NOTE: I use the acronym WTF which stands for Women's Tackle Football. I say it a lot and don't feel like typing the whole damn thing out every time I write an entry. So, have your laugh now. You done? K, great. Now you may proceed. ;)
The terminal at LAX is slammed with people the morning after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Everyone is going somewhere to do something. I think about the task ahead of me, wondering what everyone else's story is. The two twenty-something girls across from me laughing/scream-talking are obviously excited for their trip to begin, I'm guessing they're about to enjoy a much-needed vacay. The man next to me with his head in his hands staring at his phone, might've just experienced a devastating life-changing event. The college student sprawled out across three seats, must've partied last night and thought, "my flight's early, It'll be easier to stay up." I've been all of these people in the airport at some point in my life (ESPECIALLY the latter).
While I'm making assumptions about the strangers surrounding me, I know that if they were doing the same about me, they wouldn't come close to guessing my backstory. Yeah, I'm wearing gym pants, a Chicago Force Football shirt, my team USA 2013 World Championship ring, and carrying all my stuff in a gigantic gear bag that reads "USA National Football Team" (sooooooo undercover). Still, people assume when I say football, or they read football, that I am actually a soccer player. I then have the same conversation I've had since I began playing football at 10 years old (1995. No I'm not going to make a joke about my age. I've earned my age, thank you). It goes something like this:
Stranger: What sport do you play?
Stranger: Oh, like soccer?
Me: No, American football.
Stranger: Oh, do you play flag? Or is it that lingerie league?
Me: Nope. Full tackle, full gear, full field, full squad, the whole nine (yards). NCAA rules. The only difference is the ball is a little smaller.
Stranger: Hmmm, why haven't I seen anything about it on TV? How many teams are in the league?
Me: It's expensive to televise and (this has changed over the years, but recently the WFA has reached a record number of teams) 67.
Stranger: No way! Wow! I'll have to check it out.
Me: You should!.
This conversation just happened to me before I started writing this blog entry and I've endured it hundreds of times. I've heard the same words out of many different mouths, with different sub-text. I feel like a casting director listening to the same sides over and over again. The most common cast of characters to have this conversation with me are as follows:
1. The Middle-Aged Man/Former Athlete: Skeptical, condescending, all-knowing. His objective is to make sure I know how much greater he is (or once was) at football than me, and that there is no way I could possibly know more than him about the sport.
2. The Conservative Middle-Aged Woman: Intrigued, concerned, judgmental. Her objective is to find out as many details as possible so she say to her friends at the PTA meeting tomorrow night, "I just really don't think football is a sport for women."
3. The Twenty-Something (male or female): Nonchalant, interested, vindictive. His/her objective is to tell you all about the "friend of a friend" they "kind of know" who played football on their high school team. And how she has "like 100,000 views on one of her YouTube videos".
4. The Football Lover (male or female): Exuberant, insatiable, supportive. Her/his objective is to know everything about the sport, because they will absolutely be googling it when they get home. They might even follow the team and send a message via social media about how happy they are to have discovered the game.
It goes without saying that my favorite interaction occurs with the last archetype. Unfortunately, they are the least common of the four. People are afraid of what they don't understand and they already have a staunch opinion before I can even try to convince them that Women's Tackle Football (WTF) is valid. In the end, it's all about them. How it makes them feel knowing women's tackle football exists.
Archetype 1. Feels threatened
Archetype 2. Feels uncomfortable
Archetype 3. Feels inferior/attention-deprived
Archetype 4. Excited
After having so many of these interactions, I've learned a very important lesson: people NEED to see to believe...with the exception of Jesus and President-Elect Trump (it's gonna be the greatest, you guys!). My goal this season is to make believers out of a lot of people. WTF is legit. These athletes are legit. The passion and commitment is legit.
