RACINE — Fans watching the Racine St. Catherine’s JV football team this fall likely have noticed one strong effort after another by one of the Angels’ running backs.
And if they didn’t know any better, they wouldn’t even realize that No. 28 is freshman Laila Collier-White.
She fits in as just one of the boys – and it’s her play on the field that is making others take notice.
Collier-White is no stranger to the gridiron or to her teammates, as having a football in her hands, or in some cases, chasing down offensive players from a defensive end or linebacker position is something she’s been doing for several years now.
And she’s loving every minute of it.
“I enjoy being out there with my teammates and coaches,” she said prior to a practice session last week. “I just like playing the sport. I just love getting the ball and taking off on offense. I like contact. I like getting physical. I usually hit first. I don’t take the hit that much.”
Success on the football field came at a young age for Collier-White, as she earned Most Valuable Player honors for the St. Catherine’s Angels, who competed in the Wisconsin Rise, a traveling youth sports organization.
Collier-White earns MVP distinction
At a regional tournament that year in DeKalb, Ill., Collier-White was chosen as MVP out of 20 players. At that time, she played tight end and defensive end and was the only girl on the team. Her story was featured in not only local media outlets, but was picked up nationally by the Associated Press.
Even as a 9-year-old, it became clear that she not only enjoyed the sport but could excel at it, regardless of her gender.
“That kind of began this that she’s actually a good player and not just a girl who wants to play football,” said her mother, Tasia White. “She has gained respect from players her age and older and coaches alike as being just a solid, knowledgeable football player who does understand the Xs and Os. She’s played pretty much all the skill positions, which is admirable for a girl.”
And it’s that familiarity with her teammates that has continued to blossom, Laila said.
“I’ve played with this team since I was little, so I know all the guys,” she said. “We have that connection. No team can stop us. They’re mainly like big brothers. We’re all friends. They treat me like one of their friends.”
Seeing that connection with her teammates and how welcoming everyone involved in the St. Catherine’s program has been – from varsity head coach Dan Miller and all the way through – have been a relief to her mother.
There have been some modifications made, namely with a place to change daily and where she can house her equipment, Tasia White said, and just having that support only adds to the overall positive experience for her daughter.
“They really treat her like a sister,” she said. “They take her pads and helmet (and store them), and then she’s able to just bring her practice gear and stuff. I just love to see that they respect her as a football player. They support her.
“At the end of the day, they’re going to protect her on the field as well. I love to see that. We didn’t know what that would look like, but she’s been blessed to be at St. Cat’s. They’ve welcomed her with open arms.”
The connections don’t end with her teammates, either, as one of the Angels’ coaches is Tasia’s brother and Laila’s uncle, Troy Collier.
Troy has coached his niece through the ranks and joined the high school staff prior to this season.
“It’s fun (having him as a coach),” Laila said. “The reason why I played is because of him. I was watching him when I was a little kid. He’s the reason I’m playing. I like him being my coach because he understands me more than anybody.
“He coaches me tough. He expects a lot out of me because I’ve been playing football since I was little. He treats me more as a leader.”
Laila and her JV teammates enter Monday afternoon’s contest with Lake Country Lutheran with a perfect 6-0 record with just three games left in the 2022 campaign.
And the game Monday marks a return to the field for Laila after she suffered what her mother termed a mild concussion two weeks before.
Getting back on the field has been her focus ever since.
“I’m excited (to get back),” she said. “It’s boring without it. Hopefully, I will do well.”
Any parent watching their child compete, especially in a tough sport like football, likely would have some reservations when it comes to safety.
And for Tasia White, certainly, she’s always keeping that in the back of her mind when her daughter is out on the field.
But that thought is in the far back of her mind. She’s confident that, even if her daughter is injured like she was with that concussion, she knows how to take care of herself.
“It is a tough sport,” White said. “This is what we’ve signed up for. I tell her, ‘If you’re out there to play, you have to play. We pray that you don’t get hurt, but that’s part of football.’ … Laila, out of my three children has had the least amount of injuries. My youngest is a dancer and has broken her wrist, and my oldest plays basketball and has had a severe concussion. Injuries can happen in any sport.
“My anxiety is generalized like any parent who is watching their kid play a sport. She likes to tackle. She likes to hit. She’s a very physical player. She knows how to absorb the hit and not shy away from it. She’s played long enough. She’s not out there playing timid, which is what usually causes injuries. She plays really hard, so I think that has helped her not be injured.”
Laila, who also loves basketball and will be on the court this winter with the Angels, agreed with her mother’s assessment.
“Since I was little, I practiced my tackling because I started off (playing) defense first,” she said. “I just got good at tackling and taking hits.”
Where her football career heads after this year remains to be seen, but both mother and daughter agreed that the sport will continue to be a very important part of their lives as Laila continues through her high school years.
And there’s absolutely no pressure moving forward, Tasia said.
“I look forward to seeing what this continues to look like for her,” she said. “She’s not sure if it will be all four years, or maybe she wants to do it beyond (high school). I know initially, it was a goal for her to just play in high school, which she’s already accomplished.
“We’re not pushing anything. We’re just letting her take the lead and (determining) how far she wants to take it. We’re very proud of her.”
After Laila scored her first touchdown of the season, Tasia posted the accomplishment on her social media, but her daughter had a message for her.
At that point, Laila downplayed the touchdown because in her words, “she should have had five touchdowns by now,” Tasia said.
“I tell her all the time that she’s such a role model and a pioneer for younger girls,” she said. “And she’s super humble and chill, so I don’t think she views it like that, but I tell her all the time she inspires little girls and little boys to always do what you love. I’m always proud of her. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t play football. I love the game. I love to watch it, but I couldn’t do it.”
For Laila, she knows both football and basketball will be in the plans for at least the immediate future.
“I like playing both because they’re completely different,” she said. “There’s different techniques in each sport. Basketball helps football with the conditioning so you can get ready. Football helps me get more physical in basketball. I plan on playing football all through high school and basketball forever.”
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