Sometimes you need to make sacrifices to do what you love. Even if it means wearing a skirt and having the football team laugh at you.
Sam Heller ’08 is a sports anomaly — the only male member of the Yale field hockey team. And while his Y chromosome makes him ineligible to play in varsity contests — as well as distinctly different from the 23 players he practices with on Johnson Field — he has settled into his role as “that guy on the field hockey team” comfortably.
“He’s not a guy to us,” captain Chrissy Hall ’05 said. “He’s just another one of the girls, sort of.”
Heller started playing field hockey in eighth grade. He and several other classmates went out for the team as a joke. But when his friends all dropped the gag to join the football squad, Heller stuck around.
“Before that, there wasn’t really a sport I was good at,” Heller said. “I wasn’t good at throwing and catching. So I went through pretty much every other sport before I got to field hockey.”
While men had gone out for the field hockey team at Wayland High School before, Heller was the first to actually play competitively when he arrived his freshman year. A new athletic director allowed Heller to join the team, but getting to play his sport competitively did not come without some social consequences.
“Guys have to go through a lot of stuff,” Heller said. “There’s always a couple [of us] — but because there are so few it’s like we’re freaks.”
The mandatory skirt did not add much to Heller’s sense of security either.
“It was [athletic director Martha Jameson’s] policy that I had to wear a skirt,” Heller said. “It sucked. If they wanted to be considerate, they could have changed the uniform to shorts. There were three of us [guys] — but no.”
Heller helped lead the Wayland squad to their best season in school history in 2003. The team finished second in the league and went all the way to the sectional semifinals. By rights of school size, the team should have played in the less-competitive Division II, but because the team had males playing, it was bumped up to Division I. For his individual efforts, Heller was awarded First Team League All-Star and Second Team Metro West Daily News All-Star honors in 2003.
But when high school ended, Heller needed a new way to play his sport. So he e-mailed head coach Ainslee Lamb to see if he could help out at practice. On the other end of things, Lamb was skeptical.
“I receive frequent e-mails like [Sam’s],” she said. “In order to make sure someone wants to do it they have to jump through a few hoops — Clearinghouse, medical, eligibility meeting, drug waiver — if you don’t want it, you won’t go through the hoops.”
Needless to say, Heller got past the obstacles.
“Sam showed very early on that this was a priority for him,” Lamb said. “And I’m glad we could facilitate that for him.”
But even after he earned a spot on the field, Heller still had his work cut out for him. The Bulldogs’ Johnson Field is a turf field, which lets stickhandlers perform many skills and techniques that do not work on longer, slower grass. Heller played his high school hockey on grass and had to adjust to a faster, more skill-oriented style of play.
“Being a guy helped me more on grass,” Heller said. “It’s a slower game. I play defense, and I could chase down every breakaway and muscle the ball away. That doesn’t work on turf — you have to have skill.”
In addition to learning to play on turf, Heller also often draws tough assignments in practice. Lamb pits Heller — a defender — against forwards to challenge them with a fast, strong opponent.
For most of this fall, Heller has marked forward Buffy Topp ’05 in drills and scrimmages. Topp leads all Yale scorers this season with 11 goals, and her 22 points lead the team as well.
Lamb believes that some of Topp’s success in her senior campaign can be attributed to being paired with Heller in practice this fall.
“One of the reasons that you want men practicing with you is that they’re faster and stronger,” Lamb said. “Part of Topper’s success this season has been working against Sam every practice and scrimmage.”
Topp agreed with her coach’s assessment.
“He’s really quick,” she said. “He challenges me in the circle.”
Although Heller cannot play in varsity contests, he was able to play in the club team’s matches this fall. The club team went undefeated this fall, including a 9-0 thrashing of the Harvard junior varsity team.
Heller said that the club matches are not very competitive, but there is no alternative in sight, due to the obvious lack of numbers to fill out a men’s varsity squad — at Yale or anywhere else.
Lamb agreed that there is a general lack of men in the sport — that’s why she saw in Heller a unique chance for her to help keep men playing field hockey.
“At our annual convention, the American University coach said the sport for men was dying, and he begged us to keep the sport alive for men,” Lamb said. “Then Sam e-mailed me and gave me an opportunity to keep men in the sport — so I took it.”
And while Heller may not get to compete with the varsity team, he does get some very nice perks.
“The laundry service is key,” Heller said. “At first I was washing my practice gear with the rest of my stuff, but I only had time to do laundry every couple of weeks. The smell was driving people away from my room.”
As for being “that guy” — a status that earned him the nickname “Field Hockey” in high school — Heller seems to have found a place where the general populace is a little more understanding.
“It’s such a non-issue here. I say, ‘Oh, I play field hockey,’ and people say, ‘Oh, okay,'” Heller said. “At home people thought it was a big deal. People thought I was doing it to get girls. That wouldn’t work anyway — they all dated football players.”