Jo Overstreet: 'Football is for me'

by Aryanna Prasad

Jo Overstreet has been playing football all her life. As an adult, she’s continued to find ways into a sport with precious few opportunities for women.

At the Pop Warner level, the game of football is played in a simpler way. The best kids play on offense and defense, enduring the entirety of a game so they can make tackles, catches and throws that no one else can. Joann “Jo” Overstreet was one of those kids, and when she took the field with the boys, she dragged and dropped like a cursor.

“I started when I was 11 years old playing on the waist tackle team,” Overstreet told FanSided. “I was the quarterback, I was receiver — I mean, I literally did everything.”

“When I first got on the team, and they told us to go head-to-head and tackle somebody, I was like, ‘Uh oh.’ Back then, there were no rules on tackling, so I figured ‘Oh, I think I’m just supposed to pick them up and dump them?’ And that’s what I did, and they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, sign her up.’ So ever since then, I was like, ‘Oh, football’s for me.’ I started playing tackle, and we won city champions.”

In her hometown of Killeen, Texas, Overstreet developed a fearsome reputation — even among her own teammates. No one tackled like Jo.

“They actually got very scared of me,” Overstreet said. “After that, no one wanted to go head-to-head with me in competition or practice.”

Those who knew what Jo could do didn’t want to line up against her, but seeing a girl on the field made some players feel like they could take advantage of her size. Her teammates did everything they could to stop them and pave a way for her with the rock in her grasp.

“What I thought was super cool as a kid, and now as an adult, I see that what they did was they protected me,” Overstreet said. “Everyone, back then, I was the only girl, so they wanted to come after me. ‘Oh, she’s soft, we’re gonna beat her up. We’re gonna hit her. We’re gonna contact her. We’ll just get to the quarterback. Let’s beat her up.’ So what I was seeing, the response was, my teammates would come out and have my back. They were just knocking people over as I’m running with the ball, I’m like, ‘Move! Move! Move!. And just pushing them out the way, and I was like, ‘Man, I love that.’ I love that team camaraderie that we had. When I was young, they had my back through the whole entire season. I mean, we won city champions. So having that experience playing tackle with the boys—”

Getting to play with boys didn’t mean that Jo Overstreet was ‘one of the boys’

As she detailed how her teammates fought to have her on the field, Jo paused to remember what it was like off the field. Everyone loved having her on the team, but at the end of the day, she was still reminded that she wasn’t one of the boys.

“I did feel alone because I was in my own locker room. I was not allowed to be in the boys’ locker room until you know they were all completely dressed and they were like, ‘Okay, Jo, you come in.’ In moments like that, I did feel alone. I did feel like, ‘Why are there no girls playing this sport?’, and it was for a long time. I didn’t realize until I was an adult that there are opportunities for girls to play football. But having that opportunity to play young has made me the athlete and the person that I am today.”

In the 1990s, there were no widespread girls’ football leagues, not even in the state famous for its youth football fervor. Jo’s mom wouldn’t let her play high school football, so she channeled her passion into basketball. Overstreet was a “near-perfect point guard” for the University of Houston Lady Cougars, which led to a professional basketball career overseas. Injuries began to prevent her from performing, and Overstreet admits that giving up basketball made her depressed.

Staying close to sports, she took a job as a coach and physical education teacher at Durham Middle School in Lewisville, Texas. Soon after she took that job, she attended a flag football tournament, and the rest led Jo to make history as one of the first consecutive two-time gold medalists on the U.S. National Football Team. Over her 12-year playing career, Overstreet has traveled all over the world, including Mexico, Brazil, and Panama. When she first played in Mexico, Overstreet experienced something she never had as a female athlete.

“The first time I stepped on the field [in Mexico], I stepped off the field and there was a line of people waiting to take pictures and autographs, and as a female athlete, I just have never seen that before,” Overstreet said. “Ever since then, I just wanted to make it my goal to travel the world and give back to these different communities that just want us to be there and want us to give them the knowledge.”

Illustration by Elliot Gerard

Mexico, which has a budding NFL fanbase, immediately saw a parallel between Overstreet and a prominent NFL wide receiver. When asked about the comparison, Overstreet started clapping and cheering.

“Yeah, OBJ, let’s go!” she cheered.

“The first time I got it big was when I went to Mexico, everybody was like, ‘Lady OBJ! Lady OBJ! Lady OBJ!’ So everybody is calling me Lady OBJ and that was back then when he had his hair like this [gestures to mohawk]. I actually didn’t have any color in my hair and then people started calling me ‘Lady OBJ’ and I just had to put the hair and add the color, but he is my favorite player.”

“Everyone always says I have his playing style,” she continued. “What he does — and I actually practice it now — what I love about him is when he catches the ball, it’s not about the catch. It’s about what he does after the catch. And that’s kind of like my focus as an athlete. Not just catch the ball because I’m a wide receiver, but what are we going to do? I don’t catch the ball just to catch it, I catch it to score. And that’s the mentality that I have.”

It makes sense that Jo can appreciate the focus in Odell Beckham Jr. because that’s always the athlete that she’s been. Overstreet has been blocking out the noise since those 11-year-old boys thought she was an easy target.

“Personally, I’m very good at ignoring noise, I’ve always stayed focused. I’ve been a collegiate athlete, I’ve been a professional athlete, and now I’m playing football. People are going to say what they want to say. Regardless, it’s all about what you want to do, it doesn’t matter what people say. And I’ve always been the type of athlete to ignore the noise.”

“I was dominating in football when I was 11, so ever since then, I noticed that I was kind of a little bit different than everyone else. I was faster, I was stronger. And I didn’t know why. But I keep myself surrounded by very positive, encouraging people all day long. And I think that’s so important, and I do the same thing in my life.”

“I try to follow everything that he does. I love his work ethic. And I’ve noticed he always has to deal with a whole lot of noise, and he stays focused. I really, really love that about him. Because a lot of people always give him so much backlash, you know, he’s too big. He’s this, this and that. And I just love how he stays focused and continues to just push on and be himself and I think that’s important for a lot of people to understand. Don’t worry about what anybody has to say. Just be you, be the best you you can be and that’s it.”

The young girl who became a city champion with her beloved youth league tackle team is now a two-time gold medalist playing in the World Games this July. Jo could even play flag football at SoFi Stadium if flag football becomes an Olympic sport by 2028. Manifesting that dream with positivity is how Overstreet has come this far, and she still has ground to cover.

And if anyone tries to get in her way, she has the same response she did in head-to-head battles: line up against her and see.

“I never have had any issues of someone telling me I can’t play the sport,” she said. “If someone told me that as a male, I would just say, ’Line up in front of me and let’s prove it.’ I’m not much of a talker. I’m going to show you what I can do versus talk about what I could do.”

Original artwork for this article was provided by Elliot Gerard. Follow him on Twitter (@elliotgerard) and Instagram (@elliotgerard), or check out more of his work at Heartlent Group

Aryanna Prasad covers all major North American sports as the Associate Editor of FanSided. A proud Louisiana native, the LSU Tiger earned her stripes covering the Seattle Seahawks for Sports Illustrated and global Paralympic athletes for the IPC. Aryanna was also a part of NBC's Olympic Research team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Aryanna's expertise is in longform features, profiling NFL, NBA, Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Fueled by a passion for NFL football and a fervent love of Tom Brady, Aryanna is here to engage with all sports fans, no matter the fandom.