Stranded by incomplete puberty well short of the muscle mass
demanded by football, George Zameska turned his thoughts where
any Philadelphia street athlete would: to hockey. But at the
city's celebrated Central High, where George was beginning his
junior year, they play only one kind of hockey. The kind with
short, crooked sticks. The kind on grass. The kind in which the
players wear skirts.
Why not? thought George. In his neighborhood, girls often played
ball with boys. There was this one girl across the street who
could whip George at anything.
He told his buddies.
"Way cool," they said in that fluid way in which teenagers
translate idea into dare. "Righteous goof."
December 11, 1995
Besides, George was good at field hockey. His grandmother had
been a serious player well into middle age. She had chased
George and his younger brother, Josh, around the backyard with
her crooked sticks since they were toddlers. It's tough
dribbling a ball over uneven turf with just the flat side of the
stick, and George had the hang of it. He combined sure ball
handling, quickness and a back-alley-Eric-Lindros-wannabe slap
shot. On the high school hockey pitch he was going to make
history. And that, he reasoned, would help him get into college.
"You can't play," coach Janice Evans told George that afternoon
in September 1994.
This after George had sat through the sign-up session with a
classroom of girls looking at him funny. George is not pushy.
Now 17, he's lean and loose, like a kid who's going to be tall
one of these days. His hair is cut short all around, and he
blushes easily, but he has a direct and steady gaze that
suggests something stubborn behind it. Coach Evans cited some
bylaw or other. It sounded firm.
George was disappointed but also a little relieved. He figured
the coach knew what she was talking about.
"Yo, wait just a minute," said George's pal Dan Zongolowicz,
fishing a copy of the school handbook from his book bag the next
day. "It says right here...."
Sure enough, the School District of the City of Philadelphia had
courageously pledged to fight the true fight against any form of
discrimination. Central's vice principal, Reginald Speir,
agreed. He was better acquainted with district policy than the
coach. But there are other ways to deter teenagers.
"Get your parents to write a note," Mr. Speir said. That night,
George asked his dad, "Big" George.
"With the girls?" his father replied. Big George let the idea
sit for a day or two. A lot of Little George's ideas tended to
go away after a day or two. This one didn't. So Big George
shrugged and wrote, "Please allow my son??? to try out for the
field hockey team...." Little George made his dad write another
"Go on out to practice," said Mr. Speir.
At Central they don't cut aspirants from the field hockey team.
Students who realize they won't play much just stop going to
practice. George kept going. He found he really liked playing
this game. And he wasn't outclassed. Coach Evans would put him
at sweeper, way back on defense--kind of a boring position, but
whenever George got frustrated watching his offense mess things
up, he would just steer the ball down the length of the field
himself and pop it in to the goal.
"See, girls--not all of them, but, like, most--tend to play
slower, weaker and a little more timid," George says. "They
don't have, like, the basic skills that guys have from playing
football, hockey and basketball. It's experience mostly. Basic
things like how to put a move on somebody, or how to see angles
and players who are open for passes."
Coach Evans was displeased by such displays. She was displeased,
period. "It was awkward," she says. "I looked for ways to bust
George. He was not welcome." She told him that despite his
skills, he wasn't a team player.
But George was prepared to make a huge sacrifice for the team.
On the day before the first game, uniforms were handed out:
crisp white polo shirts with red numbers and ... a crimson skirt.
George had anticipated the skirt. He had a pair of crimson gym
shorts stuffed in his bag. "Coach, can I wear this?" he asked.
"No, George, you have to wear the uniform," she told him. "If
you want to be on the team, you have to wear the uniform."
At Central that wasn't so bad, because the hockey field is way
off in the woods, and not too many people show up for the games.
But at other schools, such as Northeast High, the field is smack
in the middle of everything, and the second the bell rang, peer
hell would ensue as 10,000 teenagers descended from all
directions, and the football, soccer and cross-country teams all
trotted past. That, in George's words, was "terrible, nonstop
"Yo, check this out! Dude's got on a skirt!"
Wolf whistles were common.
"I know you like to see me in it," George would reply.
All this would have been more bearable if Coach Evans had
played him. Before games she would ask opposing coaches if they
would mind if she let him play. Some did, some didn't. Either
way, he didn't get in much. Some of the girls on the team liked
George. They asked the coach to put him in, particularly when
they were behind.
In a 1994 playoff game against Northeast High, Central was down
by a goal in overtime when Coach Evans relented and put him in.
George promptly scored, forcing a tie and, eventually, a
penalty-stroke shoot-out that Central lost. (George watched from
There was a tight group of starters who wanted to keep him
sitting, but except for them, George says, he related to his
teammates the same way he relates to guys. They would work on
moves, critique opponents, second-guess the coach. Last year
George and his pal Jen Mariani, also a junior, would sit on the
bench and count the senior starters, figuring who would be gone
the next season and what chances George and Jen would have to
start. It looked pretty good for them both. This year Jen
started pretty often, but George rode the pine through most of
"It's the coach's decision," he said in October. "But I know
it's because I'm a guy. I can play better than most of them."
Playing with girls didn't change anything about the way George
thinks about them--"except, you know, I think I kind of see more
of their bad side than most guys," he says. Which perhaps
explains why his presence on the team didn't lead to any
romance. Still, the question guys most often asked George was,
"Do you, like, shower with them?"
George would tell them yes.
A few things were different about playing with girls. After
years of street play and rec-center basketball and football with
boys, George didn't feel limber on the field until some trash
got talked. In one game in which he was allowed to play, he
loosed a little teasing and taunting on his opponents--"You
know," he says, "baby stuff like, 'Come on, try and take it
away'"--and the girls on the other team complained. Central's
athletic director made a trip to practice the next week to warn
George to knock it off.
Not that the girls' game is entirely genteel. People who
attribute competitiveness to testosterone alone have never
played against girls. One of them slugged George. It was a few
games after the trash-talking episode. His reputation had spread
to other schools, and one opponent came out ragging him. He kept
his mouth shut, as the athletic director had advised, but
Bridget Corey stuck up for him. "Why don't you all shut up!" she
Unfortunately this heightened the tension. When shoving started,
and Bridget was outnumbered, George ran over to help his
teammate. He got socked.
"Whoa, what are you doing?" George said, backing away from the
player who had popped him. ("It didn't hurt," he says. "She
just, like, threw her arm at me.")
George Zameska made history on Central's hockey pitch, but not
the way he had hoped. He was the first boy to crash the all-girl
world of Philly field hockey. Coach Evans and other officials at
Central were not happy and ducked some questions.
"I think they're embarrassed about the skirt," George's mom,
Diane, said this fall. "They should be."
Coach Evans admitted that George had been a trial. "That boy has
shown me something, though," she said. "I have a new respect for
George. After the first season, I was hoping he wouldn't come
back. But there he was. At first I thought he was just
showboating. But he stuck with it despite the ridicule. And he
got better about playing with the team. I think this season he
finally caught on."
With just a few games left before the playoffs, Coach Evans
decided that whether the other coaches liked it or not, George
was going to play. He was on the team. And in the final two
games he got a lot of minutes, helping Central make it to the
postseason, where the squad lost 2-1 in the first round to the
Philadelphia High School for Girls, fittingly enough. Now he
just has to wait till spring to find out if any colleges were
Mark Bowden's book "Bringing the Heat," about pro football, was
published last year by Knopf.