Brynna Nixon loomed around the field, minutes after Fife head football coach Kent Nevin dispatched his final postgame speech of the 2019 season, delivering words of empowerment and consolation to a group of teary-eyed teenagers.
Nixon was visiting with teammates, family and friends who were offering somber congratulations in the wake of Fife’s season-ending district playoff loss to North Kitsap when an unfamiliar face approached the junior quarterback.
In the whirlwind week of viral fame Nixon experienced, was becoming used to this.
Crystal Pugh reached out her hand and introduced herself. The coach and former player for the Seattle Majestics, a longstanding 11 vs. 11 women’s tackle football team, had braved the Friday traffic to watch Nixon play. Pugh told Nixon what an inspiration she was to her teammates, then extended an invitation.
“We have tryouts tomorrow,” Pugh said. “Whenever you’re ready, we’re waiting.”
For Nixon, such an interaction had become commonplace after the video of her touchdown pass in Fife’s win over Clover Park on Nov. 1 had set the Internet on fire. With the 20-yard dime she fired to Elias Faitala, Nixon became the first girl in Fife High School history to throw a touchdown pass.
The world around her saw Nixon as a rarity, which in many ways she is: a female quarterback on a high school varsity team — and a good one at that (Fife reached the 2A state semifinals in 2018). But this was nothing new to her teammates and coaches. They had seen her develop as a signal caller ever since strapping on pads as a third grader in Fife’s youth football system.
“She has a passion for it, she’s tough as nails, sticks her nose anywhere she wants to and her teammates love her,” Nevin said. “She’s no holds barred. She’s not afraid to get hit. She’s been hit.”
Watching football was a family ritual for Shelli and Jason Nixon, and throughout their two daughters’ childhood, the family watched NFL games four days a week.
“It was always on the TV,” said Shelli Nixon.
And the entire family loved the sport. But from a young age, Brynna took a special liking to it. In kindergarten, she told her parents she wanted Santa to bring her football gear – pads and everything.
“Her dad and I were looking at each other like, ‘what?’ This is kind of weird,” Shelli Nixon said. “She always loved sports, so we didn’t really think a whole lot of it, but Santa also didn’t bring her a whole lot of her football stuff.”
Brynna was persistent. The next year, she asked for the same thing: a uniform and pads. Again, no luck. So when she asked for a third year in a row as a second grader, her parents obliged. Brynna received a toy helmet, a football and a Seahawks jersey.
It was around the time when the Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson, an undersized, underrated quarterback in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Wilson quickly became her hero, and she said his attention to detail and expressed importance of practice helped her fall in love with all the preparation that comes before a game.
She took to the yard and played for hours on end by herself. One day, the elementary school sent home flyers about a flag football team. Brynna was incessant.
Her parents figured it was just a phase.
“Honestly we were kind of reserved because we knew it was something that hadn’t been done before,” Shelli Nixon said.
Even though Brynna wouldn’t be getting tackled as a second grader, Shelli Nixon understood that the sport consisted of all boys and posed physical challenges. And she feared if her daughter continued, she would face barriers from those who didn’t want a girl playing tackle football.
But Brynna’s desire to play didn’t waver.
“She just was more passionate and more passionate,” Shelli Nixon said. “And there was some negativity surrounding that. Some of those people in the stands saying something or kids saying something to her … but overwhelmingly, the response was super positive from her teammates, especially the Fife junior football coaches.”
Despite the overwhelming institutional support, her parents felt it necessary to have a recurring conversation warning her about potential backlash. It was unwarranted, but she would be held to a different standard. They told her there would be people who didn’t like her playing football, and not to worry about them. Instead, show them by working harder and being “that much better.”
“If she cared about what people said, she didn’t let it show,” Shelli Nixon said. “She kind of always said ‘if someone has a problem with me on the field, then I’ll just show them what I can do at practice and that will be it.’”
Brynna would study the playbook for hours outside of practice in elementary school, and as she got older, and her desire to play football only strengthened, the conversation got a bit more serious.
Plus, she also played linebacker. People around Fife’s youth program described her as tough as nails.
“I watched her in practice beat everyone up,” Monike Sarte, a Fife assistant coach who played lineman and graduated in 2014, said. “She was a monster at outside linebacker, one of the most fearless tacklers in the junior program. And that’s just the start of it.”
Brynna would tell her parents growing up that she wanted to one day be the first woman playing in the NFL. And as she grew up in the Fife youth program, she would make sure Nevin knew how serious she was about the sport.
