When she was 9 years old, Sam Gordon just wanted to play football.

She didn’t plan on becoming a viral YouTube star. But that’s exactly what happened. In 2012, she was thrust into the national spotlight when her father, Brent, uploaded a highlight reel of her running roughshod all over the field during a youth football game, with the football tucked tightly under her arm and her blonde ponytail peeking out of the back of her helmet.

Run after run, little Sam juked defenders out of their cleats, broke tackles and sprinted her way to the end zone.

“When I first stepped on the football field, I didn’t think anything of it — that I was a girl doing something or I was gonna change the world by making this play,” Sam, now 19, says. “I just loved playing football and that was it going forward, too.

“When I look back at it in hindsight, I see how little there was with girls’ involvement in football and that it was such a story because nobody had seen a girl playing against the boys yet.”

Three days later, the video had amassed almost five million views and Sam became known as “Sweet Feet.” She appeared on ESPN, Good Morning America and other nationally televised programs. She was featured in Sports Illustrated and on the cover of the Wheaties cereal box — an honor reserved for superstar athletes like Michael Jordan and Serena Williams. Sam even attended Super Bowl XLVII as a special guest of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and she rubbed elbows with numerous celebrities and professional athletes, including Carli Lloyd, Shaq, Rebel Wilson and Snoop Dogg.

Now a sophomore at Columbia University, Sam is living a life that looks a lot like that of an average student. She’s majoring in film, playing on the soccer team and navigating the rigors of college. It’s been a decade since her viral video, giving her time to sit back and reflect on that period in her life, how the experience has shaped her and, in turn, how she has made a lasting impact on the evolution of women’s tackle football.

Breaking the mold

Brent Gordon saw firsthand how damaging gender stereotypes could be when friends and people in their local community actively discouraged his ex-wife from pursuing a career in accounting. Living in a conservative area of Utah, Brent knew she was being treated differently because she was a woman. And it stuck with him.

When his daughter was born, they decided to give her a gender neutral name. “I was intentional about that because I wanted to make sure that whatever she wanted to do, she could do,” Brent says.

Years later, after a divorce, Brent took on the role of single dad and used sports to pass the time and keep his kids busy. They’d eat dinner together before heading out to the yard, where games of football became a regular occurrence. Eventually, Sam inquired about playing on a team.

“When she asked me, ‘Hey, can I go play football,’ I was actually excited about it because I thought, ‘You know what, I think she can f— the other kids up,” says Brent with a wide grin. “And I think it’d be awesome. I really did. I thought she could. … She could show people that she could do just as well as anyone else.”

At first, Brent started filming highlights of Sam himself, just for fun. Through word of mouth, he discovered a company that would film them for him. Each week, he’d put together clips of Sam and post them on YouTube. At the most, he thought he’d get 25,000 or 30,000 views. He never anticipated going viral.

“The first three or four months after the video blew up, there was an intense amount of activity going on,” Brent says. “Especially for the first month, I only think [Sam] slept on her own maybe two or three nights. But she was loving it. She was having a blast, doing all these fun things and going to different events. And then it started to slow down for the next few months, and then at the end of the spring, it basically died out.”

“I still remember having a talk with my dad, and there was a chance to go to New York for another interview and I was just like, ‘Noooo.’ Like, I don’t want to do another one of these,” Sam says. “So there were times when it was a lot, but overall, I found it very fun.”

For the most part, Sam’s moment in the limelight had been a good experience. Aside from a few YouTube comments from men twice her age saying they could “destroy her on the field,” the response was positive and affirming.

But when football season rolled around again, Sam felt the shift. In her first season, she scored 25 touchdowns and had 10 extra point conversions. She ran for 1,911 yards (8.2 yards per carry) and racked up 65 tackles. She felt pressured to keep the momentum going, and every time she had the ball in her hands, she wanted to make a big play.

“When I came back that next season, I definitely had a target on my back. It was a whole different level,” Sam says. “That first year, it was my ponytail and that was what set me apart. And the next year it was like, ‘That’s the girl that’s famous and that’s the one that was making the highlight reel, so we need to go crush her.’”

Even though she was still having fun playing football, Sam says it was stressful at times. No matter how many touchdowns she scored, how many yards she gained or how many tackles she made, she felt she had to keep proving that girls could play, too, and that it all rested on her tiny shoulders.

Not long after Sam’s viral video and others that followed, parents would continuously come up to Brent and ask him how their daughters could get involved in football. Those conversations stuck with him.

He knew the interest for girls wanting to play was there. He just had no idea how much there actually was.

Gordon burst onto the football scene against boys at age 9.
(Photos courtesy of Brent Gordon and Larry Gordon)

The dawn of a new league

In March 2015, 12-year-old Sam spoke at a local Utah middle school assembly and asked if there were any girls in the audience who wanted to play football.

“I was there with her,” Brent says. “It seemed like almost every hand went up.”

At the time, Brent knew that Crys Sacco — a former semi-pro women’s football player and middle school football coach — was interested in starting a girls’ tackle football league in Utah. The day after the assembly, Brent called Sacco and told him that Sam could help promote and market the league.

Sacco was in.

Together, Brent and Sacco set up the non-profit organization, created a website and put together a board of directors. They hired coaches, ordered jerseys and equipment and scheduled playing fields. In May 2015, they held their first tryouts for the Utah Girls Tackle Football League. There were only four teams and 50 open roster spots available, but they filled up in a single week.

“I get the credit for founding [the Utah Girls Tackle Football League], but it was also my dad and some other people who had been wanting to start a league for a while,” Sam says. “And it was such a quick turnaround.”

Today, the UGTFL is thriving. The league is comprised of 34 teams, with over 600 players and four divisions: third and fourth grade, fifth and sixth grade, seventh and eighth grade, and high school.

“The Utah Girls Tackle Football League wouldn’t be what it is without Brent and Sam. I love them dearly,” says Sacco, who recently stepped down as league president but still serves as a coach and an active board member. “Brent has been a mentor, and Sam has been paving the way for girls’ and women’s football since she was 9 years old.”

This past summer, the UGTFL got another boost when Under Armour stepped in to partner with Sam and the league as a sponsor and to develop the first football cleat designed specifically for girls.

“The women’s Blur Smoke Cleat that all the girls in our league were wearing this last season is amazing,” Sam says. “It’s been great to have your own and not have to wear a soccer cleat or a baseball cleat to find one that fits. And it also shows that you are meant to play this game, that you have a cleat that’s provided for you, women’s football.”

Some companies and brands are quick to jump on the women’s sports bandwagon on social media, lending their support with statements and catchy phrases. But both Sam and Brent say Under Armour is taking that next step by putting action behind its words.

