Seeing Title IX through different lenses
Title IX changed my life by Brenda Holmgren
Posted: Saturday, January 1, 2022 - 8:18 AM
Title IX changed my life.
It has allowed me to live my dream as a student-athlete, a teacher, a coach, an official, a mother, and now as a grandmother.
But even before the passage of Title IX federal legislation, my athletic journey started when I was very young in Milaca. I was five years old, a year younger than my brother, Bruce, when my dad brought us to play t-ball. What possessed my dad to bring us both down, I’ll never know, because it was 1963 and “girls didn’t play ball.” But I’m so thankful for forward-thinking men like my dad and Herb Claffy. My dad introduced us, and asked Mr. Claffy if it was OK if I played. I’ll never forget his answer that was loud, proud and bold enough so all the boys could hear it, too: “Why of course you can play, put your glove on and go to first base.” I put the glove on the wrong hand and ran to third. I didn’t know the bases or how to play . . . yet. It wasn’t in the cards for my brother to continue to play, but I never stopped going. I played every summer through the sixth grade.
The seventh through ninth grades were a struggle, even more so than then being an awkward teenager growing up during the 1960s and those lovely junior high years. There were no sports for girls, and I never even considered trying out playing on any of the boys’ teams. My only athletic opportunities were in Physical Education, which was a real struggle with not very competitive girls in class, and playing a pick-up game once in a while with the neighborhood kids. I did try out for the cheerleading squad, but was never selected. I’m not sure how supportive I would’ve been as a cheerleader as I was possibly a better athlete than many boys on the teams we were supporting.
And then miraculously, Title IX was passed in 1972. The passage of federal legislation that created equitable opportunities was a blessing for female athletes just looking for a chance.
The first year that my high school had girls sports was the 1973-74 school year, and basketball was in the fall, volleyball in the winter and track and field in the spring. I was a sophomore in high school and so happy that my sports journey was finally going to continue. Little did I realize that 50 years later, I’d still be enjoying stepping on the court or track as a coach, official, parent, and now, as a grandparent.
I have flashbacks of memories of my time as a high school participant. In basketball, our uniforms weren’t available yet, so we had to wear the oversized boys’ jerseys for the first month of games. When our uniforms finally arrived, they were the uniforms for all three sport seasons.
That isn’t the only challenge girls’ sports encountered in those first years. In volleyball, we had the net strung between the “tire” standards that were used for physical education classes. That the net sagged in the middle was the norm in most of the gyms as we played our matches. In track and field, we had our basketball sneakers that we trained and ran meets in. How did we ever survive those first years? But we didn’t just survive, we thrived!
My senior year, we made it to the district championship in basketball, finishing runner-up and putting the first-ever trophy in the trophy case. My senior year also saw me wanting to play the first sport that I loved, and I tried out and played on the baseball team. Yep, on the boys team as we didn’t have a softball team yet. Again, Mr. Claffy, who was now our Athletic Director, supported my choice, as did the boys and the coaching staff. I did get to play in a couple of games, and I so appreciate that opportunity. I also appreciate that the guys understood and supported my love of the game and made me feel as just another player on the team.
Mr. Claffy was an incredible advocate for Title IX. He would sit coaches down when making out the gym schedule for sharing space that first year and say, “This is a fair schedule. Don’t complain.” He would later be selected for induction into both the halls of fame for the Minnesota High School Coaches and Minnesota Football Coaches associations. He was also a member of the first induction class of the Milaca High School Hall of Fame. This 1976 graduate would join him in the Milaca Hall of Fame in 2015.
It’s not until later in life that we look back and understand how a coincidence becomes a life-changing event. In my junior year, our schedule had expanded to play other schools, and I played basketball and ran in a track and field invitational at Elk River High School. I remember walking into Elk River, seeing the posters, feeling the energy of the school, and saying to myself “Wouldn’t this be a cool school to be a part of?” From my lips to God’s ears, six years later, I’m walking into Elk River High School for the only teaching job interview I’ve ever had.
