The powerlifting champion overcame early struggles and found family and camaraderie on the Knights football field. And she'd like to inspire others to do the same.
Pro tip: When playing football, use shellac nail polish.
It took losing whole fingernails at practice before Newport senior Jenna Martz found a coating as tough and innovative as she is on the football field. She’s one of a growing number of girls across the nation who continue to chip at barriers for women and girls in sports.
Martz is the first girl to play four years for the Knights. Unassuming, at 5 foot 3 and 148 pounds, she’s a crafty defensive lineman who found her strength through football and wants to leave a path for other girls to do the same.
Martz’s love for football began when she attended Newport’s homecoming game as an eighth grader. The school’s flame-like red and yellow colors couldn’t compare to the fire the Knights’ 20-point win sparked in her. Martz signed up for camp that summer and hasn’t looked back.
The Knights host Redmond on Friday as the season winds down. Despite Newport winning just one game this season, suiting up still invokes that same passion in Martz.
“The best feeling is on Friday nights when you get ready in the locker room,” Martz said. “You put on eye black. You put on your jersey. And you look the part and you feel the part. Then you put on your helmet and run out to the field. It’s such a thrill.”
Martz has parlayed her love for football into a successful national powerlifting career. She also hopes that her football experience will make her application to the United States Naval Academy stand out from the pack. She’s been a trailblazer at Newport for other girls who might want to play football in high school, but Martz says football has taught her some valuable life lessons too.
• • •
Lift the bar
The gleam in this kid’s eyes made Bob Richardson pause.
“I thought, ‘She could pull it off,’ ” said Richardson, Newport’s longtime powerlifting coach.
He had just asked a fresh crop of lifters about their long-term goals. His team is open to anyone at the school, but it’s typically dominated by football players who use the winter sport as part of offseason workouts.
Martz was one of those players. When she came out for powerlifting, she was about 125 pounds and still amped about her first football season.
She blurted out that she wanted to be the first girl in Washington to be a four-year football player — and one who didn’t just play on special teams.
To reach her goal, Martz knew she needed to bulk up. But as a freshman, she couldn’t even lift the 45-pound bar. At competitions, Martz remembers being a mess of nerves. Now, she bench presses 135 pounds.
“She’s put on about 20 pounds of muscle,” Richardson said of Martz’s advancement to the 148-pound weight class since her freshman year. “She’s starting to settle in. The girls, when she walks into a meet, they know she’s strong and good. Jenna is the bar setter.”
Martz missed a game in September to travel to Las Vegas for an international AAU powerlifting competition. She won the girl’s teen championship for her weight class.
As Martz calculated, lifting helped her on the football field.
However, it didn’t provide a blueprint on where to place Martz in the lineup. She started at wide receiver, then cornerback.
Too often, Martz says, girls on football teams are penciled into play kicker. Martz wanted to hit.
“I also suck at kicking,” she quipped.
“With her size, we wanted to put her out on the edge,” said Newport coach Drew Oliver, who had a female kicker earlier in his career at Hazen. “But with Jenna’s powerlifting background, she found her strength and foundation when we had her playing defensive line. It’s good for her because she knows balance and how to use the angles.”
Martz’s first varsity action came during her junior year when she played defensive end in the season-opener against North Creek.
“I got totally wrecked,” Martz said of getting knocked backward by an opponent. “But I hurried and got back up. Even though I was still kind of shaken, I didn’t let it stop me. I assisted on a tackle and it worked.
“I put my body out there and realized it doesn’t matter. I’m probably going to get beat half the time and the other half, I’m going to work to get that assisted tackle or tackle. It’s those small moments that give you the confidence eventually to get there.”
Martz, who has a solo tackle and two assists this season, has inflicted pain, too. She’s learned to use an opponents’ tendencies to have them miss tackles and has “bucked” (a big hit) bigger players, elating her teammates on the sideline.
“She holds her own,” Newport senior lineman Sean An said. “She’s not the biggest person in the world and she plays defensive line, which is a position for bigger people. But she’s super dedicated and works super hard that you just don’t notice that she’s smaller.”
• • •
Brotherhood and family
In four years, football has become more than just a sport to Martz. It’s given her another family, especially after a tough few years that began with the divorce of Jenna’s parents.
Sandra Martz, Jenna’s mother, said she felt blindsided by her husband’s request for a separation in 2014, and in the aftermath, the three Martz children watched their mother deteriorate.
