There were times during the fall of 2016 when Alannah Scardino wondered if she’d be able to tackle the stereotype. Times when she considered turning in her helmet and shoulder pads and giving up on her dream of becoming the first girl in the history of the Rochester City School District to earn a varsity letter in football. During those moments of exhaustion and anguish, Scardino would try to right herself by remembering what was at stake. She believed a greater purpose was at play here—that this journey wasn’t just about her and football, but about breaking down gender barriers and perhaps inspiring other girls to take on similar hurdles.
“If I quit, I’d be quitting not only on myself, but on others,’’ Scardino said recently from the University of Massachusetts, where she just completed her sophomore year as a sport management and social thought/political economy major. “I wanted to prove to myself and to other girls that we can do this. That was my motivation for trying this in the first place, and it continued motivating me during the difficult times.”
That added incentive enabled her to persevere, to stick it out. And she’s so glad she did. Scardino wound up kicking a handful of extra points for East High School that season. The football wasn’t the only thing to get the boot. Each kick over the crossbar and through the uprights represented a blow to gender bias and helped the 5-foot-5, 135-pound Scardino win over an army of skeptics that included administrators, coaches, teammates, opponents, parents and spectators.
“After the season ended, one of our assistant coaches came up to me and told me he had always believed that girls didn’t belong on a football field,’’ she said. “That caught me by surprise because he never let on that he had felt that way, had always treated me with respect and encouragement.
“He then went on to say that I had changed his mind. I was by no means the greatest kicker in the world. In fact, I wasn’t very good, but I worked hard at it and got better, and he said that my commitment and dedication was what impressed him the most. I participated in every practice, every drill. He said he admired my toughness, my determination. That meant the world to me.”
Scardino has never allowed stereotypes to stop her from pursuing her passions. That is why she gave high school football a shot and why she joined the predominantly male, student-run, volunteer fire department during her freshman year at UMass. Her experience as a firefighter has been so gratifying that she will consider making it a career if she doesn’t go into the sports industry or join an organization for social change.
She learned this you-can-do-anything attitude from her parents, Don and Eileen Scardino. Natives of the New York City borough of Queens, they also ingrained in her a love of sports, particularly the New York Jets. Those Sunday afternoons spent watching NFL games planted the seed that prompted her to switch from girls soccer at the School of the Arts to football at East following her junior season. (She played at East because SOTA didn’t have a football team.)
Scardina also has fond memories of attending Red Wings baseball games at Frontier Field, which is why she was ecstatic when she landed an internship with her hometown team last summer. She not only gained hands-on experience and insight into the operation of a professional sports franchise, but also had the opportunity to see Rochester Community Baseball CEO Naomi Silver in action. Scardino chuckled while recounting the first time she met Silver.
“She was so nice and down-to-earth, and after she left, I asked my fellow interns what Naomi did with the ballclub because she hadn’t mentioned her title when she introduced herself,’’ Scardino recalled. “When they told me she ran the ballclub, I thought that was so cool. Here I was, getting the opportunity to work for a woman in a male-dominated sports industry. She was a great role model.”
The beauty of working for a minor-league baseball team is that you get to do a little bit of everything. Scardino’s responsibilities included ticket and advertising sales and game-day promotions. Later that summer, she and her fellow interns were given the opportunity to create a promotion of their own. Scardino suggested a night at the ballpark that celebrated women in sports. She and her team put together a PowerPoint presentation. After receiving encouraging and constructive feedback from promotions director Tim Doohan, Scardino compiled a 12-page report that wowed Silver.
“I was heading back to college, but she and the Wings staff said they were going to take what we had created and make it happen during the 2019 season,’’ Scardino said.
Friday night, her brainchild will become reality when the Wings host their first “Women In Sports Night” before their game against the Durham Bulls at Frontier Field. The event will include a softball giveaway, along with a clinic conducted by the Wings and Our Lady of Mercy High School varsity softball team. That will be followed by a panel discussion featuring former Team USA soccer star Kristine Lilly, current Team USA softball player Janie Reed, Olympic fencer Iris Zimmermann, Olympic ice hockey referee Megan Leigh Mackenzie, Silver and Scardino. Local television meteorologist and former nationally ranked figure skater Stacey Pensgen will serve as moderator.
“I can’t wait,’’ Scardino said. “Hopefully, it will inspire other girls to pursue their dreams. Even if just one girl is inspired, I’ll consider the night a success.’’
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.