“When Under Armour came out and said, ‘We want to support you,’ it was like, we kept getting, ‘No, no, no,’ from everyone. To finally have someone to say, ‘We’re here and we’re on your side,’ that meant a lot to me,” Brent says.

He knew Under Armour wasn’t just going to put Sam in a commercial and call it a day. They were going to support the league by providing uniforms, front some of the operating costs and facilitate getting the championship games played at the University of Utah — just like the boys.

Under Armour also helped organize two girls’ tackle football summer camps, one in California and the other in Utah, each for 100 participants. Both were fully attended.

For Sam, it’s yet another affirmation that girls’ tackle football is growing and evolving.

“It isn’t known that football is a sport that women/girls can play. It’s difficult to battle the stereotypes that go hand-in-hand with women and contact/physical sports,” she says. “You have people who are pushing against it sometimes, like those YouTube comments. And you’ve got to not look towards those but find like-minded people who are willing to fight the fight and get to that next level.”

“All the time, I tell Sam this, ‘You know, we don’t need to change people’s opinions,” Brent adds. “What we need to do is find people who already agree with us.’ And that’s what we’re doing.”

(Photo courtesy of Under Armour)

The ongoing fight for women’s football

Sam never imagined having to give up playing tackle football. But after graduating high school, she didn’t have much of a choice. Sam aged out of the UGTFL, and there’s no option to play women’s tackle football at Columbia — nor at any college or university. Joining a semi-pro league would cost money and require a generous time commitment, two things a college student can’t readily afford.

“I miss [football] so much, I joined the rugby team,” Sam says. “It’s such an untapped opportunity.”

Sam Rapoport, NFL senior director of diversity, equality and inclusion and a UGTFL board member, is actively invested in growing women’s football and providing opportunities for women to become involved in football through NFL programs. She views the lack of a sustainable and consistent pipeline as a glaring issue.

“The problem is that girls growing up don’t get to see the future of the sport and what they could do with it,” Rapoport says. “Girls’ tackle football needs to be further legitimized. Girls need to play it across the entire country. It needs to be a high school sport, which would then lead into all divisions of college football so girls could get college scholarships — not just in NAIA but other places as well — and then that would ultimately lead up to women’s professional or semi-professional.”

Brent agrees. It’s part of the reason why he filed a Title IX lawsuit against the Utah School District in 2017.

“Our goal from Day 1, and it might sound a little far-fetched, but for real, when we started the lawsuit in 2017, the goal was to create a pipeline,” he says. “Our goal is to see girls have high school football teams, then college football teams, and now you’ve got a pipeline to fill talent on a professional league roster.”

The lawsuit stipulates that the Utah School District is in violation of Title IX because they do not offer the same athletic opportunities for girls at the high school level as they do for boys. What it comes down to, Brents says, aren’t the number of sports available but the number of participants across the board.

“So you have football over here. And some of these boys’ high school football rosters are 120 to 140 deep,” he says. “And then say you have girls’ golf on the other side, and you only have eight to 12 participants. That doesn’t comply with Title IX. And I knew that.”

The solution, Brent told the Utah School District, is to offer girls’ tackle football.

“They were like, ‘No, we’re going to pass,’ so I sued them,” he says.

Under Title IX and the equal protection clause, Brent is confident they can mandate the district to offer girls’ football. Arguments in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals — on whether Utah schools can avoid liability for Title IX by being part of a high school activities association but refusing to sanction girls’ tackle football — began the first week of October. A decision is expected to be reached in three months to one year.

In the meantime, the UGTFL soldiers on as one of the few girls’ tackle football leagues in the country. And Brent continues the fight for equality, as both the proud father of a football phenom and a women’s sports advocate.

As for Sam, she’s focused on enjoying college. Her time in the spotlight was exciting, but she learned at such a young and vulnerable age to not let it define her.

Not long after the highlight video went viral, Sam began uploading other clips to YouTube showing her hanging out with friends, telling stories and being a goofy teenager. She wanted the world to know she was more than just a ponytailed kid in a football helmet. The balance helped her navigate her sudden fame and kept her grounded.

(Photo courtesy of Under Armour)

“She didn’t set out to be this pioneer or anything like that. She just wanted to play the sport that she loved. But she is that for people — she is the pioneer that started the girls’ tackle football movement,” Rapoport says. “And in 10, 15, 20, 100 years, when girls are finally playing tackle football in leagues that have been created to give them the opportunity, it will be because of Sam.”

Even though Sam isn’t able to play tackle football anymore, she’s still looking for a way to be a part of the sport and its continuing evolution. But much like a Hail Mary pass, what that means for her in the future is up in the air.

“I’ve definitely thought about staying involved with football, and I don’t know what route that is,” she says. “One of the reasons I’m picking film [for my major] is being a sports broadcaster or something like that, where I’m getting to be involved in the game and still be in a space where there needs to be more women involved. Coaching and all that might be on the plate.

“I’m still figuring it out.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

In recent years, the tagline “Football is Female” has accompanied stories about women breaking barriers into men’s American football, namely the NFL. Katie Sowers, Sarah Fuller, Sarah Thomas and others have garnered national media attention for reaching unprecedented levels of success in men’s football. At SuperBowl LVI last year, the NFL made a concerted effort to demonstrate its inclusion of women when legend Billie Jean King performed the coin toss alongside players from the high school girls’ Flag League of Champions and girls youth football players from two local teams in SoCal to honor the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

What has been largely missing from efforts to showcase women and girls in football, however, are the more than 1,600 elite-level athletes in the U.S. actively playing women’s tackle football and dreaming of a women’s pro league.

Over the past several weeks, national champions have been crowned, league MVPs have been named, and the 45-player U.S. women’s national tackle football team made it to the title game of the IFAF World Championships in Finland, where they’ll look to defend their gold medal against Great Britain this Sunday.

Team USA’s starting quarterback Brittany Bushman, who has gone 29-of-48 for 338 yards through the first two games of the tournament, has experienced both the highs and the lows of her sport.

The 36-year-old from Portsmouth, N.H. grew up playing Pop Warner with the boys and then football, basketball and baseball through high school. Her playing time became more limited on the football field once she reached varsity, which she attributes to a combination of the competition outgrowing her in physical size and sensitive egos on the coaching staff. Despite the struggles, Bushman says she was “completely devastated” when her senior season ended, believing she would never have another opportunity to play her favorite sport.

It wasn’t until she was playing Division III basketball at Emmanuel College that she found out organized women’s tackle football existed. A player noticed her skill as she casually threw the football on the sidelines of her younger brother’s game and recruited her to try out.

