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story.lead_photo.caption Jayda Tyh-Tyianha Arzola, more commonly known as Tati, is a 12-year-old girl who plays left guard and defensive tackle for the Riverview Youth Athletic Association’s sixth-grade team. Her coach Justin Johnson said “girls look up to her,” and he is confident that she will have a chance to play high school football when she reaches that level. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

In football, the left-guard position isn’t one that easily gets individual recognition. However, any team that goes against the sixth-grade Riverview Raiders knows that their offensive line is tough — especially on the left side.

Underneath a shiny white helmet and a thick layer of pads, Jayda Tyh-Tyianha Arzola is a force to be reckoned with. Her coaches said she is “tougher than the boys.” That’s right. Most call her “Tati.” She is a 12-year-old girl, and her coaches said she’s making boys cry.

“When you play offensive line, it is hard to be rewarded, but you notice that no one is getting in on that side,” said Justin Johnson, sixth-grade Riverview Raiders coach. “You look back at the tape, and you realize it is Tati, and it is good stuff.”

She not only takes on the responsibility of being an essential part of the offensive line; she also plays defensive tackle. Tati makes an impact in both of those positions with athleticism and physicality, Johnson said. During most games, Tati only takes short breaks for water and is right back in the game, because she is “that good.”

“Left guard is an important position because they protect our center, who is snapping, so she has to be fast enough to get to the small guys who are coming in there, as well as take other assignments,” Johnson said. “She plays both sides of the ball — defense and offense. If I could afford to have that hole [on the line], I would put her at other spots. She could be at tight end catching the ball, even.”

Tati said she learned to play football from her older brothers, but her interest to join the team came from encouragement from her classmates. After playing a few games during recess, the boys wanted her on the team, and Tati was ready to “jump in and make hits.”

Johnson said Tati has become a role model for other girls who want to play hard-hitting football, even though he said he never thought a girl could play that kind of football. Tati enjoys having something that sets her apart from other girls.

“Other girls think it is cool because they can’t do it [like I do],” she said, adding that her favorite part of football is, of course, tackling the boys.

Johnson said that before meeting Tati, he had seen only a few girls show interest in joining the team, but most of them walked away after taking a few hits. In fact, Johnson said that if someone had suggested that a girl would be essential to his offensive line when going up against their biggest rival, Bald Knob, he would have thought that was silly.

This year, however, Tati helped to lead the sixth-grade Raiders to a 40-7 victory in that very game.

“We’ve doubted her this far, and you see where she is,” Johnson said.

Patrick Honey, the team’s head coach, has coached Tati since she began playing football with the Riverview Youth Athletic Association when she was in the fourth grade. He said he had his doubts when she first joined the team as well.

After giving Tati a chance on the field as a fourth-grader, he quickly discovered that not only does she love football; she also knows the game better than some of her teammates.

“She can read plays,” Honey said. “Before Tati, I would have never thought I’d see a girl play football like she plays football. She plays real, smash-mouth football against boys her size. She has made a believer out of me.”

Johnson said that at first, Tati was playing any position needed because the team was small and needed to fill positions, but soon he realized that during one-on-one drills, she was “blowing guys off the ball” and has turned out to be one of “the best players we have had for the past two or three years.”

Honey added that when many of the players grumble about the heat in the beginning of the season or running extra laps around the field, Tati never complains.

“You never see her kick her helmet or anything,” Honey said. “You tell her to run, and she will do it. We constantly get lip from kids, but not her.”

At 5-7, 190 pounds with great agility, Honey said, she is everything he could ever want in a lineman. He added that there are even some kids that he won’t put her against because “she will ‘truck them,’ as the kids say.”

“She made one of our star defensive players cry two practices ago when he tried to break through the line,” Honey said. “She knocked the breath out of him.”

Johnson and Honey agree that there should be no reason that Tati wouldn’t be asked to try out for the junior varsity and someday the high-school football team. Her older brothers, Ricco and Izaya Patterson, said they would be very surprised if she didn’t get a shot at the team when she reaches that level.

Izaya, who plays high school football, said he is confident that she can not only play for the high-school team, but more than likely, she will be a starter if her dedication continues.

Johnson said that having Tati on the team has been an inspiration for other girls who want to play football, adding that he believes Tati has found her happy place on the football field.

“Girls look up to her and say, ‘I want to be like Tati,’ and they think they can do it, but there is only one Tati,” Johnson said. “When you ask her about anything else that is going on, she doesn’t really want to talk about it. Football is her space and her release. We’ve had girls wanting her jersey. Fans wear her number (46). She is celebrated.”

The uniqueness of playing a primarily boys sport isn’t lost on Tati. She said she feels that she proves the unlikely each time she is on the field. She also has a simple message for anyone who might doubt her ability.

“Some of the people we go against don’t believe that a girl plays football. I show them that I do, and I tackle them …,” Tati said. “You should come see me play, and I might just tackle you, too.”

Staff writer Wendy Miller can be reached at (501) 399-3616 or wmiller@arkansasonline.com.

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