While in college, I had started to officiate high school volleyball, but when I graduated and became the head volleyball coach at Elk River High School, I had to give that up. Oh, those first years I coached were tough. I was a new teacher, newly married and had started a family, and I didn’t quite understand how to best prepare teams or develop a program as I’d never really experienced that as a player or as an assistant coach. I needed to improve my coaching, and what became a watershed moment was attending a volleyball clinic in 1985 conducted by Russ Rose, the now longtime head coach of perennial national power, Penn State. It influenced not only me, but all who attended. My coaching journey had begun.
In my 20 years of being a head volleyball coach, there are so many memories of players, matches, successful seasons and some not-so-successful seasons. I am certainly proud of the young women who played in the program, two of which were my daughters, Kari and Kelly. During Kari’s playing days, her older brother, Ryan, would drive three hours from college and announce at the games, then turn around and drive back, all so he could watch his sister play. Sports had always been a big influence in the Holmgren household. My late husband, Roger, had also been a teacher and coach. I continued that tradition. Even after retiring from teaching, continued with the coaching. I just finished my 40th spring season of coaching track and field. And all three of our children, now in their 30s and 40s, continue to coach today.
I am also proud of the women, and one young man, who decided to coach volleyball after their high school, and for many, college, playing days were over. It’s been 20 years since I was the head coach, but I still run into former players who now have coached their daughters on club teams, have been assistant or head coaches themselves, and even a few that became college coaches. The young man I reference is Craig Case. He walked into my gym, and because he loved volleyball, became my high school manager for two years. He was more than a manager as I had him running drills, tossing and hitting at the players developing his own skills. He continued playing on college clubs teams, constantly pursuing his love of the game. Over the past 20-plus years, he’s been an assistant and head coach in a number of colleges, finally settling in at a Division II college in Texas where he was recently selected coach of the year in his conference and leading his team to its first-ever NCAA playoff berth.
Being a head coach for 20 years is a rarity these days. It can be very wearing, on both you as a person and your family. The fundraisers, the preseason, the regular season and postseason, the banquet, the club season and organizing teams, coaches, clothing and schedules . . . all that, and full-time teaching, too. It was good to take a break. That fall after I retired as a coach, I traveled to watch both of my daughters play in college. I put a lot of miles on my vehicle, watching matches three and four times a week, running all over the Upper Midwest. I have some great “snapshots” of memories of their playing days. Now I travel and watch them as they coach their respective teams. But lest you think I walked away from coaching high school volleyball, I did not.
The following season, the freshman volleyball position opened and I now could really help young players in developing their skills, but also help them navigate the emotional journey of being a teenager. I’d start many a practice discussing various topics that always pertained to them as a student, an athlete, and as a person. I view those discussions as being invaluable in their development of life skills. My youngest daughter believes I softened in my old age, being a “paper coach” as I wasn’t as tough and demanding on 13- and 14-year-olds as I was when I was a head coach. I was still demanding, but I enjoyed being involved in the beginning of their journey instead of the pressure later during their varsity years. It was during these 10 years as being the freshman coach that a re-engaged as an official in volleyball at the high school level. With eight high schools located within 10 to 15 minutes, and having a very understanding assignor, I could make both the junior varsity and varsity matches. After retiring from teaching, I’ve now added officiating at the junior college and Division III levels. I’ve been lucky enough over these years to also be selected to work some postseason matches in both high school and college.
I must like being busy, as after my second daughter was born, and as a way to make a few extra bucks, I added officiating weekend kids’ basketball. It’s been 37 years since I first stepped onto a basketball court as an official, and just like all longtime officials, there are more than a few stories. Over these past 35 years of high school seasons, including 17 years that also included officiating Division II and III college basketball, l still look forward to working with great partners for the teams we’ve been assigned. But I also still get nervous. I want to bring the best game I have for the players and coaches, and as a friend reminded me, “We get older, they stay the same age.”
