MetroWNY: Passion for football helps Wagner overcome obstacles

(October 14, 2010)

Mia Wagner doesn’t take for granted the preciousness of life.

Though there are limitations on how hard she can push herself at times due to the chronic asthma that almost took her life just two years ago, the Frontier High School senior doesn’t let anything stand in the way of doing what she enjoys.

For her, that’s playing football.

Being a female in a male-dominated sport hadn’t stopped her from playing up until the tenth grade for a local youth organization, so why should the asthma that she has dealt with since the tender age of nine months old.

Also a cheerleader in the Frontier District since the seventh grade, this fall the fearless Wagner put down her pom-poms in favor of the pigskin for her senior year to fulfill a dream of playing a sport she is so passionate about at the varsity level.

“For me, life is a gift,” said the 17-year-old Wagner. “Death could be one breath away.”

Wagner had to pass a rigorous agility and physical fitness test this summer just to be considered for a tryout. She went through the same training and workouts as the other male players during the summer and participated in the same camps as them to learn the varsity system. As a result, Wagner officially became the first-ever female to play the sport in the over half a century history of Frontier football.

She hasn’t picked the sport back up to make any big statement and garner attention for herself or to break down barriers. While she may want the same opportunity as her 43 male teammates, Wagner plays simply for the love of the game.

The second team defensive end and offensive guard is now through six games and nine weeks of a season that officially began with summer practices on Aug. 16. One of 22 upperclassmen on the team, she recently celebrated Senior Night with a playoff-clinching 16-13 win over Lancaster.

“It’s so much fun and I’ve really enjoyed every minute of it,” said Wagner, who like many of her teammates had played football for years in the Carnegie Scranton Recreation Association. She played up until her sophomore year before taking last season off as she struggled with the idea of whether or not to tryout for Frontier’s varsity team. “I love being a part of the team and love my teammates. The boys treat me as one of them. They’re no different to me.”

Wagner has never backed down from the adversity of having asthma while playing sports at the youth softball level and then moving on to become a star girls lacrosse goalie, but the obstacle she was now up against hit back harder than ever before.

“I’ve told my teammates that I don’t want any special treatment,” said Wagner, who is also a member of the National Honor Society and president of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) at Frontier. “I said to hit me as hard as you’d hit anyone else.”

The adjustment to varsity football has gone relatively smooth, thanks in part to the bond Wagner had already formed with many of her teammates playing along side them in CSRA. In fact, she and some others on the team were members of the CSRA varsity that went to play in Florida for a national championship in the fall of 2008.

“For years, I was playing with them for CSRA one minute, then cheerleading for them the next minute,” Wagner noted.

But that just wasn’t fulfilling enough for Wagner, who yearned to reunite with her teammates in between the lines on the field. She broached the topic with her parents, David and Tracy, during her junior year and they were not too receptive. Before her senior year, Wagner emphasized how important it was that she play again in her final season and even did a little pleading.

“Oh, my parents have definitely been supportive,” said Wagner, who also credits her former CSRA football coach, Tim Fox, who she noted helped to make her what she is today and never doubted that she could play just because she wasn’t a male. “At first, they were iffy about me playing. But they’ve always been very proud of me when I was playing CSRA. I finally was able to talk them into letting me play again.”

Her parents were confident in her safety because CSRA taught many of the same fundamentals as the high school program and they trusted the many of her teammates that she had played beside before. It also didn’t hurt that her father has been a youth coach for years and Tim Myslinski, who has coached their daughter for several years in lacrosse, now headed the football program.

“As a mother, you always worry about your child, but I know Mia better than anyone and she is one determined young lady that is physically and mentally strong,” Tracy Wagner said. “You can’t underestimate her strength and ability to pick up things very quickly. She is not your typical girl and once she suits up for practice and games, she is just one of the guys and her work ethic shows it.”

