April Florie is an English and special education teacher at Toms River High School East in New Jersey. She’s also the first female football coach in the history of New Jersey’s 42-team Shore Conference and one of only a handful in the state.
The 57-year-old mother of two had never coached any sport before she decided to take a leap of faith at a preseason meeting in May and ask Toms River East head football Kyle Sandberg, 36, if he could use an assistant coach on his staff this fall. He took her up on the offer. She assists in coaching the wide receivers and linebackers.
I literally thought everyone would say no.
Who knew the first person I asked would say yes?
I was so proud of Kyle in retrospect that, generationally, he took a chance on me to join the staff, and that doesn’t happen often. I mean that older people often dismiss younger people because they do things differently or they think they don’t know what they’re doing, and that (younger) generation kind of dismisses older people. ‘Oh, they’re antiquated, they don’t know technology,’ all that.
But Kyle took a chance on me and that line was blurred. That young guy took a shot on a crazy old lady, and he just had an open mind. It’s nice to know there’s people like that.
Florie has become a respected member of the staff at Toms River East after a steep learning curve at the beginning. Courtesy Mark Brown Photos
It’s so surprising to me how many people are so ingrained in the town (of Toms River), and I felt that pretty immediately as a staff member (at the high school). I could not figure a way to really break into that and tap into that emotion, so I thought football was a great way to do it.
I am friends with a great group of women, and I told them, ‘I’m going to have to go to the dark side and break through some other way.’ And that was it. I just started to think about offering to coach football. It was as organic as that. It was a seed planted in my mind to be part of the fabric of the community.
I knew a lot about baseball but nothing about football. All I knew was from watching games on TV as a fan like everyone else.
After the meeting (in May) when I told my kids, they were like, ‘You’re coaching in the spring for baseball?’ And I was like, ‘No, football.’ They’re used to their zany mother. I’ve had career switches. I was very fortunate to be raised by parents who embraced all my craziness. ‘If you want to change your major, not a problem. We’re good.’
I try to raise my kids like that. When I told them as an offhanded joke that maybe I’ll just try to coach, I just remember my son so clearly, as only a 20-year-old son could do it, giving me the side eye saying, ‘OK Ma, yeah you try that.’
I truly hope that they do that, too, in their lives. Just take a shot. I want them to know that they shouldn’t be afraid of giving something a chance.
People my age usually stick with what’s comfortable instead of challenging yourself to learn, and I can be no different. I don’t even want to change the car I’m leasing. It’s true. But there’s not a day that I show up at that practice field and the games that I don’t learn something new, and that’s a gift.
I plan on continuing coaching, but I don’t think I’m going to be presented with that steep of a learning curve again in my life. I do believe that now more than ever. To challenge yourself, it really is like a muscle that you’re training. And to keep it active, it’s crazy.
At the first practice in August, I was petrified. I didn’t even know where to stand. It was a mess. (Assistant coach Steve Petrosino) must’ve seen the panic on my face. He pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen, you look so scared. Just shadow me. I literally had no experience three years ago, and now it’s normal for me.’ They just walked me through everything.
I must’ve asked a thousand questions. It was like being in another world where they’re speaking a different language. I was probably facing the wrong way, or I had the offensive book when I needed the defensive book. The kids are masked and I can’t recognize them, and they have the practice jerseys on with different numbers. It was just sensory overload for me. I got home and I think I slept for two days after that.
I was going into a boys club, and I mean that sincerely and complimentary, and I know who I am. I know I don’t know anything. I walked in, I like to joke around. I don’t have thin skin, I’m a sassy Jersey Italian in all the best sense of it. I told them that I’m just looking to do something new, and do it with a bunch of good people who want to help kids.
Before I was a teacher, I did product development for home and textile companies in a male-dominated industry. That was the world, and I operated in it. I can fit in anywhere.
Florie hopes to inspire her children and others to not be afraid to take a leap of faith and challenge themselves. Courtesy Mark Brown Photos
I do conduct myself that way — I’m going to figure it out. If it’s time for me to be quiet, I know to be humble. If I know to crack a joke, I put my two cents in. I can read a room, and that’s the only trait you need to operate in life.
To the credit of every single player on that field, I have never even heard a whisper of, ‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing.” I was nervous about that. Parents also come to practice sometimes, and I didn’t know if a parent was going to turn around and say something.
‘A lot of double takes’
The first game was thrilling. There’s so much logistics involved, and we were away, so that had its own set of issues. We get to Brick High School and they don’t have any girls rooms open, so I had to ask all the players to exit the boys room so I could go to the bathroom. The bathrooms have been an issue.
Watching on television, it’s not as intense as when you hear the players hit one another from the sidelines. That was jarring and crazy how intense the players are.
The headset was like 17 crazy people talking at the same time. It’s like organized chaos. The most interesting part of that for me was the banter between the coaches during the game. They’re still coaching high schoolers and they’re fully aware of that. They’re cheering him through the headset. ‘Look at him go! I knew he could do it!’
The first two games there were a lot of double takes (from the opposing team) after the game. It was polite, but definitely a double take like ‘OK, all right.’ I have a feeling they think I’m like a team mom who’s allowed on the field sometimes.
As long as Toms River and coach Sandberg will have me, I would like to do it again. Because now I have a little bit of knowledge. My goal for the summer is to learn how to sling a ball.
I don’t think of myself as any kind of pioneer. I just told my kids, if there’s some other young girls on a (teaching) staff somewhere, I hope that they go and do it.
If I let fear be a motivator, I would’ve never stepped on that field.
This article first appeared on TODAY.com. More from TODAY: