Women in Football: Amateur players tackle challenges to play the game they love

Football has long been a male-dominated domain, but women are gradually putting their own stamp on the sport. This week, Yahoo Sports will examine the inroads that women have made at every level of the game.

When she joined the top women’s tackle football team in Massachusetts 15 years ago, linebacker Vicky Eddy quickly realized that her debut season would include some unexpected challenges.

The Mass Mutiny practiced twice a week on tennis courts because they couldn’t find a more viable option.

Schools with turf fields charged more than Eddy and her teammates could afford to reserve one twice a week. Schools with grass fields turned them away out of fear their cleats would destroy the damp sod. A city park wasn’t a suitable alternative either since most players had 9-to-5 jobs and could only practice after dark.

The tennis courts at Northborough High School at least were cheap and well lit, but the surface was too hard for the Mutiny to do any tackling drills without risking injury. Even something as simple as practicing out patterns became tough because receivers and defensive backs had a hard time decelerating fast enough to avoid tumbling over the net.

“I’m so glad I was young because I don’t think my body could handle a full season like that now,” Eddy said. “It was a little bit like arena football. If you hit that net and fell onto the other side, it was a very hard landing.”

[WOMEN IN FOOTBALL SERIES: How far can female kickers go?The challenges that face amateur playersGrade-school girls develop an early love for the gameMaking varsity history in Hawaii • A chat with Natalie Randolph, female football pioneerBeth Mowins, Gayle Sierens and broadcasting’s biggest hurdle]

Stories like Eddy’s reflect the remarkable sacrifices female tackle football players make to play a sport once inaccessible to women. They jeopardize their bodies and give up time with their friends and families just like NFL players do without receiving any of the same perks

Whereas NFL stars earn millions of dollars in salary and endorsements, top female players typically pay several thousand dollars per year to cover their equipment and travel costs. Whereas NFL teams take charter flights and stay in luxury hotels, women’s teams endure day-long bus rides to road games and sleep four to a room at inexpensive motels. Whereas NFL games draw tens of thousands of fans to stadiums and entice millions more to watch on TV, women’s teams typically play in front of no more than a few hundred people.

The female tackle football players unfazed by those challenges hail from every background imaginable. There’s an award-winning rock singer from Chicago who was the first girl to play quarterback in a California varsity high school game. There’s a homicide detective from Maryland who was recruited to join the D.C. Divas when a coach spotted her playing flag football. And there’s an insurance underwriter from California who first tried out for the Central Cal War Angels on a dare from her cousin.

A lifelong passion for football is the one trait most players share. Many gravitated toward other sports with greater scholarship potential in high school, sought a new competitive outlet after their college careers were over and now go to great lengths to create more opportunities for the next generation of young women with football aspirations.

Instead of not playing for a season after the Sacramento Sirens took a year off from competition in 2014, defensive back Kaitlan Reiff drove four hours roundtrip to Reno three nights a week to play for the Nevada Storm. Eddy made an even longer commute as a student at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, driving to and from Hartford three days a week in a beat-up Ford Taurus with a broken air conditioner and radio.

“The dedication these women have is just phenomenal,” said Callie Brownson, a receiver and defensive back for the D.C. Divas and member of the U.S. national team. “You have women who are single mothers who sometimes work two jobs, women who leave practice at 9:30 p.m. and go work the night shift. That tells you how badly they want to be there and how much they love this sport.”

Defensive back Kaitlan Reiff puts on eyeblack before taking the field with the Nevada Storm. (Photo courtesy of Kaitlan Reiff)

An uphill battle for opportunities

The fight to grow women’s tackle football has been agonizingly slow in part because of the sport’s overwhelmingly male history. The first women’s league didn’t form until the early 1970s, more than a century after men began playing primitive forms of American football.

In 1965, Cleveland talent agent Sid Friedman organized a pair of women’s teams in Ohio and pitted them against each other as halftime entertainment during men’s games. The barnstorming tour was successful enough to eventually spawn a women’s professional league that initially featured teams in three states and later spread nationwide.

By far the most successful team of the era was the Toledo Troopers, who piled up a 61-4 record from 1971-79 and drew large enough crowds that players didn’t have to pay to play most seasons. Running back Linda Jefferson emerged as the team’s breakout star, producing five straight 1,000-yard seasons and appearing everywhere from billboards, to magazine covers, to ABC’s hit show “Superstars.”

“Toledo really embraced our team,” said former Troopers linebacker and offensive lineman Mitchi Collette. “Linda and I went to Burger King one time, and we couldn’t even eat. People just swarmed around us.”

At a time when women’s professional sports were still in their infancy, the novelty of the National Women’s Football League helped keep it afloat for awhile, but it eventually buckled when attendance declined and cross-country travel became too expensive. The Troopers folded in 1980. Within eight years, there were once again no women’s tackle football leagues in the United States.