“I said, ‘Wait what? Women’s football?’ And I was hooked,” Bushman says now.

Today in the U.S., there are two main tackle football leagues for women — the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) and the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC). They are the latest iterations of leagues that have been evolving since the 1960s, when the National Women’s Football League was first formed.

When WFA Commissioner Lisa King started the WFA in 2009, she modeled it after the semi-pro soccer teams she played on. After her parents denied her pleas to play PeeWee football as a kid, King resigned herself to the soccer pitch until she graduated college and eventually found out about a women’s football team based in Los Angeles. The three-hour commute twice a week didn’t stop King, and she’s been committed to growing the game for women ever since.

“The league that we were playing in was extremely expensive. There weren’t a whole lot of teams, so the travel was very expensive. It was quite a financial burden, which is why I don’t think a lot of the younger players were playing at the time,” King says. “I just kind of had a vision of duplicating what women’s soccer had done and doing it in the women’s football space.”

After 14 years as the leader of the WFA, King’s vision for the future of women’s football has greatly surpassed simply reducing costs for players.

“There’s a huge following for [women’s] UFC. Contact sports for women is not something people are shying away from,” King says. “The sky’s the limit. [Football] is America’s sport. It’s the most popular sport. I think it’s going to be bigger than all the major sports, in my opinion. I think eventually bigger than women’s basketball, eventually bigger than women’s soccer.”

Her confident assessment of her sport’s growth potential comes with important context. She’s extremely pragmatic about the time it takes to develop a thriving professional league and the specific challenges facing women’s tackle football.

“Our biggest challenge is we do not have high school. We don’t have youth, we don’t have college, so we really have to develop the sport ourselves,” King says. “It takes developing the players, developing the markets. It’s not instant. We’ve been doing this for 14 years. As we continue to grow, the level of competition gets better, the more fans we get, the more attention we get. In my opinion, that’s the key to success. It’s not something that’s going to be instant.”

Not everyone in the game shares King’s patient and pragmatic mindset. Most notably, Odessa Jenkins split from the WFA in 2018 to start the WNFC with a more aggressive financial model and timeline.

“I joined a startup in 2015 and really started to understand how businesses are built, valued, structured,” Jenkins says. “I thought if a startup tech firm could be built that way, a women’s football league could be built that way, too.”

The South Central L.A. native grew up playing a slew of sports on the blacktops of her neighborhood with large groups of kids, but football was her favorite early on.

“It was one of the few sports where I could just get out there and be fast. How small I was didn’t really matter. It was just how tough I was that mattered,” Jenkins says. “I immediately realized that there was a place for everybody in football. Our chubby cousins, our girl cousins, our boy cousins, our tall cousins, everyone had a spot. So, I loved the sport. I loved it.”

When obtaining a college scholarship became an important priority, and her middle school football coach told her how unlikely that would be in the sport of football, Jenkins begrudgingly quit to focus on academics and basketball, the sport that eventually took her through university. It wasn’t until her late twenties that Jenkins found out 11v11 women’s tackle football existed and had been around for more than half a century. Her reaction at the time was similar to Bushman’s — equal parts shock and elation.

“I felt robbed of my life. I was like, ‘What? We’ve been doing this for 60 years? Are you kidding me?’” Jenkins recalls.

Part of what propelled Jenkins to branch off from the WFA and start the WNFC was the underlying disappointment she felt in 2017. She had won the WFA Championship while coaching and playing on the Dallas Elite, and she had won a World Championship with Team USA. Having been selected for the NFL’s Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship with the Atlanta Falcons that year, Jenkins had a front-row seat to what her counterpart on the men’s side was experiencing.

“I was supposed to be at the highest place that a woman could be in football at that time, and I’m sitting in the locker room with Devonta Freeman who was about to sign the biggest running back contract in the history of football at $48.9 million. I’m the best running back in [women’s] football at the time. I was at my championship game a week before he signed that contract, and I couldn’t even get a hoodie for free,” Jenkins says.

So, she set about carving a faster path toward a legitimate professional league for women. She developed a five-year business plan for her new league and approached 25 teams with her proposal. Twenty of the teams were impressed enough to follow her lead, including a few from the WFA, and the first season of the WNFC kicked off in 2019.

The timing worked well for Bushman, Jenkins’ friend and former teammate, who had just returned to the sport after a five-year hiatus following an ACL tear that she didn’t have insurance to fix.

Soon after she was named the 2012 WFA MVP after a stellar season with the Dallas Diamonds and selected to Team USA’s roster for the 2013 World Championships, Bushman suffered the injury. Arguably the best player in the game that year couldn’t afford the medical treatment necessary to get her back on the field.

After finally obtaining the surgery, Bushman focused the next few years on establishing herself in her career as a full-time high school science teacher and coach, which came with insurance and economic stability. In 2018, she was ready to return to the game.

Her full-circle moment came earlier this summer when the Texas Elite Spartans star quarterback stepped onto the Dallas Cowboys’ practice field at the Ford Center at The Star to play for the 2022 WNFC Championship after being named league MVP earlier that day. As a kid who grew up cheering for the Cowboys, Bushman still fondly recalls that day.

“I had to say to myself in my head, ‘Do not get emotional right now,’ because I could feel the tears,” Bushman says. “We used to play on dirt patches. We came out in mismatched uniforms and helmets when I first started. And then to walk into that? It was a really emotional moment.”

She’s not the only one who is pleased with the progress of the WNFC.

“We’re technically in year three of football, four of existence, and we’ve hit every single milestone that we said we would hit,” Jenkins says.

With sponsorships from adidas, Riddell and Dick’s Sporting Goods, a streaming deal with Vyre, and a fast-growing following on social media, the WNFC is planning to launch its first round of seed funding later this year. Jenkins plans to be very selective with the teams they bring in to maximize revenue potential and the quality of the product on the field. She’s also passionate about leaning into the identities of WNFC athletes and not repeating the mistakes she watched WNBA marketers make early on, when many of them ostracized the bulk of their players and fans.

“We are also a league that embraces who our players are. Sixty-five percent of them are BIPOC, and a great majority of them identify as LGBTQ+. We don’t run away from that,” she says. “If your walk-in is with a suit, walk in with a suit. If your walk-in is in a dress, walk in in a dress. If your pronouns are them and they, we’ll use them.”

“A smaller league with more impact,” is how Jenkins describes the WNFC’s 17-team league in comparison to the WFA, which has 61 teams playing across four divisions.

