Pittsburgh women have 'Passion' for tackling football
Candice Snyder, the quartarback, tries to fire up her team, the Pittsburgh Force, as they are losing 21-0 at half time to Keystone Assault in women's football.
Share with others:
It's the fastest-growing team sport in America, and it's more popular here than anywhere else in the country.
It's tackle football -- for women.
Women began playing tackle football on formal teams in 1999, when the Minnesota Vixen and the Lake Michigan Minx (Milwaukee) were formed, and played each other in a series of exhibition games.
Today there are 128 teams in three leagues: the Women's Football Alliance (62 teams), the Women's Spring Football League (15 teams), and the Independent Women's Football League (51 teams).
Three -- the Pittsburgh Passion, the Pittsburgh Force, and the Three Rivers Xplosion -- are local.
The Passion, founded in 2002, is the oldest women's team in the area, and one of the best in the country. The Passion plays in the WFA. The Force, founded in 2008, also plays in the WFA. The Xplosion, founded in 2011, plays in the Women's Spring Football League.
Most are 11-player teams, with rules similar to those in the NFL. But the WSFL has a division for eight-player teams -- the Xplosion is in it -- and the IWFL has a division for six-player teams.
More are on the way. "We went from seven teams last season to 15 this season," said Randall Fields, administrator of the Women's Spring Football League. "We expect to double again -- to 30, 32 teams -- in 2013." The WFA and the IWFL plan to add teams, too.
The surge of interest in playing football was triggered when the U.S. women's soccer team won the World Cup in 1999, Mr. Fields thinks.
He said the sight of Brandi Chastain "ripping off her jersey after scoring the winning goal, inspired a lot of women."
Lisa King, who with her husband, Jeff, founded the WFA, thinks women always wanted to play tackle football, but never before had the opportunity. Ms. King was an All-American soccer player at Bucknell. But, she said, "the sport I always wanted to play was football, but they wouldn't let me."
In addition to her duties as a league official, Ms. King plays wide receiver for the Central Cal War Angels.
The women play for love, not money. Although typically sponsors pick up the cost of their equipment, they receive no compensation. The coaches, too, are volunteers.
The players range in age from 18 to 58 (Denise Williams, a tight end on the Force). Many are mothers with children at home. They come from all walks of life. The occupations most frequently listed are student, elementary or high school teacher, athletic trainer, nurse, sales and marketing. But local rosters include an archaeologist, a bank vice president, a bartender, a certified public accountant, a dog groomer, an engineer, a doctor, a firefighter, a pastor and a state trooper.
Most played on basketball, soccer, softball or volleyball teams in high school or college.
Teresa Conn, a teacher and coach in Edinboro, played tailback and free safety for the Passion and now is a co-owner. (The other owner is former Steeler Franco Harris.) When the Passion was starting up, she decided to try out in part because "I wanted to remember what it was like to be that seventh-grader trying to make the team."
Candice Snyder, 25, played soccer in high school and at La Roche College. "I missed being a part of a team," she said. So three years ago, she tried out to be the kicker for the Force. She's now the starting quarterback.
"I grew up around football," said Chasity Martini, 32, of Gibsonia, who plays on the offensive and defensive lines for the Xplosion. "My brother was an all star [in high school]."
Stephanie Balochko, a firefighter in Atwater, Ohio, who has played linebacker for 11 years, three with the Passion, said she grew up watching football, so "when the opportunity arose to play it, I jumped at it."
She commutes to Pittsburgh to play with the Passion rather than for the nearby Cleveland Fusion because her family is from Braddock, and she grew up a Steelers fan. "I always wanted to wear the black and gold," Ms. Balochko said.
Shelby Sashin, 18, a student who plays tackle and wide receiver for the Force, said she tried out in part because "when I was younger, my brothers wouldn't let me play football with them. My male friends at school wouldn't let me play."
Many of the women say they play in part because they want to open new opportunities for women.
"I'm a single mom," said Chirron Ennik, 27, a guard and defensive end for the Xplosion. I've got three kids [ages 6, 5, and 5 months]. I want my kids to grow up thinking they can do anything."
Kathy Ferrari, 39, played wide receiver and defensive back for the Passion and now owns the Force. She decided to try out because "football was something different. Girls never learn how to play it. I saw it as another challenge in life."
"It's not typical of a women's sport," said state trooper Kim Zubovic, 41, who has played defensive line for the Passion for eight years. "It opens new avenues for young girls."