Attempts to revive women’s football began by 1998, but competing leagues have consistently undercut one another. There have been as many as three different women’s leagues playing concurrently at times, spreading an already shallow talent pool too thin and making it impossible for any single league to gain traction.

The perception battle

When players reveal to strangers they play women’s tackle football, they sometimes receive a sobering reminder of how far they have to go in their quest for relevance. Many people quickly assume they play lingerie football for the 7-on-7 league best known for holding an annual game that airs opposite the Super Bowl halftime show.

“I found out that my dad told everyone at his office that I play football, and I said, ‘Dad, people probably think I play in the lingerie league,'” Reiff said. “I printed out a picture of me in uniform from one of my games and said, ‘Put this on your desk.’ Hopefully that will clear up any confusion.”

[Women in football: How far can female kickers go competing against men?

Even now that the Women’s Football Alliance has cemented itself as the strongest of today’s female tackle football leagues, growth has been slow.

Sixty-six teams were part of the bloated WFA last season, six apiece in Florida and Southern California alone. Having more than twice as many franchises as the NFL reduces travel costs since road games are often within driving distance, yet the competition throughout the eight-week regular season suffers greatly as a result.

Teams within a short drive of each other compete for the same players and audience, making it difficult for any of them to establish a foothold in a market. When the best players gravitate to one team in a region, the scores are often laughably one-sided as a result.

Reigning WFA champion Dallas played all three fellow Texas teams twice apiece during this past regular season and outscored them 396-0. Not until Dallas’ 31-21 championship game victory over fellow league power Boston did an opponent even come within 50 points.

“There’s too many teams in the league and it takes away from the competition,” said McKenzie Tolliver, a standout receiver and defensive back with the Seattle Majestics. “We have over 60 teams in the league. There aren’t enough talented athletes in our game yet to support that. We can’t continue to grow our league until we have enough solid core teams that people want to come watch.

“We have three teams in the Seattle area, and we’re a smaller big city. The talent is spread way too far. When we play Everett or Tacoma, it’s not a competitive game and people don’t want to watch that. We have to figure out how to condense the league and create better competition, but then the problem becomes money. How are teams going to afford travel?”

A deep-pocketed investor, lucrative TV contract or marquee corporate sponsor could instantly solve that problem, but at this time the league has none of those. The league cannot ask players to contribute more because many already struggle with the financial burden they now face.

Female tackle football players shell out a couple thousand dollars per year, risk injury and sacrifice time with their families to play the sport they love. (Photo courtesy of Kaitlan Reiff)

An expensive pursuit

In addition to purchasing their own helmets, pads and jerseys as rookies, female tackle football players also contribute annually to a team fund that goes to providing transportation to road games and reserving venues for practices and home games. The WFA also requires all players to have health insurance so they are able to pay for their own healthcare.

To limit players’ expenses, teams often cut costs by holding practices or walk-throughs inside a gymnasium or in a vacant parking lot. When a well-lit football field is too expensive to reserve, some teams will find a strip of grass at a park, turn on their vehicle headlights and practice until their batteries run dry.

Jen Welter, a longtime linebacker who went on to become the NFL’s first female coaching intern, recalls one season during which she and her teammates would comb their home field for gopher holes, shards of glass or used needles before every practice. Another year, Welter’s team played a game in Memphis at a field submerged in water from a recent storm.

“The mud was so deep it was almost like quicksand,” Welter said. “I blitzed off the edge, I went to tackle the quarterback and I went down in mud up to my knees. I couldn’t move, so obviously I didn’t get the sack. The coach called down and said, ‘Give Welter the headset.’ He’s just laughing. He’s like, ‘Welter, I don’t think you’re going to make many tackles today, kid.'”

One of the cruel ironies of women’s tackle football is that the best teams are penalized financially for their success. Any time a team advances in the playoffs, it must either pay to travel to its next opponent or reserve its home venue for an extra week.

In order to take its full roster to the WFA title game in Pittsburgh earlier this year, the Dallas Elite established GoFundMe pages and held a series of fundraisers. Among those was a team-wide carwash in which jersey-clad players had to recruit customers off the street and ask for donations.

“We were just trying to get the word out, ‘Hey we’re going to our championship game and we have to pay to play. Can you help us donate $2-$3?’” veteran linebacker Angellica Grayson said. “Sometimes I feel like a teenager asking for money, but we had to do whatever we could to get there without having to take money out of our pockets.”

Today’s female tackle football players dream of a day when they receive compensation for their sacrifices, but they’re also realistic enough to recognize that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. For now, they’ll celebrate small victories, like their championship game streaming on ESPN3. Or their highlights showing up occasionally on “SportsCenter.”

Or never again having to practice on tennis courts.

“What’s crazy is we made it to the championship game that year,” Eddy said. “We lost, but we always joked, if the game was played on tennis courts, we’d have crushed them.”

Callie Brownson is a member of the D.C. Divas and the U.S. National Team. (Photo by Douglas Charland)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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