From the WFA’s perspective, the multi-division model allows them to do it all: develop the game from the grassroots level and also market and showcase the elite level to bring in revenue. And they’ve got a track record to support their case. WFA sponsors include Wilson, Zenith, Secret and the NFL Academy, among others. This year, they signed deals with the new Women’s Sports Network and with Fat Head, which allows WFA players to earn income off their name, image and likeness.

In early July, the WFA Pro Championship game between the Boston Renegades and Minnesota Vixen aired on ESPN2 (after 10 years of streaming on ESPN3). It garnered higher viewership than the lead-in international soccer match and topped the channel’s Sunday afternoon average viewership in July for three of the past four years. Those numbers lead King to believe that their patience and hard work is starting to pay off.

“Now that we’re getting some funding and we’re getting that platform, to me, it’s almost like downhill now. I feel like we’ve climbed, climbed, climbed, and now we’re kind of at that peak,” King says. “Whereas five years ago, I would reach out to some companies and I wouldn’t get anything returned, or maybe I’d get a form email returned. Now we’re getting meetings within a week or so. There’s so much interest in the movement with women’s sports. It can’t be any better timing than right now.”

Cynthia “Red” Bryant played in that title game as a defensive lineman for the Minnesota Vixen. Though she and her team lost the final to the Renegades, 32-12, for the second year in row, she’s still proud of what they accomplished.

One of the original players from the inaugural 1999 season that restarted organized women’s tackle football in the U.S. after the NWFL folded in the late 80s, Bryant has been playing the sport in Minnesota for 24 seasons. A star basketball player growing up, Bryant took an unexpected detour when she became pregnant with her son at 19. When the WNBA launched and she had no DI pathway to garner a tryout, she had no reason not to accept the invite she did get to try out for the original Vixen football team in 1999. Once she experienced the gridiron, she fell in love with a completely new athletic challenge. Whereas basketball always felt easy, football made her work and grind and break through mental barriers she’d never had to before.

By the time her granddaughter was born many seasons into her career, Bryant realized basketball had never been her destiny.

“It was meant for me to be a pioneer and leave a legacy behind in football and do something bigger for girls,” she says.

“If it’s something that you love to do, that should be enough for you. That’s what carries me. That’s what I think carries the majority of these women playing — it’s the joy of it. To get sponsorships? To get people to buy into it? Of course, that would be great, but we haven’t grinded this long just for that. We grinded this long because our hearts are in it, and we love to play the sport.”

While Bryant plans to give it one more run before retiring next year, neither the WFA nor WNFC has plans to stop storming toward their goal of becoming thriving pro football leagues. As anyone who follows women’s pro sports knows, football is hardly the first sport to have dueling leagues.

“If somebody thinks they can do it differently, I wish them success. If they have found something that’s working, then that’s going to be best for women’s football, then good for them and good for women’s football,” King says about the WNFC. “We’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing, and it does take a lot of time. I think people think that there’s gonna be instant stardom, instant money, instant revenue. If only we just did this, if only we just did that. And at the end of the day, it really takes growth.”

Neither league leader is overly concerned or distracted by the philosophical differences or existence of the opposing league.

“I think that it is clear whether the WFA exists or not, the WNFC is going to reach its goals. There is no doubt about it,” Jenkins says.

“The only thing I have to say about that is that they’re both amazing leagues and they’ve got two amazing people running them,” Bryant says. “I just hope that we can find a way to convert both of them together and try to get one good product to push for.”

This week, top players from both leagues are competing side by side at the World Championships as teammates on the national team under head coach Callie Brownson, the chief of staff and assistant wide receivers coach for the Cleveland Browns.

With Bushman leading the offense as QB1 and star running back D’Ajah Scott putting up 141 rushing yards and four touchdowns through the first two rounds, the Americans are highly favored to defeat Great Britain for the gold medal.

The veteran Bushman, keenly aware of the “young bucks” rising in the game, is enjoying every minute of her resurgence and success on the field. As girls’ flag football becomes an even more popular sport throughout the country, the average age of players in both leagues is going down, while years of prior experience in the game is going up. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) even added women’s flag football as a competitive collegiate sport for its member institutions last year.

Looking back on her Texas Elite Spartans’ championship-winning weekend in Dallas at the end of June, Bushman recalls one of her favorite memories — aside from her first step onto the field years ago. The Girls Ball event brought together youth football and current WNFC players for a night of celebrating girls who love football.

“I know so many times when I was that age, I felt so alone. I’d be the only one going to my locker room,” Bushman says. “If I knew that there was a whole league of women who are playing this game at a high level, I just can’t even imagine what that support would feel like.”

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

Football is the most popular sport in the United States, but for most high school girls, there has never been a gender-exclusive option to play the game competitively. That’s about to change in the New York area.

The New York Jets on Wednesday announced the expansion of their High School Girls Flag Football League to 42 teams after it soft launched with eight New Jersey teams in 2021. This year, the league will include high schools from Long Island and New Jersey.

“The expansion of our Girls Flag Football League brings us one step closer to our goal of having the sport as an official varsity sport in both New York and New Jersey,” said Jesse Linder, the Jets’ vice president of community relations.

The expansion, announced on National Girls and Women in Sports Day in conjunction with Nike, means every participating school will receive implementation grants, equipment and jerseys. The Jets on Wednesday invited one player from each team to MetLife Stadium for a surprise uniform reveal.

The season will be brought to life as part of the #EmpowHer docuseries, and there will be championship games for both Long Island and New Jersey teams at the Jets’ training center in Florham Park, N.J. Last season, Passaic County Technical Institute (Wayne, N.J.) won the inaugural championship.

(Courtesy of the New York Jets)

The Jets are not the only NFL team investing in girls’ flag football; on Jan. 31, the Philadelphia Eagles announced the launch of a league in Pennsylvania. But there is still plenty of room to grow nationwide: only five states (Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Florida and Nevada) sponsor girls’ flag football in conjunction with National Federation of State High School Associations members.

The Jets hope to pave the way for more girls to compete in the area, and eventually, the whole country.

“The growth of this league demonstrates not only our commitment to making the game more accessible to more players, but the growing interest and excitement around this particular program,” said Jessica Ciccone, the Jets’ vice president for content and strategy.

Josh Needelman is the High School Sports Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JoshNeedelman.

For the self-proclaimed “Queen of Abs” Santia Deck, giving up is not an option.

Between track, rugby and football, Deck has aspired to greatness in whatever sport she’s set her mind to. Right now, that sport is women’s tackle football, where the 29-year-old is the highest-paid athlete after signing a multi-million dollar contract with the Women’s Football League Association (WFLA) last January.

