It’s a familiar scene. The professional football players don black and gold uniforms as coaches bark orders and organize drills. Pittsburgh is written across T-shirts and equipment. The defensive captain’s hair spills down the back of the hard-hitting defender’s uniform, partially obscuring the 12-year veteran’s number.
But that hair isn’t black. And it doesn’t belong to Troy Polamalu. The blonde hair belongs to 49-year-old Beth Amato, middle linebacker for the Pittsburgh Passion, the undefeated pro football team in the Independent Women’s Football League (iWFL).
The Passion (6-0), has yet to play a close game this season and is focused on winning an iWFL championship this season — at least, that’s what Amato hopes. Amato, a bartender and mother of three, retired from football one year ago, but couldn’t resist returning when her teammates begged her for one more season to finish on top. Not that she needed much convincing.
Amato, known as “G-Ma” to her teammates, grew up in the Pittsburgh area and fondly remembers her entire family gathering around the TV on Sundays to watch the Steelers. But she never thought she’d be able to play. That’s why, 12 years ago, when she heard about the Passion starting up, she couldn’t resist.
“This keeps you so young. It’s like when you’re a kid playing in the backyard,” Amato said.
Playing linebacker at age 49 sounds bizarre. And it is. But equally strange is a star quarterback commuting four hours each way, twice a week, solely to play football.
Lisa Horton is in her 10th season with the Passion and recently became the first woman to throw for 10,000 yards in a career. She works for the YMCA in Washington, D.C., and drives from Maryland for practice at least one day a week and then does the same most Saturdays for games. She could play for a team in the D.C. area, but that thought hasn’t crossed her mind.
“One of our rivals is there, the D.C. Divas. And Baltimore is down there,” Horton said. “But, this is my team. My family is here. I have to come back, you know?”
Horton’s teammates are impressed with her loyalty and commitment.
“That girl is the most dedicated, humble player you’ll ever meet. She’ll be the first one here [at practice] and the last one to leave,” Amato said.
At practice Tuesday, Horton made a rare mistake and threw an interception in a live drill. When the team paused for water, Horton, true to her reputation, remained on the field to work on her throw.
It’s easy for NFL players to claim they love football when they are handed million-dollar contracts. But because many Passion players aren’t compensated and those who are receive very little, it is easy to figure out why the women compete.
“We do it for the love of the game,” Amato said. “It’s the greatest game I’ve ever played.”
Teresa Conn, co-owner, head coach and former player, has been with the Passion since the team began in 2002. Back then, she drove from Erie to Belle Vernon — more than a three-hour commute — to be part of the team. Now, Conn, an enthusiastic leader called “T” by her players, is committed more than ever to making the Passion a success and providing opportunities for girls and women everywhere through football.
“I don’t think it’s a gender-based sport,” Conn said. “Either you love football or you don’t. And the people that love it want an opportunity to play.”
In practice, Conn patrols the field in a cutoff shirt and shorts with a whistle around her neck, shouting words of encouragement or criticism. The women are grateful for Conn’s dedication and willingness to go to great lengths to keep playing fun, but also competitive.
“I’ve been impressed with how competitive the women are,” said offensive coordinator Harvey Smith, a former Miami Dolphin and NCAA coach. “They’re very serious about perfecting their craft.”
This is Smith’s fourth year with the team, and he puts in quite a bit of time working with the Passion.
“There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than football,” he said.
Conn hasn’t had to work very hard to attract players. She recruited some, like third-year defensive lineman Melanie Hammond, after watching them play other sports. But many others came out for the team without prodding.
Conn thanks the Steelers for that.
“When you’re around Pittsburgh, you grow up loving football, and I think that the Steelers are taking care of us and making them want to play football,” Conn said.
Conn says that most U.S. cities with NFL teams have pro women’s teams and the interest is growing. The players hope to be pioneers who will help the next generation of women flourish.
“I think it’s opening big doors for younger girls coming up, that they can do anything guys do,” Hammond said.
“Hopefully, my daughters will play someday,” Amato said.
Until then, Amato has two remaining regular-season games and a championship ring to win. The team’s next home game will kick off at 7 p.m. Saturday against the Philadelphia Firebirds at Cupples Stadium.
The Passion is one of Pittsburgh’s two women’s football teams, the other being the Pittsburgh Force, which competes in the Women’s Football Alliance and not against the Passion.
In a few weeks, the iWFL playoffs will start, with the national championship July 26 in South Carolina. Conn and company hope to reach their goal of playing for a title — not for money, but because they love football.
“Whatever your passion is in life, you give a lot of hours to it,” Conn said. “This is ours.”
Hayes Gardner: email@example.com and Twitter @HayesGardner. First Published June 5, 2014 11:19 PM