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Remembering 'Aggie'

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New Castle resident Stanley Rifner looks at some of his numerous clippings detailing his aunt, Aggie Rifner’s, bid to play on the Trojan football team. Her story gained national attention at the time.
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This was the photo that appeared with Alice Shortgen’s obituary when she died Feb. 10.
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A Sunday magazine inserted inside the Louisville Courier-Journal highlighted on its cover a story inside about New Castle’s Agnes Rifner, the “Gridiron Girl.”
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Aggie was No. 29 on the roster, but definitely number one in the hearts of Trojan fans, even though she only played in one game.

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

Devoted wife, mother and grandmother. Teacher. Homemaker.

Oh, and one-time drop-kicker for her high school football team.

Agnes Marie Rifner Shortgen was all of the above. But what makes her life story especially unique is what she did one fall in 1943 as a New Castle High School student. Decades before Title IX opened the door for women athletes, Agnes Rifner was wearing a football uniform, trying to kick points after touchdowns for the Trojans.

“Aggie” as she was affectionately known, died Feb. 10 in Fort Wayne at the age of 91. But what a life she lived.

One game, instant fame

Born in Mt. Summit on June 5, 1927, to Oliver and Anna (Barth) Rifner, Aggie played in just one game. Yet that singular appearance in the Trojans’ contest with Morton Memorial made her famous not only across the state, but nationwide and even, in a way, internationally.

“Back when she was playing, World War II was going on and she got letters from soldiers all over the world,” said New Castle resident Stanley Rifner, a nephew of Aggie’s. “A gentleman who had a radio program in Chicago or New York wanted her to come for an interview and offered to pay all the expenses. But my grandparents, Oliver and Anna Rifner, said no. They felt like a lady just didn’t do that back then.”

To say Aggie took a different path was an understatement. While her sisters were both destined to be nuns, one even serving as a teacher at St. Anne’s Catholic School here in New Castle, athletics were always an important part of Aggie’s life. She was intrigued by her older brother, John, who was a fullback on Griz’ Baker’s Trojan football team before graduating in 1939. He went on to fight in World War II, serving his country in North Africa.

“They practiced where Eastwood school is now on 22nd Street,” Stanley Rifner remembered. “She started kicking the ball around in practice.”

Courier-Times writer Ed Ogborne highlighted Aggie in one of his many poignant columns.

“In the fall of 1943 she was a cute blond high school junior who used to wander over to the field where the high school team was practicing and casually drop-kicked nine out of ten tries through the uprights, just for the fun of it,” Ogborne wrote. “Aggie got so good at it, Coach Griz Baker figured there was no reason he shouldn’t have a girl on his football team just to boot a few points after touchdown.”

There was nothing in the Indiana High School Athletic Association rules against it – at least at first.

But Stanley Rifner said there was some family tension.

“Dad didn’t say much,” Stanley said of Aggie’s brother, John. “I guess Uncle Bob really didn’t like the idea.”

Word spread like wildfire, even during a time with no social media, internet or 24-hour television news cycles. 

“Agnes is our celebrity,” the 1944 Rosennial stated. “Some schools have their Eleanor Holmes (a lawyer who broke several gender barriers), some have their Alice Marbles (women’s tennis pioneer) but New Castle has its Agnes Rifner. Her picture has been featured in newspapers from coast to coast, because she is the only girl to have played on a high school football team.”

Even the Louisville Courier-Journal featured Aggie in its Sunday newspaper magazine.

“If you were out scouting for a football player, you’d look at pretty 16-year-old Agnes Rifner of New Castle, Ind. and then the scenery. After all, girls just don’t play football.”

‘We want Aggie’

Courier-Times archives captured the build-up of excitement about Aggie getting into a game. One story about the Muncie Central game that year said: “With a New Castle point after touchdown coming up, the crowd of 1,200 began to howl ‘We want Aggie.’”

Coach Baker disappointed the crowd on that night, but later that same month, Aggie got her chance. Although her two extra point attempts were unsuccessful, she had made history.

“The ball game was highlighted by, perhaps for the first time in Indiana High School football, the appearance of a girl in a boys grid game,” The Courier reported.

IHSAA intervenes

Among the many who took notice, however, were IHSAA officials. Soon, headlines of a much different nature were telling Aggie’s stories, like “Girl Kicker’s Case Up Before the IHSAA.”

“It now seems as if Agnes Rifner, 16-year-old junior drop-kicker for the New Castle high school Trojan football team, has played in her 1st – and last – game,” the article reported. “Principal J.R. Craw of the local high school said today he had received a copy of a special ruling made Saturday in Indianapolis by the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s board of control forbidding participation in inter-school contests of mixed teams, including boys and girls.”

The ruling was passed in a 4-2 vote. Interestingly, one of those dissenting happened to be A.L. Trester, the man for whom basketball’s mental attitude award is named.

Aggie took the ruling in stride, perhaps a key quality in a life she lived fully.

“Are you disappointed?” Coach Baker asked her.

“Yes, in a way,” she replied.

“In what way?” Baker asked.

“Well, I just wanted to play,” Aggie said.

Life after football

As her life after high school unfolded, play Aggie did. She made Fort Wayne newspaper headlines more than once with her Senior Games efforts, where Aggie competed in table tennis, shot put, discus, horseshoes, swimming, biking, croquet and other track and field events.

Stanley Rifner remembers family gatherings in New Castle and Mt. Summit, which naturally included some athletic competitions. “We’d meet at Memorial Park and sometimes at Lloyd and Daphne Williams’ house in Mt. Summit,” he remembered. “We’d play baseball in that big field he had south of the house.”

When asked if Aggie ever played, he replied, “Oh yeah.”

A Rifner’s name is on the New Castle Fieldhouse wall, but it’s not Aggie’s. Stanley said Scott Rifner’s name was there for his wrestling prowess. But he believes what his aunt did merits some type of recognition as well.

“I really couldn’t believe it until I started digging all the articles out,” he said of his aunt. “It’s like they opened a door to the past, because nobody in the family really talked about it.”

Big family still close

Aggie may not have kicked any extra points on the football field, but by all accounts, she was, indeed a huge success in other aspects of life. She was mother to ten children, a family that’s still so close, Stanley says they meet monthly and have a meal together.

Karann Hawks, a cousin to Stanley Rifner, recalled that Aggie and her husband, Bob, were toasted by national radio personality Casey Casem who dedicated a song to them on his syndicated countdown show. The song? “Through the Years” by Kenny Rogers.

They were married 67 years, a union that ended when Bob died Feb. 3, 2019. Seven days later, Aggie followed.

Her funeral was more of a celebration, however, in honor of a life well-lived. A life lived fully and uniquely. A life that became a statement for girls everywhere, even as she was laid to rest.

“Uncle Bob had male pall bearers,” Stanley said. “She had all girls as pall bearers.”