After he retired in 1969, former NBA superstar Bill Russell became a basketball commentator. One of his more memorable quotes was "Basketball is a contact sport; football is a collision sport."
Parents can enroll their children in tackle football leagues as early as age 6. An alternative is flag football, designed to minimize the injuries tackle football can cause. Since 1996, NFL Youth Football has offered flag football for boys and girls ages 5-17. The programs are coed to age 11 and gender-specific for older players.
By the time a child reaches middle school, it is rare for a girl to be selected as a member of her school's tackle football team. It is rarer for a girl who is not a punter or place-kicker.
Chasco Middle School eighth-grader Caitlin Smith is one of those rare individuals.
"I always hung out with the boys," Smith said. "When I was 7, I started playing touch football with them at recess."
Smith, 13, played three seasons of flag football with i9 Sports in Hudson and New Port Richey.
"Caitlin was the core of our defense," said Coach Carmine Fiumara. "She helped lead us to two championship seasons, in 2006 and 2007. She put fear into the opposing quarterbacks.
"If it wasn't for her great play and effort, I don't know what would have happened. She came up big in every game, during the season and the playoffs. Her second year, she led the league in sacks."
After an unsuccessful attempt to make her school's team in 2007, she tried out this year and made the team as a backup safety and cornerback.
At 5 feet and 100 pounds in full pads, Smith looks like a typical middle-school football player. As she removes her helmet, however, and a blond ponytail emerges, you immediately realize she is not one of the boys.
Gary Hoskins, the football coach at Chasco Middle School, gives Smith credit for breaking down the gender barrier and for her work ethic.
"Caitlin was the first female to be part of our football team in our school's history," Hoskins said. "She did a tremendous job, always giving 100 percent effort during each practice and game. She never backed down from the challenge of having to hit someone much bigger in size.
"Caitlin displayed a positive attitude throughout the season and fit in nicely on the team. She never wanted to be treated any differently than any of her teammates. When Caitlin was in the game, she truly was just another athlete trying her hardest to earn playing time."
When asked why she chose football, Smith responds quickly.
"Football is fun, competitive and rough," she said. "Plus, it allows me to take out my aggression."
Smith said her biggest challenge is getting the boys to treat her as an equal.
"If I give it all I've got, I can compete with the boys and sometimes even do it better," she said.
During a recent practice, Smith displayed courage and earned the respect of her teammates. She suffered a deep cut on her left arm. She left the field, but had it bandaged and immediately returned to practice.
After several hard tackles, including one particular hit that stunned the running back, Smith's teammates began calling her "Killer Caitlin."
"I'm very determined," Smith said. "If I want something, I'll try my hardest to get it. If I get the opportunity, I'll prove to everyone that I can do it. Just give me a chance."
Another area where Smith displays her determination is in the classroom. An honor student since fifth grade, Smith, who completes as many extra-credit assignments as possible, has a 4.0 GPA.
A recipient of the Student of the Month award in sixth, seventh and eighth grades, Smith is a member of the National Junior Honor Society and the Math Club. In sixth grade, she earned third place in a Tropicana Field speech contest.
Her teachers are quick to offer praise.
"Caitlin is a very helpful and determined student," said language arts teacher Michelle Ferguson. "She always volunteers to be a class helper, in which she assists me in passing back papers and running errands. She is also someone I can count on to help students who were absent to understand the assignments they missed. Every time we have a vocabulary quiz, she studies hard and aces the quiz.
"Overall, she is a wonderful student, and I am happy to have the chance to work with her."
Social studies teacher David Lammie agrees.
"Caitlin always gives it her best effort," Lammie said. "Her true strength in the classroom lies in the fact that she has an unyielding work ethic that drives her towards success."
Smith knows the importance of studying.
"An education will help you achieve your dreams and open many doors that might otherwise be closed," said Smith, who plans to become a veterinarian.
Her fondness for animals is evident in her volunteer work. On weekends, she cleans the cages and provides water for the cats.
She also is a strong supporter of Chasco's recycling program, and Smith walks from class to class taking recycled trash to the receptacle.
"Caitlin is a positive role model for other student-athletes at Chasco Middle School," said Hoskins, who also teaches at Chasco. "We're all very proud of her determination and her accomplishments."
Teachers, coaches: If you would like to nominate an outstanding student-athlete to be featured in an upcoming In The Community article, contact Cliff Gill at