MORGAN COUNTY - It started when Mystica Phillips needed to let the anger out.
"It was mostly the tackling, the aggressiveness," she says, her face lighting up as she looks out over John R. Dillon Field. "I'm very aggressive, and it was just one of the best things for me."
Mystica, a sophomore at Wartburg Central High School, lines up at defensive tackle for the Bulldogs football team. She's played since she was in second grade.
She often toes the sidelines during games and keeps close to the coaching staff, waiting for her chance to get in the game. Her reason for playing is a simple, yet powerful message.
"To prove that us girls can do just as much or even better than all these boys," Mystica said. "Everybody's saying that girls can't do it. And I'm out here proving it."
The 16-year-old girl tried other sports like softball, basketball, and - at one point - cheerleading. But she never got fulfillment out of any of those sports. She laughs when she remembers dancing out of rhythm with the rest of girls and knocking over a pyramid of tiny middle school dancers.
"I'm like, 'Mom, I don't want to do this. I want to do that ,'" Mystica said. "And I pointed at the field."
"Everybody's saying girls can't do it. And I'm out here proving it."— Luke Slabaugh (@LukeSlabaugh) October 24, 2018
Mystica Phillips lines up at defensive tackle for Wartburg football. My story on the path that got her here, and her message to girls everywhere (airs at 6 on @wvlt) @CoachKevinHuman : https://t.co/ziadQvANPI pic.twitter.com/fiINYbaJI6
She notes growing up with seven brothers in her house gave her an urge to fight back, to prove she was just as good as her siblings.
But Mystica's long, harsh path that fueled her anger and her desire to play football is just as inspiring as the work she puts on it.
As a child, Mystica was separated from her birth parents. She did not attend school. She ended up in a group home of sorts in Chattanooga, with nothing. She had no one, except for her younger brother, Larry.
That is, until Seglinda Phillips found out about her.
"She just tugged at my heart," Phillips, 44, said. "She had a very hard time and she was fighting a lot of stuff. And I just really wanted to help her and she pulled at my heart."
Phillips became Mystica and Larry's adoptive mother in November 2010. An assistant teacher and bus driver for Morgan County Head Start, Phillips has taken in seven foster children in hopes of giving them an opportunity to succeed in life.
Not once did she hesitate about Mystica playing football in middle school.
"The first practice, she came off the field crying," Phillips said. "I sat down with her and told her, 'It's your choice, if you want to play, that's fine, I'll support you. But you have to play like a boy.' You've got to get out there and get it done."
To her credit, she has. Granted, she's on a Wartburg team that's 4-5 - the school's best season since 2012 - so reps are few and far between.
She still has a believer in head coach Kevin Human, who gave her a chance to play on the Oakdale Middle School team several years ago.
"It's open to anybody that wants to play at Wartburg, whether they're male, female, it don't matter," Human said. "They don't cut her no slack, she doesn't cut them any either. I think it's going to benefit her at some point in her life."
Each day of practice comes with its own challenges. For one, Mystica does have to work harder to keep up with some of the players. She admits that herself.
Mystica Phillips turned a tough childhood into reps on the football field and success in the classroom.— Luke Slabaugh (@LukeSlabaugh) October 24, 2018
On her life as a DT, empowering women, and overcoming anger: https://t.co/ziadQvANPI pic.twitter.com/8Bd6Lr2P7u
"Sometimes they're faster," Mystica says. "I have to prove that I can be faster and I can be stronger. That's one of the problems, that sometimes I'm not."
But that's never enough to break her spirit. Sometimes, she enlists Seglinda's help and the two will work on upper body strength past midnight.
"I just want her to realize how far she's come," Phillips said. "And I want her to realize no matter what, she can go a lot farther. If it's what she wants and she fights for it, and she does the best she can do, she can go as far as she wants."
And her progress is remarkable. A girl who couldn't read some eight years ago is now one of the top students in her class now.
In an age where women across the nation are taking on bigger roles and empowering other women, Mystica's story has a similar theme. It's a message she wants Wartburg, a city with a population of around 900, to hear.
"They need to know it," Mystica says. "I think they need to know it. There's a lot of girls out here that want to do stuff. But people keep telling them they can't do it, so they don't do it.
"And I'm like, guys, just do it. Do it because you want to do it. Don't give up because people tell you that you can't do it. They're telling me I can't do it all the time and I still do it."