ... It would be extremely disrespectful to treat her differently. She always listens to our coaches, she never complains — even if she doesn't get the playing time that some of us get. She comes to practice every day, and it takes a lot of courage and pride to do that so we do what we can. Being a girl on a boys' football team is hard and she's succeeded. And she definitely can hit. I've seen it. She might be smaller, but she knows how to hit."
Barriers have come tumbling down over the years, and Friday night saw one big barrier disintegrate. Maybe that was a motive all along, but the two smiles at halftime weren't contrived like you see at some Homecomings.
The smiles were real, and the moment wasn't just about wearing a tiara for a few pictures before replacing it with protective headgear to finish a victory at home. It was about a three-year journey to live off the beaten path, in a sense.
"I've shed a few tears here and there about what's the good of it," Esther said. "I wondered if I wanted to give up, that maybe I wasn't good enough. But then I realized I don't need to be 'good enough' for God to use me. It took a big leap of faith, but I never imagined these incredible plans He had for me ... My parents came up in poverty, and I didn't let those circumstances define me. I may not be a star player, but just being out there and watching them succeed. My heart is in it for them, seeing my teammates' efforts.
"I just want to be a trailblazer, so maybe younger girls might want to walk through that too one day. It's about betting on yourself, being ready for rough waters, and keeping your faith through it all. To be honest? Even before I went out for football, I questioned what people would think. Maybe the student body wouldn't like me because of this. But you have to bet on yourself and keep your friends close — and empower others."
Want More Sports News?
Get the biggest and best sports news sent directly to your inbox.