Did you know that women can play professional tackle football? Did you know that not one but TWO professional women’s tackle football leagues are currently operating the US? Did you know that the women’s football Super Bowl will be played on August 4th at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh?
HerGameLife’s Emily Cohen caught up with Adrienne Smith (follow her on Twitter at @adriennethe10) member of the U.S. National Women’s Football Team and the Boston Militia franchise of the Women’s Football Alliance to find out more about this exciting way for women to really get involved in football!
HGL: How did you get involved in women’s tackle football?
Smith: I actually met the owner of the New York Sharks in 2001. I was at business school at Columbia and she had a meeting on campus. A friend of mine introduced me to her and said ‘You need to meet this woman; she owns a tackle football team.’ That was the beginning. It wasn’t until four years later, in September 2004, when I actually tried out for the team. I made the team and my life was forever changed!
HGL: Did you play football when you were young?
Smith: I did – and most of the women who play professionally now played with their brothers and the neighborhood kids growing up. Back then, there was nothing organized where girls could play and learn the game, but for me football was always a big part of my family. I’m an only child but my mother was one of 11 kids so I have 50-plus cousins. There was a particular group of five boy cousins that every time we’d go visit the family in Arkansas in the summer, I would play with them and they loved football, so – that’s really where I got my official introduction to how the game was played.
HGL: So you weren’t the kicker on the boys’ football team or anything?
Smith: No, I wasn’t. When I got to high school I wanted to try out for the freshman team. I don’t know how this happened but I ended up arm wrestling all the boys on the freshman football team and I beat pretty much everybody. I came home and said ‘Mom, I’m going to try out for the football team’ and she said a big, resounding ‘No’. It turns out the freshman football coach also went to our church and my mom told him that I wasn’t trying out. So that ended my non-existent high school football career. However, some of the other women on the women’s US national team did play in high school; a couple of them were kickers, but one, (Sammi Gretaski), she was actually the quarterback for her high school team. That’s impressive. She is the quarterback for the US national team, but she also had experience playing in that position in her high school.
Things are changing for young girls in football. There are some girls out there now – I’m in the process of mentoring one – who is a linebacker on her junior varsity high school team.
HGL: That’s fantastic, Adrienne. You’re really making a difference! Tell me more about the WFA.
Smith: I think the WFA is the best-kept secret in the world! There’s this huge population of women who love this sport, but there’s a whole other category of women who love the NFL so much that they want to play themselves, and I think that’s the bucket that I fall into. There’s the WFA, which is nationwide and consists of over 60 teams, and there’s another league, IFWL, the Independent Women’s Football League.
I’ve played on teams in both leagues. When I played for the New York Sharks, we were in the IWFL and then some of the top tier teams from the IWFL moved to the WFA, which is where I played this year and I played in last year as well.
HGL: You play on the Boston Militia, a franchise in the WFA. What is that like?
Smith: The Boston Militia is phenomenal; they’re back to back champions. The team won the Women’s Super Bowl in 2010 and last year in 2011. I was part of that team and we look to be in a really good position to win this year again, in 2012. And the big thing about this year is that the championship game will be held in Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers! It will be the first time in the history of football, period, where a woman’s tackle football game will be held in an NFL stadium.
HGL: When is that game?
Smith: August 4th
HGL: Will we be able to watch it on TV?
Smith: It’s looking like ESPN might be covering it; that’s still in the works so I’m not sure yet. It could get coverage on ESPN3, but I think they’re trying to see if we can get on ESPN2 or ESPN.
HGL: That would be fantastic! I know a lot of our readers, including me, would like to watch it! Anyway, tell me what you love the most about playing football? What does football give you that other sports don’t?
Smith: That’s a great question. You know, I’ve been really blessed. I’m that girl, that athlete, who has hit that grand slam. I’ve made that game-wining jump shot in basketball. But there’s still an element that football brings to me emotionally and personally that basketball and softball can’t replicate.