“Every year, we’d talk to her, and she’d come up to us really excited and say ‘Hey coach Nevin, I’m going to play for you!’ ” Nevin said. “We said we hoped so, and true to her words, she stuck with it.”
Nixon was late arriving to school the Monday after throwing the “touchdown pass heard round the Internet.”
The early-morning flight from Chicago her and her mom were on was delayed getting them home from a lacrosse tournament with the Seattle Stars, a nationally-competitive Seattle-based club team.
Nixon had gone straight from the football stadium on Friday night to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to take a red eye to Chicago. She played her first lacrosse game at 9 a.m. Saturday, and after two days of games, was named the MVP of the tournament.
“She slept a little bit on the plane, but she basically played Saturday on no sleep,” Shelli Nixon said.
Throughout the weekend, the two began to hear from Seattle area media outlets interested in speaking with Brynna.
“It has been a little bit of a shock, because for us it is nothing new,” Shelli Nixon said. “She’s been playing for so long that I guess what made it a big deal was that it was a varsity game maybe. I honestly didn’t expect it to blow up the way it did.”
When Nixon got to school Monday after missing the first two classes of the day, she said she had one normal class — third period — then the interviews began. For the rest of the day, she was called in and out of class for interviews with several local TV stations.
Part of what made the attention so surprising to Brynna was that she was discovering the contrast between the way she views herself, and the way the outside world views her. She didn’t get into football to break a gender barrier, become a first of anything, or draw attention to herself.
She played football because of her unwavering love for the sport.
“It’s a little crazy to just know how many people have watched me play just because it’s a girl playing football, you know?” she said. “It’s crazy to see the amount of support that I’ve gotten, and the amount of people that really do care, you know? Truly, it’s actually humbling to know those kinds of people are out there. All the hard work is truly paying off in the long run.”
But she relished her newfound voice. She hopes her story serves to encourage young girls on the fence about playing football to give it a try, and sidestep any daunting fears.
“Once you get into it, just play,” Brynna Nixon said. “Work hard, know the plays inside and out, know the offense, and just play. Play to have fun.”
Late in the week, she received a call that she will never forget. The Seahawks wanted her to come out to practice. On Saturday, Brynna brought her parents, her older sister Maille Nixon, Nevin, her former youth coach Bob Rowe and her grandparents, who have been Seahawks’ season ticket holders since Shelli Nixon’s childhood.
Five-time pro-bowler Bobby Wagner introduced himself and took pictures, as did Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and, to Brynna’s bewilderment, Russell Wilson. Brynna told him she’d looked up to him “forever,” and said she was so excited that everything became a blur.
“I was a little bit star struck because that’s the guy I’ve been looking up to for everything, no matter what sport,” Brynna Nixon said. “Being able to meet him was absolutely incredible. Once in a lifetime experience.”
Pugh makes it her mission to support women playing sports, particularly those where women participants are viewed as unconventional.
She can name the four women actively coaching in the NFL, and has even met two of them. She is awe-struck every time she sees a girl playing high school football. It’s more common to see a female kicker, she says.
That’s what made Nixon’s story stand out.
Earlier that week, Pugh had seen the news story about the local high school girl who threw a touchdown pass in a varsity football game, and figured she had to meet her. Little did she know, Nixon loved the Majestics. She’d attended games, followed the team closely, and has wanted to play with them ever since she first remembered hearing about them.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Pugh said. “We’re so proud to see what girls can do now and want to take it one step further.”
For Brynna’s coaches, her performance was nothing new.
Nevin, who just finished his 17th season as Fife’s football coach, didn’t flinch when quarterback Gabe Duenas went down late in the game on Nov. 1 with a shoulder injury.
Once Duenas, a senior, left the game, Nevin knew who he was sending in.
“We didn’t come together as coaches and ask who we were going to put in,” Nevin said. “It was like, ‘Brynna, Brynna, you’re in, let’s go.’ There wasn’t a question.”
When she heard Nevin call her name, a sense of calm came over her. She was locked in.
“This is the thing I’ve been preparing for all season, and I knew I had to do it, so I just jumped into my role and tried to help the team get past that game,” she said. “The second I got to the huddle, everyone was like, ‘you can do this. Don’t stress.’
Passing is a rarity in Fife’s run-heavy wing-T offense, but she threw a beautiful ball to Faitala, sending the sideline into a frenzy.
“When she scored, everyone lost it,” Nevin said.
Once she got a sample of that feeling of throwing a touchdown pass, Nixon’s drive was even further fueled. Especially entering an offseason where she could be the favorite for the starting job next season.
“The second that happened,” Nixon said, “I was like, ‘this is a thing I want to do forever.’ ”