Sophomore Emma Kessler plays on the defensive line for the Effingham High School varsity and freshman/sophomore teams.

EFFINGHAM — In a sea of red and white Effingham Hearts football jerseys, spectators will spot No.62. They’ll notice that the defensive linebacker plays with grit and intensity, following suit with fellow teammates.

When No. 62 takes off the helmet, fans may be surprised to see a brunette ponytail released. Sophomore Emma Kessler may be the only girl on the team, but she sees herself as just another member of the squad.

“Sometimes I don’t even notice it. It’s just like I’m there, and I’m just playing with everybody else,” Kessler said.

Kessler plays nose and anchor on the defensive line for the Hearts’ junior varsity team for freshmen and sophomores. She’s also listed on the varsity roster, and Coach Brett Hefner said she has gotten in toward the end of a few of the Hearts’ varsity games.

This is Kessler’s first year playing football, but the sport has always intrigued her.

Kessler is not the first female to play in the Effingham Hearts program. However, she is the first girl to appear on the roster since the 2010 varsity season, when then sophomore Cort Mosier played, according to Max Preps.

As a youngster, Kessler dreamed of playing football, but she wanted to see some more female representation on the field.

“I was going to play when I was younger, like in flag football and JFL, but I never played because I didn’t want to play with all the boys,” Kessler said. “I finally was just like, ‘Why not? I’m going to regret it if I don’t just do it.’”

Kessler admits she gets nervous as she steps onto the field, buy said playing football is the most fun she’s had playing a sport.

Kessler was inspired by her dad to take part in the sport they both love.

“My dad’s a really big football guy, so he’s always watched football. He played, and his best friend — they’ve been best friends since high school — they played together, and I’ve watched old films with his best friend and him in them,” Kessler said.

Kessler’s father, Eric, played on the offensive and defensive line during his years at EHS. Kessler said her dad played under former head football coach Mike McDonald, who remains on the football staff.

Kessler described her family of seven as a “football family” that loves the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the Ole Miss college football team. Though she said she likes college football the best, Kessler is not looking to play in college.

“People always ask me, and I’m not going to search out colleges to play. I hope I get really good over the next couple of years after playing more, but I don’t know if I could be good enough to play for college,” Kessler said.

Being the only girl on the team sometimes gets Kessler recognition. She said at times when she walks out onto the field with her team, cheerleaders from other schools comment about how cool it is to see a girl playing a typically-all male sport.

Kessler also has a young fan from Effingham Junior High School as well. A sixth grader named Maddie plays JFL football at the junior high and was excited to meet Kessler.

“She came to me after practice one day, so I went to some of her games and we took pictures together,” Kessler said.

One of Kessler’s proudest accomplishments so far this season was her performance in Monday’s JV game at Charleston. The Hearts beat the Trojans 48-24.

Hefner said while Kessler did not play in the varsity game against the Trojans, she is adjusting well to her position on both the varsity and freshmen and sophomore teams.

“She continues to improve each week and gets more comfortable each week,” Hefner said.

Though Kessler said she has yet to have a performance she considers outstanding, Max Preps credits her with a solo tackle on the season.

Along with support and encouragement from her coaches and teammates, Kessler said her family members have been her biggest cheerleaders.

“My dad was really supportive because he played football, and when I was younger and wanted to play, he wanted me to play, too. He’s really supportive,” Kessler said. “My mom is, too. She goes to all the games and everything.”

Kessler looks forward to growing as a football player this season, and she works to constantly improve the way she protects her team’s goal line.

When asked if she wants to continue playing through the remainder of her high school career, Kessler did not hesitate.

“Oh yeah,” Kessler said. “Definitely.”

Kaitlin Cordes can be reached at kaitlin.cordes@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 132.


Kaitlin Cordes covers Effingham County, police and courts and sports features for the Effingham Daily News. She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University. Cordes is a native of Effingham.

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