For others, the motivation was less exalted. "I needed a hobby," said Jamie Eggeman, 26, a wide receiver/cornerback for the Force.
For many, the contact -- the blocking and tackling -- is a big attraction.
"I came to a practice at the insistence of a friend," said Equalill Wells, 24, of Brookline, a tackle and linebacker for the Force. She saw the women hitting each other hard on the field. "This is awesome, I thought."
"Playing defense is more fun," said Tamara "Tazz" Boyd, 36, center and nose tackle for the Force, who has children ages 12, 9 and 6. "You get to take out more aggression. I'm a lot more relaxed when I go home to the kids."
"I loved the contact," Ms. Conn admitted. "I turned all my sports into contact sports."
Regardless of why they decided to play, nearly all the women say what matters to them most about football is the relationship they've developed with their teammates.
"These guys are like my family," Ms. Martini said. "I love them."
"I love the unity. I love the discipline. I love the fact that we never give up, ever," Ms. Sashin said.
Football teams succeed only when the entire team works together, Ms. Conn said.
"It's wonderful to be part of something in which you are such a needed ingredient," she said. "People crave to be that needed ingredient."
Coaching women is more challenging and more rewarding than coaching men, say male coaches.
The biggest challenge in coaching women, said Xplosion coach Bob Gold, 53, facilities manager for the Chartiers Valley School District, "is they've never had an opportunity to learn this game. You have to teach them how to crawl before you can teach them how to walk and run."
But the players "are like sponges," he said. "They're eager to learn. They ask a lot of questions. They learn very quickly."
"It's like pee wee football," said Steve Riddle, 54, an assistant coach for the Xplosion. "But their attitudes are great. They want to learn how to play."
"You can't coach women the way you do men," said Everette Vereen, 39, an assistant coach on the Force. "You have to explain things. You have to walk them through it. You've got to use patience. I have daughters, so I have no trouble with patience."
When asked what they didn't like about playing football, few of the women had a response. After reflection, Ms. Sashin said: "Probably the next day," when the bruises acquired during a game appear.
The hardest part is "keeping your body conditioned," Ms. Wilborn said.
"You've got to be motivated to stay fit," Ms. Martini agreed.
As in men's football, there are injuries.
"We see orthopedic mostly, and, of course, concussions," said Sam Akhavan, a sports medicine physician at Allegheny General Hospital and the team physician for the Force. "Last year was a pretty bad year for ACLs."
Studies indicate that female basketball and soccer players are five to eight times more likely to suffer a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament -- a rubber band-like fiber that is attached to the femur in the upper leg and the tibia in the lower and stabilizes the knee -- than are males who play the same sports. That appears to be true of tackle football, too.
"That's why we stress stretching in warm-ups," Mr. Gold said. "We do a lot of warm-up drills."
But aside from ACL tears, few of the injuries women suffer while playing football differ in kind or number from those suffered by men. One difference is in equipment. Houston-based Douglas Pads & Sports manufactures "Zena" shoulder pads for women, with cups for their breasts.
However, the prospect of injury hasn't deterred women from wanting to play football. Kathy Ferrari said her prime motivation for starting the Force was to give more local women a chance to play.
"When I was on the Passion, there were always 10 girls behind me that never got onto the field," she said.
"That's always the hardest part for us," said Ms. Conn, who coaches as well as co-owns the Passion. There are 74 women on the team, but only about 40 get to play in games.
The Passion's depth is one reason why it had a 7-1 record in the regular season and is in the WFA playoffs. The WFA championship game will be played in Heinz Field Aug. 4. Root Sports will rebroadcast the Passion's June 2 game with the DC Divas at 7 p.m. July 11.
The Pittsburgh Force concluded its season June 16 with a loss against the Keystone Assault from Harrisburg. The Three Rivers Xplosion ends its season with a home game July 7 against the West Virginia Wildfire of Charleston. The Xplosion plays its home games at Chartiers Valley High School.
Correction/Clarification: (Published June 27, 2012) The Pittsburgh Passion football team has a 7-1 regular season record this year and won its first playoff game Saturday. The team's record was incorrect in a story Monday. Also, the wrong 1999 Women's World Cup soccer player was mentioned as celebrating by pulling off her uniform shirt. Brandi Chastain polished off her game-winning penalty shootout kick with the famous gesture. Monday's story did not mention that the origins of women's tackle football were in periodic exhibition games dating to the 1920s and short-lived leagues in the 1960s and '70s.
First Published June 25, 2012 12:00 am