There is a drill in American football that is appropriately known as “bull in the ring.” The idea is simple: There are two people in the middle of a circle. The person who is able to knock the other one down first wins and stays in. One by one, each player has a chance to prove their worth, and the last person standing in the middle by the time the whole team has had a shot is the winner.
Flashback about a decade to a small town in Idaho at a youth football practice and the last (wo)man standing at the end of this game is young Taurie Pogue. And at the end of the next practice, Taurie is once again crowned the victor. And at the next, and the next.
As her father, Lisle Pogue, who was also the assistant coach of her team, recalls it, Taurie won this game every time except for one.
Fast forward to today, and Taurie is one of just four girls on the Cal softball team not from California. She grew up in Meridian, Idaho, just outside of Boise — population 83,596. Her childhood was largely composed of outdoor activities: playing in the woods with her two older brothers, Taylor and Trevor Pogue, doing archery and of course participating in every youth sport known to man.
“She was an energizer bunny from the time she was able to walk,” says Taurie’s mom, Vicki Pogue.
That energy was largely channelled into following in her brothers’ footsteps.
“I wanted to be just like them,” Taurie says.
And like them she was. She emulated them when it came to nearly everything: when they went out hunting, she went out hunting; when they wanted to get rowdy, she joined in too; and when she was 7, as her brothers were signing up for football, she made sure to be included in that as well.
“The guy that was signing everyone up turned to Taurie and says ‘Would you like to be one of the cheerleaders?’ And Taurie says ‘No! I want to play football,’” Vicki Pogue says.
Her athleticism was immediately apparent, and, despite her long flowing blonde hair, she was placed in the all-important position of quarterback.
“There are pictures of me, hair flying everywhere, stiff-arming guys,” Taurie says, “Back then I didn’t care, I thought it was so awesome. I always thought ‘Oh man, I love football!’”
As she advanced from flag to tackle football at the age of 9, like many girls in a “boys’ world,” Taurie faced difficulty being accepted as an equal. Despite her domineering size and skill, many of the boys refused to hit her.
Many may regard this as a sign of the civility of the human race — that young boys are so respectful that even when a girl welcomes the possibility of intense physical competition and contact, the boys simply will not comply. But to a young and fiercely competitive Taurie, this fact wasn’t comforting. It was infuriating.
“A lot of the boys didn’t want to hit me because I was a girl and I was their friend and I was like ‘What? Why not? Come on,’” Taurie says.
Wanting to be able to compete at the same level as her male peers, Taurie did something that many young girls would never have the guts to — she chopped off her long blonde tresses.
“I told my mom: ‘I want to cut it so that no one will see it, so that way they won’t see me differently and they’ll hit me,’” Taurie says.
And her short hair did just that — perfectly concealed under her helmet, she at last appeared as one of the boys. She even blended in so well that some of them simply would not believe her when she told them she was a girl.
“By the time I stopped playing there were still two or three guys on the team who said, ‘There’s no way you’re a girl. Nobody wins bull in the ring like that every week, you just can’t be a girl,’” Taurie says.
HHer domination on the field was only bolstered with her new hair. She was still one of the biggest and strongest competitors, continuing to play quarterback and beginning to assist her team at middle linebacker. Her string of bull in the ring championships was perhaps the biggest indication of her strength and ability to win.
“Taurie just had a chip on her shoulder. She wanted to not be treated like a girl. She wanted to play at the boys’ level,” Lisle Pogue says.
Her reign as queen of the ring was unprecedented — and it certainly entitled young Taurie to a bit of cockiness. But, like many of the best athletes, Taurie didn’t allow her success to go to her head.
Customarily the winner of bull in the ring was exempt from the sprints that inevitably came at the end of practice. It’s quite a reward, and it’s one that most youth football players would gladly accept. But Taurie didn’t. Even after defeating all of her teammates, she would approach the line with them and finish every last sprint.
But youth football is a bubble, a world where one’s sex has little bearing on their physical ability. Eventually, though, the bubble popped and the boys caught up. After three years of tackle football, Taurie found that she was no longer the biggest and the strongest. Her growth had begun to slow just as her male counterparts’ had started to take off — and it made the continuation of her football career difficult.
When her parents made her quit at the age of 12, she put up a fight. She didn’t understand why she had to give up something that she was so good at. Her stubbornness couldn’t be attributed to adolescent naivety, precisely, but more to an inner strength that had henceforth never let her down.
“I always thought ‘I am going to play in the NFL with Donovan McNabb for the Eagles,’” Taurie says.
The end of football, however, was just the beginning of Taurie’s even more competitive athletic career. Throughout her youth she had played a myriad of sports, from basketball and archery to volleyball and, of course, softball.
Quitting football allowed her to focus on other sports and simultaneously saved her from the very likely possibility of incurring an injury that could have prevented her from playing other sports to the best of her ability in the future.
“We were worried about her knees because we knew she was going to play volleyball, basketball and softball,” Vicki Pogue says. “In hindsight, it was the best thing to do because we didn’t want her to get hurt.”
As she cut out volleyball and basketball in her freshman and sophomore years, respectively, softball proved to be the last sport standing.
“Softball was the sport that I was best at and the one that I enjoyed the most,” Taurie says.
Her transition to becoming a single-sport athlete proved to be advantageous, as she was heavily recruited to play college softball — a sport that she has continued to excel and grow at throughout the course of her career — and eventually committed to Cal during her sophomore year. There is no doubt, however, that her participation in numerous, diverse youth sports, particularly football, instilled in her a form of competitiveness and athleticism that helped propel her to the level of sport that she plays today.
“The way that I grew up has definitely created the athlete and the person that I am because my work ethic is unreal and my body holds,” Taurie says.
And that work ethic has indeed proved to be unreal — in her freshman year, she received a Pac-12 All-Freshman Honorable Mention thanks to her stellar hitting. This year, her performance has only improved. Thus far, she leads her team with five home runs and comes second in RBIs, and with more 20 games left in the season, there is still time to add to those stats.
“She finds a way to win,” Lisle Pogue says. “She has this attitude that never quits and now she’s playing as well as she ever has in her life.”
Though collegiate softball has brought her a whole new set of challenges — ones that she continues to enthusiastically face and overcome — Taurie sometimes misses the sheer physicality of football and the other contact sports that she used to play.
When she goes home, usually with the help of her brothers, she satisfies her appetite for rougher sports. And so, despite the fact that she has once again grown her hair out, every time she steps out onto the softball field, the fiercely competitive and immensely determined little girl within her has not changed one bit.
Sophie Goethals covers softball. Contact her at [email protected]