Wagner first broached the topic of playing football with her lacrosse coach last spring. Myslinski admittedly was surprised, but not shocked since he knew that she used to play with CSRA. He quickly found out just how much she followed, loved and admired the sport of football.

“She’s such a competitor on the field and a hard worker off of it,” Myslinski said. “When she came up to me to let me know she wanted to play, I asked if she was sure and told her she had such a great future in lacrosse. But she explained how much she loved the game — playing it and watching it, everything about it. How can I not tell someone to follow their dreams. That’s what we’re here for — to support these kids.”

Myslinski said it has been a blessing in disguise to have a female and especially one with a work ethic that has helped earn the respect of her teammates. So much so that Wagner was bestowed the honor of a “Dawg” by her fellow offensive lineman, their way of letting her into their O-line fraternity.

“People ask me what it’s like to coach a girl and I think they forget I coach 25 of them in the spring,” Myslinski said. “It makes you more attentive to how you handle coaching. The boys have also been so respectful. Having a girl on the team has been a great lesson in how to be a gentleman.”

Still, Wagner’s decision to actually play football was made more difficult because of the asthma that almost took her life in September 2008 when she was a sophomore in high school.

Wagner spent almost two weeks at the hospital, including four days in the ICU on a ventilator, after a head cold that traveled into her chest caused a severe life-threatening asthmatic attack. The doctor’s told Mia’s parents that she shouldn’t participate in sports for about six months.

But Wagner didn’t want to let her CSRA teammates down, so she responded, “That’s not going to happen.” To her doctor’s surprise, she was healthy enough to be cleared to play and back on the field just two weeks later. “I wanted to prove that I have heart and I love football,” she noted. “I wouldn’t give it up.”

As much heart as Wagner has exhibited, she’s also too smart and educated on the condition to allow herself to go too hard when the asthma is really flaring up, which occurs especially when weather conditions drastically change in a short period of time.

She took her time working her way back into full playing shape back then, and still today, will pull herself to the sideline during practice if need be. But there are also times when the coaches will have to make her sit when they believe her asthma is flaring up.

“I’ve been this way for so long that I don’t know anything different,” Wagner said. “I don’t know how to breath as a normal person. I push myself as hard as I can. I don’t like to use it as an excuse. But two years ago I almost died, so I do have a sense of when I should stop. I have to.”

If any positive has come as a result of her health problems it’s that the fight to raise funds and awareness for the American Lung Association now has a strong supporter. Through events such as the “Asthma Walk,” Wagner has raised approximately $5,000 for the cause.

“I figured I had a second chance at life, so I wanted to do something now to help,” said Wagner, who also plans to take on and raise money for a stair climbing event in February at HSBC Arena.

Her parents and coaches believe Mia has become an ideal role model for those with health issues to continue working hard to reach a dream.

“If you want something bad enough, you’ll work hard for it,” Tracy Wagner said. “As parents, we never allowed Mia to use her asthma as an excuse. When her asthma gets bad, it may take her longer, but she fights and it shows in her ability to always go the extra mile.”

Wagner has worked so hard at lacrosse, attending camps and playing in tournaments in the offseason, she has gone from a new player to the game as a freshman to the state’s No. 1 ranked goalie going into the 2011 spring season.
She is hoping to receive a scholarship to play in college and has been visiting prospective schools such as Ithaca, Nazareth, Gannon and Slippery Rock. She also plans to major in physical therapy.

“I got convinced to play by Coach Myslinski, who had heard I was a tough kid, so I gave it a try and ever since, have loved the sport,” said Wagner, who gave up softball to start for the junior varsity girls lacrosse team as a freshmen, then eventually moved into the varsity starting role last season. “It’s not an easy sport to just learn all of a sudden and it took a little while to get used to balls constantly hitting you and all of the bumps and bruises that come as a result. You’ve got to be tough and adjust to a fast sport.”

While lacrosse may help hold the key to Wagner’s future, she’ll never forget in her senior year of high school playing on the football team.