I once had a referee say to me in a game, "Wow! I mean you can really throw, #15." Listen, you condescending little poop nugget (turd), you're damn right I can throw! I can throw because our badass O-line just destroyed the defense, our wide receivers just ran precise routes, and we've been trained by a veteran coaching staff that, thankfully, doesn't treat us like women, but like football players. By the way, telling me in the middle of the 2nd quarter as we run down to line up in the red zone, is not an appropriate time to express your disbelief. Shouldn't you be focusing on YOUR job?!
Ok, the truth is, we can't really blame people for making the assumptions they have about WTF. The game is still in it's infancy. Sure there was a league in the 1970's, which dissolved in a decade's time. The game as we know it today was founded in 2000. In my 10 years affiliated with WTF, I've seen a lot of change. The coaching has improved, the athlete's are of a higher caliber, and the amount of fans in the stands have multiplied. It takes time to grow a sport. Go back and watch some early footage of the men's game (this video is an example of the level of performance 68 years after the first game was played), it's un-impressive by today's standards, but you have to start somewhere.
Sure women have had access to watching the game for years, but, until recently, have been prevented from being able to play. As more young women play, the quality will improve exponentially. Not to say that the game isn't exciting to watch NOW. It is, but anyone who is expecting to see NFL caliber performances from women who have day jobs and, for the most part, limited experience on the field, is being unrealistic. However, if you want to watch dedicated athletes who love the sport and are not distracted by the politics of contracts, money, or endorsements, you might want to give WTF a look-see. Chances are most people's opinion about the sport was formed on assumption, without ever going to a game. Give us a shot. I think you will be surprised, inspired, and most definitely entertained.
This is not just a battle of Us vs Them. We, the WTF community, have done ourselves a disservice over the years. At times, we've chosen individual and team benefits over the betterment of the sport. Our own egos have been our greatest enemy and have done more harm than good. We've created new teams so that players with less skill can have more play time. There has been an all-inclusive element that has caused many lopsided games, which hinders spectator attendance, because nobody wants to watch a 65-0 blowout. There have been campaigns/arguments for "easier" schedules, in hopes of reaching a championship with minimal anxiety. THIS IS NOT THE PRIZE! The prize is not the trophy. The prize is the game, my friends! That anxiety, that's what makes winning a championship great. That's the whole damn point! As long as we are choosing our egos over the sport itself, women's football will not only degenerate, it will die. We must put the sport before ourselves and strive to be the greatest among the great.
So, while I fly over a bunch of brown squares on my way to Chicago thinking about these next 6 1/2 months, let my objectives for my 15th, and final, season be known:
15 OBJECTIVES for 2017
1. Perform beyond expectations.
2. Achieve our full potential as a unit.
3. Put the team before myself.
4. Challenge every opponent to bring their best.
5. Respect the game.
11. Maximum effort from warm-ups to game time.
12. Push myself and my teammates beyond our comfort zone.
13. Poise. Be quick, but don't hurry (John Wooden).
14. Destroy any sign of social distraction (drama).
15. Be an ambassador of the game.
To my WTF peers, I challenge and encourage all of us, not just my teammates, to strive toward these 15 objectives. We all win when we are pushing each other to be better.
To women's tackle football fans, thank you for continuing to support our growing community. We are grateful for you! Please continue to talk about and bring people to the games to enlighten them on how wonderful it is.
To anyone who is unfamiliar with our sport, give us a shot. Go to the WFA website and find a team close to where you live. Go see a game. Bring the kids. It's definitely more affordable than an NFL game and you'll be much closer to the action. If you're in or close to Chicago, come watch our team play, The Chicago Force. We'd love to have you in the stands and I would personally love to meet you.
Thank you for reading. I look forward to sharing my experience with you all throughout my final season.
Let the games begin!
With Grit and Grace,
Sami Grisafe #15
P.S. if you want to follow the action on social media, search the hashtag #15for15 (my football number and the number of years I've played tackle football). Or, follow me on Instagram @SamiGrisafe