Antoinette “Toni” Harris is a name you may be familiar with. The 23-year-old is thought to be the first woman to accept a football scholarship to play at a four-year university – not as a kicker, as previous women have done, but as a position player.
Harris, a free safety, has committed to Central Methodist University, a 1,000-student school in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). She arrived three weeks early for camp to spend more time with the strength and conditioning instructor. She, like the rest of the club, is looking forward to seeing some action when the season begins on Aug. 31.
Fayette, a four-block village surrounded by cornfields and soybean farms, is a dot on the map between St. Louis and Kansas City. On a hot Sunday morning in July, the women at Savory Bakery are pouring coffee and tea while The Platters play “The Magic Touch,” a song that hasn’t charted in the United States since 1956.
Harris, head coach David Calloway, and defensive backs coach LaQuentin “Q” Black are in Calloway’s office on the second floor of Brannock Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus, two blocks from town. Harris had pulled his hair back into a tight ponytail. She has a diamond stud in her left nostril and is wearing a “Women are Dope” T-shirt. Her 165-pound build is rock-solid, despite her short stature of 5 feet, 7 inches.
She didn’t play on the varsity squad in high school and just sporadically in junior college. Her manner is that of a wide-eyed college student, not a sports star. Toni Harris, on the other hand, is well-known.
“There have been so many women — I can’t even count, like over probably 100 or 200 — that contact me every day, whether in middle school, high school or getting ready to go to college, that want to play [football] at the next level,” she says. “They say I’m an inspiration and ask if I have any tips on how they can become better football players. I tell them to just keep pushing and working hard, and just never give up believing in yourself.”
On February 3, the world learned about Harris in 60 seconds. Toyota debuted an ad depicting her and her dream to play football during Super Bowl LIII. Harris was seen by tens of millions of people running, training, lifting weights, and driving a Toyota.
“They’ve said a lot of things about Toni Harris,” intones narrator Jim Nantz. “They said she was too small. They said she was too slow. Too weak. They said she’d never get to the next level. Never inspire a new generation. Never get a football scholarship. Yeah, people have made a lot of assumptions about Toni.”
Harris then turns to face the camera and delivers the final line, which she proudly claims she composed herself and which sums up her extraordinary trip.
“I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”
When Harris was a child growing up on Detroit’s west side, it would have been easy to dismiss her. She was placed in foster care at the age of four and by the age of fifteen had lived in three separate families.
“You don’t really see anything wrong with it until you’re older,” she says. “I wanted to see my mother and I wanted to know who my father was. But I was always one of those kids who was very optimistic. I had my faith and believed in a lot of things that were positive.”
Sam Clora, Harris’ biological father, was introduced to her four years ago. He, like her nine biological siblings, is now a part of her life (five sisters and four brothers). Donyale Harris, her birth mother, with whom she had always kept contact, died in a car accident this past spring.
Simply getting onto a football field was one of Harris’ challenges. When she was five years old, she saw her elder cousin Demetrius and the Westside Steelers win the national Police Athletic League (PAL) championship, and she was hooked.
According to Harris, she spotted a happy, teary-eyed family on the field that day. “I fell in love with the game of football after that and never put the ball down.”
She picked up the game on her own, watching others and playing in neighborhood pickup games because no PAL team would accept her. She persuaded Redford Union High School in suburban Detroit to accept her to join the junior varsity team. She was the team’s lone female player, and she split her time between wide receiver and cornerback. (She was also a cheerleader, which is how she got her greatest athletic injury, a bruised knee.) But she has kicked off the squad as she was going to senior varsity.
“The athletic director [Mike Humitz, who passed away in January] told me he didn’t want to let me play,” Harris recalled. “He said, basically, football was a man’s sport and I shouldn’t be out there. And he was being really sarcastic. He was like, ‘So what’s your next sport? Boys’ basketball? Men’s wrestling?’”
Harris did, in fact, have a plan: he wanted to play in college. She enrolled at the University of Toledo with the intention of joining the team as a walk-on. However, fate brought her another setback. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer during her freshman year.
“I think God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, and I feel as though I’m one of God’s stronger soldiers,” Harris says. “So I feel like I can overcome anything that’s thrown my way.”
Harris enrolled in Golden West College, a community college south of Los Angeles in Huntington Beach, California. Her attempts to play football were stymied when head coach Nick Mitchell turned her down.