“I just want to be the best at whatever I do,” Deck told Just Women’s Sports.

Before she was dodging defenders on the football field, Deck was speeding down the track. Having picked up track and field at age 7, Deck made her way to Texas A&M–Kingsville, where she ran the 55-meter, 60m, 100m and 200m as part of the indoor and outdoor teams from 2010-14.

There, Deck started building her social media following, branding herself as the “Queen of Abs” after people started noticing how ripped she was. Deck originally wanted to go with “Princess of Abs,” but her mom had another idea.

“She was like, ‘Why be a princess? We can be a queen,’” said Deck, who has grown her following to 867,000 on Instagram.

A year after graduating from Kingsville, and feeling the effects of injuries sustained during her track career, Deck decided to give flag football a try. She had played football with her twin brother and other boys while growing up in Houston, and that experience combined with her track career gave her the foundation she needed.

“When I was out there playing at my first tryout, they were like, ‘How do you know how to cut?’” she said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s just natural, I guess.”

Deck has since torn up the flag football world and the ranks of the Atlanta Women’s Flag Football League, regularly outrunning the competition.

The next stop on Deck’s football journey is the WFLA, though the league has yet to stage a game since its founding in 2019 and its future has come into question in recent months.

WFLA founder Lupe Rose first approached Deck when she was training for rugby. At the time, Deck was trying to make Team USA and couldn’t commit to anything else. But after an injury ended her Olympic dream, she reconsidered the full-tackle women’s football league. Rose’s offer of a multi-million dollar contract with her team, the Los Angeles Fames, was an added bonus.

“That contract was jaw-dropping,” Deck said. “It was a surreal moment. I really didn’t know how to take it.”

While she says it took a while for the significance of the contract to sink in, Deck believes it’s an indicator of where women’s sports are headed. Over three decades ago, the National Women’s Football League enjoyed a long run before teams broke apart and the enterprise folded in 1988, as detailed in Lyndsey D’Arcangelo and Britni de la Cretaz’s new book “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.”

“I hope that it inspires other leagues to pay their athletes more and actually give them what they’re worth and what they deserve,” Deck said. “We deserve just as much opportunity as the guys. Exposure, financials, recovery, whatever, we deserve the same things.”

Since then, the WFLA has been on tenuous footing. The league’s website, which very recently depicted 32 copyrighted team names and logos and 10 franchises with owners (including rapper JaRule), has become inactive. In September, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged Rose with fraudulent stock sales of her company SHE Beverage, a California-based maker of healthy beverages, beer and hard lemonade. The company’s legal team has since denied the allegations.

Six days after the lawsuit was filed, Deck wrote on her Facebook and Instagram accounts that she was walking away from the league.

“I’ve decided to part ways with the WFLA to pursue other sport opportunities. Stay tuned for what’s next!” she wrote in since-deleted posts.

When asked about her current status with the league, Deck declined to comment for legal reasons. The last sign that the WFLA planned to launch came on Oct. 23, when an Instagram post appeared to indicate a May 11, 2023 start date.

The WFLA did not respond to a request for comment from Just Women’s Sports.

While figuring out her football future, Deck has stayed busy. In 2020, the 29-year-old founded her own shoe company, becoming the first female athlete to do so.

“Creating Tronus was really about liberation,” she said. “Because I feel like women, and us being athletes, is just extremely difficult. It’s a lot of ups and downs, a lot of obstacles, trying to get sponsored by bigger brands.

“I was like, why not try to do something that’s kind of out of the box, that’s kind of breaking through a glass ceiling? I’m getting the opportunity to really be able to create my own shoe the way that I envisioned it.”

From watching Tampa Bay Buccaneers players rock her shoes to having them appear in an upcoming movie, the support has been above and beyond what she expected from the outset.

The same has been true of Deck’s partnership with Eastbay. After the sports footwear and apparel company launched its new Eastbay Performance line in late September, Deck captained one of three flag football teams at a celebratory event in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park.

Deck competes at a flag football event in Brooklyn's McCarren Park. (Courtesy of Eastbay)

With pro-BMX athlete Nigel Sylvester and Rumble Boxing co-founder Noah Neiman captaining the other two teams, the games were fast-paced and Deck narrowly missed out on the championship trophy.

“Everybody, at first, was like ‘Oh this is fun. Like we’re not going to go crazy,’” she said. “And then everybody became super competitive.”

Despite the setbacks over the years, Deck is hopeful for the future of women’s football. And whatever’s next in her athletic career, she’ll continue to be an advocate for her peers.

“For women in sports, period, we need more women supporting women,” she said.

“Making sure that we’re putting women in higher positions when it comes to the back end of things, being able to control the button pushers. We need to have women in control of those areas of sports as well, so that we do have a voice.”

Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @EHruby.

I was 8 years old when my twin brother had signed up to play youth football. I was not allowed to play, out of fear I might get hurt because I was a girl. Up until that moment, my brother and I had been playing soccer together on a co-ed team since we were five. Both of us were naturally athletic and had great coordination and dexterity. Sports came easily. I held my own with the boys, and was better than most.

As for football, I had already been playing tackle with my brothers and their friends on the street, in backyards and on rock-filled school playground lots. But now my parents were worried about me getting hurt? It didn’t add up. Still, no matter how much I protested or how much my brother advocated on my behalf, they never changed their minds. I was forced to sit in the stands and watch from afar, and my football-loving heart ached with envy with every snap of the ball.

A few years later, the head coach of my indoor soccer team pulled me aside after a game. I was the only girl on the team and we had all been playing together for a while. As my coach knelt gently in front of me and put his hands on my shoulders, I saw it in his eyes even before he said the words. They went something like, I wouldn’t be able to play with the team any more, because it was getting too rough. I stopped listening after that. The all-too-familiar feeling of being told I couldn’t do something because I was a girl had settled into my gut, and my eyes were wet. I didn’t say a word during the car ride home, even when my brother tried to console me. It wasn’t his fault, of course. But he couldn’t understand. He’d never understand.

In writing Hail Mary and listening to players describe how it felt to finally get to play a sport that everyone told them they couldn’t and shouldn’t be playing, I reconnected with my 8-year-old self. I knew how they felt and could imagine how rewarding it was for them to take the football field on game day, to put on their uniforms and to play in front of a crowd. They played because they loved the game. And they played for all the young girls out there who, like me, were told no, this sport isn’t for you.


