Tackling Tradition with the Hearts of Champions

By Blair Jackson

A group of Northwest Arkansas women are donning shoulder pads (specially crafted for the feminine physique) and lacing up their cleats for a championship game scheduled for the first weekend of October. Living and working as mothers, lawyers, nurses and students; each woman now claims one more role: member of a semi-professional football team.

In their inaugural season with the Women’s Spring League, Lady Rampage ended with a 4-1 record and brought home the titles of Conference and Division Champions.
Head coach Shane McDonald commented on the team’s success, “It was a blast seeing all the hard work. I told them from day one, ‘If you put everything in it, you will get more out of it.’”

Even the one loss of the season offered a triumphant moment for the team. Playing against the Memphis Belles, Lady Rampage was down to 14 players, with no subs. After an inspirational halftime speech, given by team captain, Michele Miller, the women came together in the second half — holding the line with an iron will and shutting down the offense for the remainder of the game. “It wasn’t a victory, but we came together as a team,” Miller said of the game.

Currently, the only official circuit for full-tackle women’s football is on a semi-professional level, which means that most of the women who joined the team have no athletic background in football. Many grew up watching football or playing organized sports, but few of them understood the basics of the game or the technique involved in executing plays before working with the coaches of Lady Rampage.

“They watch and cheer, but no one’s taught them,” said Coach Jermaine Petty, former All-American linebacker and lead tackle for the Razorbacks who now volunteers as the conditioning and defensive line coach for Lady Rampage. He points out Kea Crow, calling her the most improved player.

Crow, a student in her third year of law school, laughs thinking back to the days when she first joined the team. “It was very confusing. Trying to explain drills to me was like trying to teach me a foreign language.” Her first season taught Crow the basic objective of her position: to knock the line over or tackle the quarterback, and she had some proud moments: a QB sac in the first game and a tackle that stopped an interception in its tracks. She hopes to continue playing even after she graduates, as long as the league and the team exist.

The Women’s Spring League, like other women’s football leagues, is in its beginning stages and is in a constant state of flux. Most of the leagues are pay-to-play and offer no incentives for players to follow through on their commitment to their teams. For their first season, Lady Rampage was scheduled to play seven teams, but because of a lack of players, three teams forfeited. Each team is essentially bound by a love for the game, of which Lady Rampage has an abundance.

“For most of us, it’s a dream come true to come out here, suit up and play football. We’ve played with our dads, our brothers, and our cousins. Now we get to play on our own,” said Keena Hayes-Ford, nurse and mother, who inherited a love of football from her father.

Like most of the team members, Ford has a full-time job and a family. Twenty-seven women means 27 different schedules — revolving around kids, vacations and careers — so it is rare that all members of Lady Rampage can make it to practice. Currently, each lady pays for her own equipment, and all traveling expenses are out-of-pocket. It is a price they are all willing to pay.

For most ladies, the appeal of playing on Lady Rampage team lies in the fact that it’s full tackle: just like the guys’ teams. “Just because boys do it doesn’t mean girls can’t,” says Alesha Carr, who has a background in mixed martial arts. “It’s more encouragement for girls to do something more than traditionally female sports.”
Defensive and offensive tackle, Gina Debbrecht agrees, “It’s all about the fun. I don’t care if we win or lose. I just want to hit someone.”

When asked to explain the difference between men’s and women’s football, Coach Perry replied, “There’s no difference.” He explained that the gender of the players will affect the speed and strength of the athletes, but the game is exactly the same. “In men’s football, the collisions are going to be a lot more violent, but it’s not powder puff football.”

So far, Lady Rampage has been lucky, experiencing only one injury that forcibly benched a player, but the physical stakes are still high. “There will be injuries,” Ford says.

In the second season, Lady Rampage hopes to see more community involvement and more of an interest from athletes. “The young football players who want to play with the boys can look forward to playing when they’re eighteen,” Perry said. With a new league and new possibilities, young women athletes can begin dreaming of the day they can wear a Lady Rampage jersey. “It wouldn’t be possible without this team. There’s no other place for them to play,” Coach Cameron Thomas said.

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