“She tried out for the team [as a wide receiver and defensive back], but didn’t make it,” Mitchell said in a phone call with The Undefeated. “I didn’t think she was ready for the collegiate level. It had nothing to do with her being female.”
Harris tried women’s soccer next, but it didn’t satisfy her desire to play football. So, while still enrolled at Golden West, she registered at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) and simultaneously sought (and eventually got) two associate’s degrees: one in social and behavioral sciences and the other in criminal justice. She begged Bobby Godinez, the head football coach at ELAC, to put her on the team. Eventually, he gave in.
“She wouldn’t accept no as an answer,” Godinez says on the phone with The Undefeated. “[But] my ‘no’ was out of fear. Having a daughter myself, I was nervous about what the repercussions could be. You have injuries at a high, high level in this sport. But I did tell her that if she sticks around and she proves that she belongs, things could change.”
Harris never missed training, a meeting, or a workout in the weight room.
That moment came in Week 2 of her first season. As Godinez recalls, “A defensive lineman approached me and said, ‘Coach, give her a jersey, she deserves it.’”
Despite playing sparingly that season, Harris received a scholarship offer from Bethany College, an NAIA school in Kansas. She chose to stay at ELAC and appeared in three games as a sophomore, breaking up a pass and making three tackles, one for a 24-yard loss.
She recorded the highlights and sent them to four-year schools in the hopes of catching a coach’s attention.
“I don’t even know how many schools [I sent to],” Harris says. “Probably over 200.”
It couldn’t have come at a better time. The highlight film for Harris was released just in time for the Super Bowl and the Toyota commercial. Suddenly, the media was praising the young woman who was defying stereotypes and breaking through barriers. Her name was brought up by radio hosts. She appeared on Good Morning America and The Today Show as a special guest.
Staying at ELAC had shown to be a wise decision. She now had scholarship offers from five more colleges, one of which was an NCAA Division II school and the others were NAIA schools.
Only one of the coaches, Calloway of Central Methodist, had an impression on her. He’d been emailing her, calling her, and recruiting her well before the uproar. And he’d always told her the truth.
Calloway was a four-year starter at Langston University in Oklahoma, graduating in 1997, and has coached at the collegiate level for the past 21 years. He’ll have an uphill struggle at Central Methodist. The Eagles have gone 8-24 since he took over as head coach in 2016. But, based on the thank-you cards pinned to his corkboard from previous players and kids, Calloway is a patient and sympathetic coach who has built a reservoir of goodwill.
“[Making history] never crossed my radar,” Calloway says. “I assumed somebody had already kicked or something.”
Since Liz Heaston became the first woman to score in a college football game for Willamette University in 1997, numerous women have kicked for four-year schools. Ashley Martin of Jacksonville State, Katie Hnida of Colorado and New Mexico, and April Goss of Kent State are among the others. However, until 2018, when Rebecca Longo signed to kick for Adams State in Colorado, none of them got a scholarship to a four-year institution in Division II or higher. (Defensive back Shelby Osborne signed with Campbellsville University in Kentucky in 2014, but she wasn’t on a scholarship at the time.)
Now, according to Jennifer Saab, the NAIA’s director of communications, Harris is “the first female incoming student to receive a football scholarship as a position player.”
Coach Q agrees. “Her feet are really good and she’s quick out of her breaks,” he says. “When you’re bringing someone on in the [defensive] back end, you want someone that you feel can lead and take charge, and I haven’t seen anything different from her. We’ll see if she’s coachable once we get her on the football field and in the meeting rooms, but so far, so good.”
Harris has what it takes to withstand any pushback on the playing field, Calloway says. “You read on social media, ‘I will run her over,’” he says. “She’s not gonna just sit there and let you run her over. She has more sense than that. She understands she’s on the field with 21 other guys. We’re putting her in a position to make proper tackles.”
Harris’ participation in the Aug. 31 game versus Clarke University is uncertain. Calloway makes it apparent that she’ll be up against a three-year starter and another junior college transfer for her starting spot.
But, as Harris has shown before, competition fuels her desire to succeed.
“I don’t expect anything to be easy,” she says. “It’s never going to get easier. If anything, it’s going to get harder every day.”
“If they made a women’s NFL, then yes,” she says. “I know people play recreationally, but I want to get paid to play just like anybody else. I want a career. So if they don’t plan on putting in a WNFL then I’ll be seeking other things and other ways to make money.”
We try not to assume Harris can do it all after meeting her — take the field on opening day, intercept a pass. And we make an effort not to think about her one day wearing an NFL uniform.