This article has been excerpted from Chapter 5 (“The Troopers’ Reign Begins”) of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League by Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo. Copyright © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

“I did not pose for that,” Gail Dearie, now eighty, said of the iconic photo. “We were having a scrimmage at practice. I had just stood up after the huddle. I was thinking about my route for a play. And a [European] photographer snapped that picture. Apparently, she liked what she got. She thought it was worth trying to send it to Life magazine. The picture really took off. Now, we say ‘it went viral.’ A lot of things happened as a result of that picture.”

In June 1972, Life published a photo spread with a short article about a new women’s football team—the New York Fillies. (The Fillies, however, appeared without the support or blessing of Sid Friedman. They were not under his umbrella of teams, and were owned by someone else.) Life’s writeup of the Fillies was only the second such feature about women’s football in the magazine’s history.

Twenty-nine-year-old Dearie from Red Bank, New Jersey, was one of the players featured in the photos, and one photo in particular stood out from the rest. Dearie is clad in a grass-and-dirt-stained white jersey with the number 84 on the front, her long blond hair falling out of her large gold helmet and down onto her shoulders, and her high cheekbones and full lips distinguishable underneath the thick gray face mask. The full-page photo contrasted beauty and brawn, and it attracted national attention.

In spring of that year, before Dearie became the most recognizable Fillie on the roster thanks to the Life magazine photos, she was working in New York as a go-see model in commercial print media when her husband showed her a wanted ad in a national paper looking for women to join a new professional football team. Dearie was intrigued and decided to see what it was all about. Her main reason for going, she said, was to “put away a slap-in-the-face kind of attitude that some people have about athletic ability and women—not being able to use it fully because it didn’t seem feminine.”

She wasn’t the only one. Nancy Berardino, a seventeen-year-old from Far Rockaway, had also seen the advertisement. Her twenty-four-year old sister, Lynda, wanted to try out for the team as well. Dearie, the Berardino sisters, and Dearie’s friend Carol Brown were among the hundred or so women who showed up to the Fillies callout.

“Some of them had never played football before. Some didn’t know very much about the technicalities of the game,” Brown told womenSports magazine in 1974. “But every woman there wanted to be a professional football player.” The women who showed up for the tryout did so with the hope of proving wrong anyone who didn’t believe they could play football, and also because they loved sports and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to play.

Dearie stood tall above the crowd, not just for her athleticism but also because of her beauty. In truth, Dearie was the perfect person to dispel the myth that a woman couldn’t be both a good athlete and feminine at the same time. While she turned heads wherever she went in the city, it often frustrated her that her looks were the main thing some people chose to focus on. Like all women, there was much more to Dearie than her outward appearance. She was a mother of two, a wife, a devout Christian, a model, and a part-time college student. She was also an athlete.

When Dearie finally got the opportunity to step on the football field on the day of football tryouts, she turned heads for a different reason—her height at five feet eight inches, athletic ability, and strength made her the perfect wide receiver or tight end. “It was legitimate,” Dearie said, recalling the tryout. “They weren’t making fun of women, if you know what I mean.”

Dearie and Brown made the team, along with forty other women from the surrounding New York City area, ranging in age from sixteen to forty years old. They were promised twenty-five dollars per game, fully funded by Fillies owner James Eagan: a cocky New York City attorney.

Eagan started the New York Fillies because he believed it was a solid monetary investment, and was hoping to make some extra cash on the side. It was certainly not because he wanted to help elevate women’s football. For him it was a business venture, nothing more. He didn’t care about the women’s dreams or aspirations on the gridiron. To Eagan, the women were simply a means to an end.

“They drew 6,000 at three dollars a head in Erie,” the young and slick Eagan told the Philadelphia Daily News before the Fillies debut game. “Can you imagine that kind of crowd in Erie, Pa.?”

Eagan knew very little about football and the game itself, and spent time at practices familiarizing himself with the rules. He brought in Bill Bryant, a former semipro football player, to be the head coach of the Fillies and he hired additional assistant coaches to handle all the technical stuff, like training the team and getting them ready to play their first game in front of what Eagan anticipated to be a huge crowd.

Bryant did his best to teach the Fillies plays on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. “I’m trying to teach these girls the fundamentals,” he told the Daily News. “You have to start at the beginning and some learn quicker than others. These girls are a lot more serious than you think. They’re playing to win.” But when Eagan, who was quick to shave expenses, decided not to purchase medical insurance for his players, all four coaches quit the team in “protest and disgust” the night before their first game.

The fact that the women were willing to play without insurance coverage indicates how badly they wanted to be out there, how deeply they understood what a rare opportunity they had.


Baseball may be America’s pastime, but football is Ohio’s. On Friday nights in the early twentieth century, the mill towns would shut down for football games. As early as 1922, Ohio State University built a sixty-six-thousand-seat stadium, a shrine of sorts, which was at the time the largest poured-concrete structure in the world. Before there was the NFL, there was the Ohio League, a loose alliance of independent, semipro teams—not all that different from the women’s football teams under Friedman—from cities including Toledo, Cleveland, and Youngstown. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is located in Canton, Ohio, the same place the NFL was born. In Ohio, parents put their boys in the sport from the time they are in elementary school.

Throughout the entire United States, too, football is almost like a religion. Some people go to church on Sundays to say their Hail Marys; others sit around the television and turn on the football game, hoping to see a Hail Mary of a different sort. Americans worship their teams like they do their gods, and everything else ceases to matter while the game is on. Game day is a holiday, a holy day.

For girls growing up in this culture, forced to always be the spectator—in Ohio and Texas, yes, but also anywhere in America—it was only natural that there would be an overwhelming feeling of missing out. While there may have been other sports that were becoming more accessible to girls in the seventies, like rec league basketball or softball, those sports were consolation prizes. As much as the girls loved playing them, in Ohio at least, football was the sport: lionized by their friends and family, and always off-limits to the girls. If they were lucky, they could scrimmage with their brothers or the neighborhood boys, but that was as close to tasting organized football as they ever thought they could get. The reality of putting on pads and helmets and jogging out onto a real football field, with fans in the stands cheering them on, was one that existed only in their wildest daydreams. Even though girls were gaining ground in other sports leading up to and after the passage of Title IX, they were still shut out of football. And, in Ohio, this meant shutting girls out of the sport that mattered most.

But that didn’t make football matter any less. Just how much football mattered—to these girls, in this state—was evident in the Troopers’ first tryout.


More than eighty women showed up to try out for the Troopers in 1970. But Stout only wanted twenty-two: the best athletes, the most committed players, who would put in the work he knew would be required to turn a bunch of rookies into champions. His players practiced five nights per week in Colony Field, a weed-covered patch of grass hidden between US 23 and a rundown section of Toledo.

