PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ Tanice Hamilton yanked at the black bandanna hiding the cornrows under her helmet. Teammates slapped her shoulder pads as she lined up at middle linebacker. At the snap, Hamilton threw her body into the line, absorbing punishment as she hunted for the ball carrier.
Across the field, Carmen Garcia _ nicknamed ``Icebox'' by her teammates _ exploded off the line, blocking two boys at once as her teammate ran by her on a sweep.
Another player, Erica Maldonado, took a three-point stance on the defensive line, standing up blockers as they tried to dislodge her.
The threesome are the first girls to participate in a junior development program held each summer by the NFL. The camp teaches the fundamentals of tackle football _ and a few life skills to kids, most of them from the inner city.
``You'd never know they're females by looking at 'em,'' said Don Tamelleo, a longtime high school coach and the camp's director. ``They hit that good. They get in the three-point stance. They get tackled. Nothing different.''
Hamilton, Garcia and Maldonado are all from Providence, and they expect to be treated like boys when they're on the field _ and they are.
Helmets and pads on, they are indistinguishable from the others. The coaches say they hit like boys. Hamilton even trash-talks like boys, her teammates say.
They're pioneers of sorts in this program for kids between 12 and 14 years old. The monthlong introduction to football and instruction in broader themes, such as sportsmanship and responsibility, is being held in 22 cities in the United States.
Hamilton, the first one to sign up, took it as a challenge. NFL representatives talked about it at her middle school, but when she asked if she could join, they said it was too rough for girls. Her mother told her the same. Her older brother carped at her for considering it.
``I was like, 'Watch me,''' the 13-year-old said. ``I have a lot of courage in myself. I believe I can do it. I can tackle these boys.''
She admitted she was scared once she strapped on the pads and stared at some boys almost twice her height and weight. She got banged up. She got razzed.
That is, until in a tackling drill one day, she leveled one of the boys _ and earned their respect.
``She just took him down,'' recalled 13-year-old Addy Adekeye, her teammate on the Raiders. ``It was a hard hit. We were like 'Ooh, that was good.'''
Garcia and Maldonado said they joined so they could hit people too. They knew football would be a violent game, but they were curious and thought it would be fun.
In 1998, the NFL started the program for 12-to-14-year-old kids to bring organized football back to America's urban centers. Youths had quit playing because there were no coaches to teach the fundamentals of the game, said Scott Lancaster, senior director of youth football development with the NFL.
The 24-day program outlines workout regimens, basic plays, and teaches skills such as blocking and tackling. There's a booklet for coaches to follow, broken into minute-by-minute segments.
``Football involves a lot of supervision. You can't just go out and throw the pads and helmet on and have someone there to teach you the game,'' said Lancaster, a Rhode Island native. ``You have to be well-prepared to play. I think that became an obstacle, so we tried to design the program so the coach can be well prepared and the kid can get a better experience out of it.''
The Providence camp tries to take about a hundred vulnerable youths away from drugs, hard streets and the struggle to survive.
``When they come on the field, this is their escape,'' said Tamelleo, looking out at the surrounding neighborhood of creaky, paint-deprived townhouses. ``It's like they're going into heaven. They need self-control, teamwork, goals. If we don't reinforce it, where are some of them going to get it?''