HGL: Is it the physicality?
Smith: Yeah, I think it’s the physicality. At the end of the day, you’re trying to run over another human. I think there’s that immediacy that’s hard to replicate in other sports. When I started playing football, it went from this academic knowledge of ‘Yeah, I watch it on television, hear the commentators, blah, blah’ to this experience that transcended everything I thought it could be.
I’m not some bruiser who loves to smack people; I like to finesse. Truth be told, I don’t even like to get hit. I like to look beautiful.
HGL: What do people say when you say that you play women’s tackle football and they see you at 5’7” and 140 pounds?
Smith: I get the ‘Oh, you play for the lingerie football league’, which just enrages me. No, I don’t! I have to explain to them there are different body types required for the different positions in football and I am that leaner person with good hands.
When I’m catching the ball on a deep route or throwing a touchdown pass, it’s something so innate in my soul to have this idea and this vision and be born in a body that society said ‘You can’t do that.’ And then to be able to actually experience it is one of the most beautiful things in life. I don’t take it for granted. And I tell my teammates, ‘Don’t take it for granted that we’re out here playing this sport, especially as women. There are so many women in this world – heck, we can even go down the street – who are abused and misused because of their gender, let alone other countries where they’re killing off girls and WE get the opportunity to play a game and to be pioneers for those other little Adriennes and whoever else is aspiring to be in our footsteps.’
I don’t ever take it for granted. It’s a huge gift and I’m just so pleased that I’m a recipient of this gift, this opportunity.
HGL: I was really surprised at the final scores of some of the Boston Militia games: 64-6, 59-0, and so on. These are outrageously lopsided scores for men’s football. Is that normal for the women’s league or is it because the Militia is so much better than the other teams?
Smith: Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of parity in women’s football right now. There are a lot of teams, there’s a lot of interest but sometimes I think we’re almost shooting ourselves in the foot by saying ‘Yeah, we’ll have 60 teams in the league so everyone can play’ but when it comes to those teams that are truly competitive, we get these outrageous scores, which I think hurts women’s football.
Overall, I believe there need to be major changes in women’s pro football in terms of streamlining the number of teams in a league and replicating the NFL model. That way, you slice the really good talent into a smaller number of teams so you have greater parity across the league and you’ll get your more normal 7, 14, 21, or 34 scores.
HGL: That seems more realistic, because the scores reminded me of arena football. But you play on the 100-yard field, just like the NFL right?
Smith: Yes, everything is exactly the same.
HGL: We’ve talked a lot about the Boston Militia and the WFA, let’s talk a little about the US National Team. What countries do you play against?
Smith: In 2010, we played against Canada, Austria, Finland, Germany, and Sweden. It’s kind of like the Olympics where every few years you play against other countries. The next international championship is next year, 2013, and it will be held in Canada. In addition to the teams that I mentioned, it’s looking like Brazil, Mexico and Japan might field some women’s teams.
HGL: What’s the future of women’s tackle football? How do we make it grow from here?
Smith: One way to grow the sport as a whole would be to introduce the sport at the college level but, at this point, we’re almost doing it a bit backwards by having these professional women’s tackle leagues but not having that pyramid of success underneath where you build up junior players in programs, like the PeeWee /Pop Warner football for girls, then go into junior high, high school and college, which is what happens on the male side of things. I think probably it’s going to have to even start at a grassroots level before we see any type of manifestation at the college level – where you have these girls playing at 5th grade, 6th grade, and then building up from there.
I just don’t think you can deny the fact that as time goes on, girls and women are appreciating football more, are more engaged with it, and my belief for the NFL is that you really want to make more money, you need to have these women and girls not just wearing pink jerseys and showing up at games. If you really want to make money, get these girls playing the sport; the money will take care of itself. A girl that plays football grows into a woman that loves football and who has a husband and kids who love football. That’s the way to do it.