There were plenty of teams whose coaches believed they were more than a gimmick and viewed them as real athletes. Bill Stout, however, would be the first to go to bat for his players and help them create and envision a league that took them as seriously as they took themselves. He would also continue the tradition of women’s football in the Rust Belt city of Toledo, located near the Michigan border and on the shore of Lake Erie.

Stout was a former All-City noseguard for DeVilbiss High School in Toledo whose pro football dreams had crumbled. Before he began coaching the Troopers, he was a struggling factory worker with a gambling problem. He felt like he was out of options, so he turned to coaching women’s football—which he didn’t take seriously until he saw the dedication and determination of his charges. He was a white man in his late twenties who carried his weight in his belly and wore mutton chops down his cheeks. He almost exclusively wore that very 1970s brand of athletic shorts and a polo shirt, a whistle draped around his neck.

Stout enlisted Carl Hamilton to coach the Troopers defense. Hamilton, a stocky Black man who wore a dour expression in photos but had a knack for getting the best out of his players, had played football at Bowling Green University. A high school teammate of Stout’s named Jim Wright, a white man with a full head of brown hair parted to the side, a crooked smile, and a dimple in his right cheek, came on board as assistant coach. The team played most of their home games at Waite High School, a large brick building near downtown. Another woman who would go on to blaze trails for the women who came after her also has a Waite connection—Toledo native Gloria Steinem attended in the late 1940s.

In the Troopers’ first season in 1971, there weren’t many options when it came to opponents in Friedman’s collection of teams. They played only three games that year, one against the Buffalo All-Stars and two against the Cleveland Daredevils. They won all three by large margins. Almost immediately, Stout internalized the narrative that this was a team of winners, that they were champions, and he began to parrot it until his players believed it, too. It didn’t matter that they’d hardly had any competition: his team was the best, and by asserting it he would make it true. Even so, privately, he harbored some doubts as to how successful his team could be. “The brand of football wasn’t that good when we started,” he later told the Toledo Blade. “I never thought people would pay a second time to see us play.”


The 1972 season established the Troopers’ core identity: it was the year Linda Jefferson, the greatest halfback in the league, joined their team, giving the offense a jolt. The player—called a “bionic femme,” in an article comparing her to O. J. Simpson of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills—rushed for 1,179 yards in her first season with the Troopers. She averaged an astonishing 41 yards per touchdown run. Meanwhile, the team’s defense, known as the Green Machine, really took shape under defensive coach Hamilton. Now, they were stopping opposing teams in their tracks. “The defensive animal squad is Carl’s pride,” read a poem from their yearbook, which also indicated there’d be repercussions for any points the defense allowed: “Let them score—it means leg lifts and you wish you’d have died.”

Midway through the season the Troopers also acquired Gloria Jimenez, a Mexican American hairdresser who joined the team at the urging of her friend. The two were “young and rambunctious and didn’t have enough to do,” so they decided to go out for a football team. Jimenez had virtually no experience with organized sports at the time. What she did have, however, was five brothers and a lot of enthusiasm. “My dad always used to say, ‘I’ve got five sons and my daughter plays football.’ . . . I had more trophies than all my brothers put together.”

Over the course of her time as a Trooper, Jimenez would be a true gadget player, a jill-of-all-trades who could slide in wherever she was needed. She played defensive end, defensive tackle, middle linebacker, offensive tackle, a little bit of fullback, and she was also the kicker. Jimenez played both ways, she played special teams, she did it all. She essentially never came off the field during a game.

When they went 8–0 in their second season in 1972, the Troopers’ team yearbook declared them “NUMBER ONE” and “the best damn team in the league.” And they were, by a long shot. In games against the Cleveland Daredevils, the Detroit Demons, the Buffalo All-Stars, and the New York Fillies, the Troopers scored 298 points, while their opponents scored just 32. Five of their games were shutouts. Bill Stout got what he wanted; he really was coaching a team of champions.

At least, that was how they rounded out their first two seasons. But their first game of the new 1973 season would be against a new team, the Dallas Bluebonnets (some historical records put this game in the Troopers’ 1972 season, citing that season’s record as 9–0). When the Troopers got down to Dallas and exited their bus, they walked into a real stadium. It felt as if women’s football might just be on an upswing. Goodbye, high school football field, hello home of the Dallas Cowboys.

Odessa Jenkins is the CEO of the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC), a professional women’s tackle football league with over 20 teams and 1,000 women and coaches in 17 states. She spoke with Just Women’s Sports about the future of tackle football and why 2021 is shaping up to be a critical year for the WNFC.

You have an extensive background in both business and sports. Obviously, we believe that women’s sports are one of the most exciting opportunities in the space. What convinced you that the WNFC could succeed as both a business and a sports league? 

I worked at a startup for several years, and in 2014 I also came to be the owner of my first women’s tackle football team. It was in a different league, and I was really excited about becoming an owner. So as I took on that ownership, I was also learning the basics of building a business from the ground up in my startup work. I learned to ask questions like, Is there a viable market for this thing? What is the value proposition? Who is the consumer that will be consuming it and growing it? How will it look 50 years from now? How is it going to make money? All of these things that I think a lot of people never consider in women’s tackle football, to be honest with you.

Women have been playing the sport for 75 years, yet there’s never been a corporation formed for women’s tackle football, which I couldn’t believe. There were charities and other kinds of businesses, but never a corporation. So I started to look at women’s tackle football like a startup. What’s my value prop? What are our lines of revenue? And that’s when I started to think about how to create the WNFC.

So why do I think it could be valuable? It’s not me, it’s the market that’s telling me that it could be valuable. There’s been $600 million invested in alternatives to the NFL over the last seven years. We have the WFNC called an alternative to the NFL, which is a compliment. And the fact that nobody knew anything about this sport outside of lingerie football, to me was a business opportunity.

So that’s what kind of got me thinking, it’s been around for 70 years, it’s not going away, there’s enough players, there’s enough coaches to spin up a new league every single year. That means that the product itself is viable. Now how we make a viable business around it is the problem that I’m solving with the WNFC.

What do you think makes the WNFC different and how are you positioning the league to be the league for womens’ football?

There’s a couple of things you have to do to be at the pinnacle of the sport. One thing we’re doing is that we aren’t taking from our team in a way that leaves them in a financially desperate situation. So for example, we’re the only league that doesn’t require a team to pay us annually. We actually have profit sharing with all of our teams.

That was the first thing we did in the WNFC. Instead of having the teams pay us, we actually paid them. A part of our five-year plan is to actually invest back into the teams and grow them to be profitable businesses.