During the early days of girls basketball, I remember hearing that some of the men officials “wouldn’t be caught dead” refereeing a girls high school basketball game. And yet, here was Elliott Perovich and Wayne Dietz, two officials that had worked the boys basketball state tournament, refereeing one of our games. I didn’t realize until I started officiating who these gentlemen really were and their profound influence as officials. Later, I did get a chance to officiate a game with Mr. Dietz, who I loved and respected dearly. He was such a kind man.
As female officials, we faced challenges. When I first started in the late 1980s, there were many occasions I was the first female official refereeing at that school. Dressing rooms were non-existent, and yes, bathrooms, classrooms, the nurses’ office, the Special Ed room, wherever they could put me, was where I had to dress to get ready for a game. Being the first female official, many players saw me as an oddity, but as soon as I called that first foul, I then just became another “stripes.”
During those hectic days of refereeing high school and college basketball games, going four, five and sometimes six days a week, I’d bring my young daughters along with me. At that time, I was the rare female official who was married and had kids, which is a trend that is now happily changing. I had understanding partners who enjoyed spoiling the girls with candy and attention, and made the long rides to games more fun. I never thought parents or fans in the stands recognized us as officials, but one night I was asked from the stands if I had brought the kids. I responded, “Not tonight, it’s a school day tomorrow.” Later when my daughters were older and either didn’t have time, or want to go to mom’s game, I remember the one rare middle of the week night I didn’t have a game, and came home after school and started making dinner. My daughters asked “Are you making dinner? What are you doing home?” That one kinda hurt as I realized I did devote a lot of the winter days to officiating. I tried to make up for it during the summer months when we had time off from school as I spent both time and money going on our many adventures. A goal for my high school basketball career was to work playoff games, always hoping to be selected for the state tournament. I’ve never counted how many state tournaments I was selected to officiate at as that wasn’t important to me, but I do remember my first state tournament game was in 1991, and my last was in 2020. Being a female in a male dominated avocation, and having a reputation of being tough, but fair, I was selected in many of those years. My ego allows me to say I refereed the state tournament in four decades, my 30s, 40s, 50s, and my last one at age 63.
A few years ago, I was recognized with a Breaking Barriers Award. I think a friend of mine best summed it up when he said, “You’re getting an award for having fun for 30 years?” Yes, yes, I am. I have had so much fun and sports has added so much to my life. Now I get to sit in the stands as a grandparent and watch my three granddaughters as they start their own journeys through sports. I am so proud of them. I’m so proud of being able to be involved for the 50-year existence of Title IX. I’m so proud of the women (and men) who came before me that helped created the opportunity for the equal chance for girls to play sports, and I’m so proud of the young women who now continue to carry on playing, coaching and officiating.
And, yes, I am getting a bit softer as I’ve gotten older.
I think becoming a grandparent really helped that in my life journey. I recently re-watched the movie “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,“ about Mr. Fred Rogers and his television program helping children with sometimes some very difficult life subjects. In the movie, Mr. Rogers asked the young man who was doing research for a magazine article he would be writing about Mr. Rogers... “Think about the people who loved you into being the person you are today.”
As I close and reflect on the impact of Title IX, so many things keep flooding in:
- Girls basketball going to a smaller ball. I was a sophomore in college when it happened. It totally messed with what little shot I had!
- The other change was the three-point line. It completed changed the offensive strategy and the art of the three-point shooter made teams have to play person-to-person defense instead of sitting in a zone.
- Turning a negative officiating experience that nearly made me turn in my whistle into an epiphany of “We get to do this!”
- Being selected to officiate in the Division III Final Four
- Being part of an all-female crew to officiate a varsity boys basketball game.
- Serving as an officials’ observer for the Minnesota State High School League and college level
As we celebrate the 50th year of Title IX, there are so many wonderful people who have loved me to being the person I am today. I hope I can give as much as I have received.
Thank you, Title IX. I am forever grateful.
Editor’s note: Brenda Holmgren continues officiate and serve in leadership capacities. She is the first female to be elected president of the Minneapolis Officials Association, one of Minnesota’s biggest groups that provide officiating services for football and basketball.