Sandra said she sunk into a deep depression. She stopped eating, caring for the home and nurturing her children.
Jenna, the youngest, said she often felt alone as her eldest sister provided stability but was also preparing to leave for college. Around that time, their middle sibling was also in the process of transitioning from male to female and finding her identity.
With so much turmoil surrounding her family, rage and resentment nearly overcame Jenna, who had to learn to drive, do laundry and cook.
“We’d try to force-feed my mom and try to get her back on track. … She wasn’t even the same person,” Jenna said. “It was the turning point in my whole entire character. I was playing flag football at the time, so it didn’t push me into doing that or weights. But I found a safe spot in doing those (sports). … I was so angry. I still struggle to have a good relationship with my father.”
Brian Martz, Jenna’s father, lives in another state but said he has maintained a relationship with his children, spending holidays together and attending other events in their lives.
Football, meanwhile, has provided Martz with another family while hers healed.
In talking to teammates, Martz realized she wasn’t the only player whose parents were divorced or suffered a hardship due to the divorce.
“I was happy for that,” Sandra said. “She confided in her coaches, too, which was good.”
But the developing bond between Martz and her new teammates was tested early.
A former teammate on her freshman squad often made jokes about Martz within earshot. Opponents would yank her braided pigtails, call her “it” or expletives and target her on tackles, double-teaming Martz and plowing her to the ground.
During her sophomore season in October 2016, Martz recalls sitting in a common area of the Newport boys locker room with eyes full of tears. She had barely made the varsity football team and, as a third-stringer, didn’t play a down, her Knights uniform still clean. Yet, that didn’t stop opponents from not wanting to touch her as part of the postgame tradition where players slap high-fives and say, “good game.”
“When you’re constantly being exposed like that to a point to where it’s not football anymore … I just want to play football, man,” Martz said, not wanting to cry then or now in reliving the moment. “Can’t we just hit like that? If I get knocked down, I’m going to get back up. But if you’re going to be talking smack like that, what is the point?”
Some of the incidences were anonymously reported to Newport administration. Those players are no longer on the team, according to Martz and An.
“I kept playing through it,” Martz said. “Eventually, they saw me for who I was and we grinded together, and we grew together. Now, if people start targeting me or they say something, I just tell my teammates and either they help me handle it, or they go handle it. Because you just don’t let that happen to a teammate — whether they’re a girl or boy.”
• • •
Changing the narrative
From the terminology down to the culture, football, with its macho ethos and often militaristic structure, is inescapably patriarchal.
Martz is reminded of that every day.
Yet, she has also taken inspiration from growing up in the era of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, and the Women’s March, where throngs of women have flooded the streets nationwide to protest for equal rights and fair treatment.
These movements have shaped Martz’s ideals of feminism, and she’s used her position as a girl in a male-dominated environment to remind her football teammates that girls belong too.
Martz has had to be strategic and tactful about how she makes her point, but to their credit, her coaches and teammates have been receptive to her, she says. They’ve changed some things to include her.
For instance, they found a space for her to change into her football uniform and started holding pregame talks in the common area of the locker room so Martz could join in. They also figured out a different way to spot her in powerlifting and used more inclusive speech when addressing the team.
“It was a big change for everybody and a learning experience,” Martz said. “We have some signs in the locker room that say, ‘I leave a place a better player, a better man,’ and I usually shrug it off, but with other things the staff says ‘person’ or ‘men and women.’ I don’t necessarily go out of my way to change it, but just my presence and having them know that it’s important to me, they change it and they talk about it to make it all-inclusive.”
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But what about the “Brotherhood” chant?
“I say ‘Brotherhood,’ ” Martz admitted. “But when they talk about me, they say ‘sister.’ You take it a little bit at a time and my players, my coaches are really respectful about that.”
Martz’s team has come to appreciate her for her strengths and unique qualities as an athlete.
An, a 5-11, 256-pound lineman, wants to duplicate Martz’s work ethic and tenacity. He appreciates her determination. The senior competes alongside Martz in powerlifting, where she’s a Washington state record-holder in the squat (240 pounds), bench press (130 pounds) and dead lift (275 pounds).
“She’s inspiring just as a person,” said An, a co-captain. “She battles through injuries and adversity. Because in the sport of powerlifting, it’s hard sometimes to find motivation. You lift every day and for me, it gets very repetitive. Her self-motivation — coming to the weight room every day with a lot of drive — is really inspiring.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include material from an interview with Brian Martz.