By Melissa Castor

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Women’s World Football Games in New Orleans at the Saints Practice Facility with six of my teammates and our coach from the Seattle Majestics. For the past three years, women from around the world came together for a week of tackle football practices and games. We were split up by position and were coached by former NFL players, and high school and college coaches. For five days, we did two-a-day practices, film sessions, position meeting, and everything in between with 224 of the top female football players in the world. Not only that, but we got the opportunity to meet, talk with, and learn from some of the most hard working and passionate individuals to have ever played the game. So what did 5 days of football teach me?

Women Tackle Football is the best kept secret in sports. I started playing women’s tackle football three years ago for the Seattle Majestics, but prior to that I didn’t even know it existed. I was going into my senior year of basketball at Pacific Lutheran University and always found that the sports arena was where I felt the most alive. Knowing that my basketball career was coming to a close left that sinking feeling that I was done playing sports competitively. Then I was lucky enough to meet Jackie McCall, All-American Wide Receiver and Cornerback for the Majestics, who invited me to tryouts.

“I left the court and understood that the game I had grown up loving had taught me to be timid.”

12376766_1204918536185428_7946952347050867331_n-2

I remember that first training camp like it was yesterday. As I was introduced to the players,  all I could think was “What if I suck?” I had always excelled in whatever sport I played in middle school and high school. Now, as a 20 year old, I was going to try and learn a brand new sport! The whistle blew and I got my first taste of what it was like to play football.

I never realized the impact that this sport would have on who I was until my basketball and football seasons overlapped by 3 months. By the end of the basketball season, I knew that I had found my place—and it wasn’t on the hardwood as I had originally thought. My basketball coach pulled me off the bench one game and put me in. Moments later, I was called for a foul. Not even a minute later, I got another foul. My coach jokingly said, “Are you trying to foul out?” I left the court and understood that the game I had grown up loving had taught me to be timid. I think back to every instance where I got called for a foul where I was being to “aggressive.” In my head, I would always think, why does it matter? We aren’t going to break if we run into each other or box out hard in the paint. It won’t hurt us to dive after every loose ball. But that whistle tells us a different story. It tells us to hold back our aggression. That is why I grew to love football. There is a whistle but it’s only blown when the play is over. When the ball stops moving. When players are scattered across the battle field and slowly getting back up to do it all again. In football, it’s a game of inches. Each play is an opportunity to move the ball as an 11 women unit down the field.

“In the short time that I have played this sport I have learned what it means to take a hit for women’s football.”

I’d be lying if I said that I could have imagined what the 4 years I spent with the Seattle Majestics had in store for me. I learned a lot about what it takes to be a female football player and the obstacles we face, the stereotypes we are smashing. But after spending a week with 224 women from 17 different countries, where the sound of pads popping is the only common language we all speak, I learned that the sky is the limit for Women’s Tackle Football. Each conversation made me realize how big this family is. But for the same reason I didn’t know about it  years ago, you probably didn’t know about it either. To put it in perspective how big women tackle football is let’s compare it to the NFL, which has 32 teams. In the US alone we have two professional divisions for women tackle football: IWFL and WFA. The WFA has 45 teams and the IWFL consists of 36 teams.

In the short time that I have played this sport I have learned what it means to take a hit for women’s football. Whenever you say you play, there are always comments about how it’s a men’s sport and women shouldn’t play. Or you might get hurt. Or its lingerie football, right? Or you’re pretty good, for a girls team.

12321662_989968437762031_4908294059860357696_n-2

But all of us who are women and have participated in athletes, at some point we have been or will face adversity because of our gender. That does not define us. We can choose to rise above and realize that this struggle is not limited to us. There is a family of warriors that get up everyday and grind so that one day future generations don’t have to hear “you can’t because you’re a girl!” or  “you’re pretty good for a girl!”

Jen Welter, the Linebacker Coach for the Arizona Cardinals and former gold medalist for the US Women’s National Football Team. At 5’2” and 130lbs, she is a firecracker that doesn’t see size or gender as having a direct correlation to ability level.  On February 15, 2014, Jen played as a running back for the men’s professional football team the Texas Revolution. She carried the ball 3 times. She got hit 3 times. And she jumped back up 3 times. We got the chance to talk with her at the women’s world games and there is one thing that I will never forget that she said: “If not me, then who? Someone had to be the first. I didn’t take that hit for me. I took it for women’s football.”