The other thing is our branding and our marketing. We’re the only women’s tackle football league, which is crazy, that has had a chief marketing officer and a chief branding officer. Our team is structured like any other executive team would be. And so our branding, our content, is always fresh. It’s always new.

I think the other thing that makes us unique is because we’ve done those other things, we’re attractive to sponsors. So we were the first football league of our kind to solicit a global sponsorship from a major brand with Adidas. We were the league that made brands pay attention to women’s tackle football. That’s how we’ve been different is that we have actually developed revenue lines.

I think the other thing that makes us significantly different is what we’re doing with apparel. We’ve created a viable line of business with our fan shop. It’s going to be a six-figure business in 2021. That kind of volume has never really been done, frankly, because an apparel line coming out of football has never been built. So doing those kinds of things differentiates us. And I think the team that’s running the league differentiates us as well. It’s a big group of people who are doing it because they want to see women’s tackle football become a professional sport.

I was looking at your site earlier and saw the uniforms — they are really fresh, and the colors are awesome. I also saw a bit about a new TV channel, WNFC TV. Can you talk about that? 

What I’m trying to do as a woman of color, and frankly as a startup founder, is to try to find other high growth businesses that are like mine and connect them to the WNFC. So we connected with this amazing company called Vyre Network, and they are a TV and live streaming network that is based in 116 countries. They are basically creating their own Hulu, with mid-level content. And so this group, Vyre Network, is now going to globally distribute all WNFC games. So we will be the first league ever to have every single one of our games globally distributed.

Everyone always asks, “Where do I find a game?” Even with the more established leagues, right. Where do I go to watch the WNBA? Now you’ll have an answer to that question for the WNFC in 2021.

You’ll go to Vyre Network. You will be able to watch our game on a mobile app. It’s free. There’s no barrier to entry, no sign in. You download it on Android or iOS. You download the application, you go to our channel, and you can start watching our games anywhere in the world. It’ll be on a website, it’ll be on Roku TV, Apple TV, and it’s coming to smart TVs in the summer. So it’s a great partnership. It’s another revenue generating opportunity for the league as we continue to grow.

And I saw that you guys had the 2021 schedule up on the site too. I mean, pending what happens with the pandemic, is that pretty much set?

Yeah, it is. Our schedule is set right now. What’s crazy is that we’ve been talking to a couple of expansion teams, so our schedule is set and done. But we might have some surprise announcements coming here very shortly where we grow a little bit.

Our championship game is going to be the weekend of August 6th and 7th. It’s going to be hosted in Dallas, Texas, at the University of North Texas, Apogee Stadium. So it’s a 60,000 person stadium, and it’ll be a big deal for us.

Our season doesn’t start until May. So we’re going to try to stay away from the pandemic as much as we can. But barring everything being shut down in May, this is going to be the most exciting year in this sport that we’ve ever had.

I wanted to chat a little bit about you specifically and more about your background. I know you referenced working at startups and how that experience shaped your perspective. I know that you also spend time in the NFL as a Bill Walsh coaching intern. I’m curious as to how that experience shaped your perspective?

I was in the NFL for eight weeks doing an internship, mostly with the Falcons, and a week with the Dallas Cowboys and their rookie camp. I don’t know that anything was more impactful for me than truly seeing the lack of parity in the athletic experience of professional female football players compared to professional male football players.

I also learned a lot from a business perspective, frankly, walking into and getting behind the scenes of the Dallas Cowboys. Even for a week, you get a clear understanding of why they have one of the most impressive and valuable brands in all of the world. It is attention to detail, always sticking to the brand, the level of professionalism, always sticking to the plan, the way they buy into their people, keeping their culture internal, but letting it be started externally. So all of those things I learned.

But when I got to the Atlanta Falcons, Sam Rapoport was critical and has always been an ally for me, and Scott Pioli, who’s a mentor of mine, was the assistant general manager there at the time. And him and coach Dan Quinn really opened the entire organization to me. Katie Sowers had been there before me. And so that organization was very open to the idea that a baller is a baller, a coach is a coach, and it didn’t matter if you were one of the men. So they really gave me an open eye to the entire operations team. And what I really saw there was that you can’t have that level of success without a significant level of investment. And that’s why when I was with the Falcons, I determined then and there that I was going to create the WNFC, because that was the missing piece in women’s football.

Obviously the pandemic has been a big hurdle in your time as a CEO. Have there been any other big hurdles that you’ve had to get over? And if so, how have you worked to overcome them?

I think the biggest hurdles dealing with women’s tackle football right now are the pipeline, because girl’s football isn’t developed. We have to develop women’s football from the top down and not from youth to professionals. So that’s always a challenge. In developing this thing, we also have to work to develop a pipeline to help girls. It’s more challenging than it is for other sports, because Title IX doesn’t include girls playing football in college.

I think the other big challenge is fundraising. We’ve done a good job of fundraising but I think that a lot of sponsors just don’t know we exist, so we need awareness. Once they figure out we exist, they’re like, “Yeah, let’s do business.” But I think that lack of awareness, and, frankly, the fact that most people think of half naked girls when you say women’s football, is a barrier for us. And so we’ve tried to respectfully market against that and market for what we’re about.

I am curious, in terms of that pipeline that you’re talking about, how does it work right now? Where do a lot of the players come from? I’m sure a lot of them grew up playing the sport, but I am also assuming that some of them transitioned from other sports. Is that true?

Yeah. And so that’s what’s crazy. And that’s where I think the value of women’s football is even more clearly stated. Even though there is no college level, there is no high school level, there is no junior level, there are still thousands of women every year finding football. So it should tell everybody something that women continue to play it, they continue to find it. It’s generally women who played other sports and didn’t realize, “Oh my God, I could play football.” So, college athletes, basketball players, cross fitters, runners, any woman who loves the game and is an athlete. So most of our recruiting it’s done on social and at events, at practices, in our local communities. But frankly, thousands of women every year are discovering that they can play football for the first time through us, through our league, because there’s nothing else introducing them to the idea of playing the game.

Athletes are athletes, but when a football player finds football, it is the most beautiful thing ever, because frankly for a woman, not only is she finding her purpose in her sport, she is embarking upon something that she never imagined doing. You don’t know how good or how amazing or how electric you are as a football player until you play football. And that takes 22 people to be on the field at the same time, 11 on 11. That’s what also makes this sport extremely special.

Was there anything else that you wanted to bring up that I didn’t mention at all?

The only other thing I wanted to talk about is a partnership that we haven’t announced yet, but it’s coming. I want to give a shout out to She Plays CEO Ashley Hart. We’ve been talking about partnering to make the first fantasy football for women. So I want everybody to look out for that, because that is also something that will, I think, change the industry.