Women are fighting for space in football, and they’re here to stay

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As the Ravenwood quarterback fell back into the pocket and threw a pass intended for the end zone, Michael Collier fired out of his seat. When Morgan Collier, a freshman wide receiver, caught him over the defensive back’s head, Michael went wild.

He never imagined he would see Morgan, his only daughter, catch a touchdown pass for his high school team.

Michael sprinted down the aisles of Ravenwood’s Raptor Stadium, parents, friends and family of other players cheering.

“Girls love football as much as boys, but they don’t normally get the chance to show off that kind of athleticism,” Michael said. “And it was a really great product that they put out there.”

Morgan Collier starred in the inaugural high school girls’ flag football season in Williamson County, the first opportunity of its kind for Nashville-area girls.

Women's soccer team, 'Music City Mizfits' Rodneika Crutcher (37), MJ Johnson (7), Jennika Watts (24) and Gwendolyn Hardison (87) pose with their coach Donita Hines at Lighthouse Christian soccer ground in Antioch, Tennessee, Friday, July 15, 2022.

But Williamson County is not alone. Whether it’s through a grassroots high school program or an established professional team, Nashville women are gaining ground in soccer, a sport that has historically excluded them, regardless of how many people say they don’t belong. .

“What attracts women to women’s football is that they are told that football is not for women. And that’s definitely not true,” said Donita Hines, owner of the Music City Mizfits, a semi-pro women’s tackle soccer team in Nashville.

COMING SOON:Metro Nashville Schools, Titans partner for women’s flag football program starting in 2023

HERE TO STAY:Why Coaches and Players Think Women’s Flag Football Will Be the Next TSSAA-Sanctioned Sport

That’s not to say, however, that the growth of women in football is easy to achieve.

“It’s not like there aren’t a lot of women,” said Hines, owner of the Mizfits since 2016. “People just think women shouldn’t play football. We have all the SEC schools here, and men’s soccer is basically what everyone watches.

The younger generation helps lead a changing of the guard. Some schools in Williamson County hosted up to 100 players for the first women’s flag football season. The Titans helped fund the experiment, which ended in a league championship at Nissan Stadium on May 7.

A handful of colleges have even begun offering flag football scholarships to women at many Division II, III, or NAIA schools.

“I think it’s going to explode no matter what,” said Ravenwood assistant flag football coach Jessica Mancini. “No matter where he goes, the interest is already very high.”

Jennika Watts (24) of Music City Mizfits at Lighthouse Christian Football Field in Antioch, Tennessee on Friday, July 15, 2022.

earn respect

It goes without saying that Chris Hughes knows what a good football player looks like on the pitch.

He’s seen a lot, both in 13 seasons for the Fairview High School men’s soccer team, and now in one season coaching the Fairview women’s flag football team.

Hughes went so far as to say that a few of his flag football players could not just line up against his tacklers, but many could outplay their male counterparts.

“Football is such a popular sport, and the girls are finding out that they can play, and they’re just as good as the boys,” Hughes said. “Some of the receivers on my flag team could probably play on my [boys] the high school team. »

The stands at flag games this spring were full of his tacklers from the fall.

MJ Johnson (7) of Music City Mizfits poses at the Lighthouse Christian football field in Antioch, Tennessee on Friday, July 15, 2022.

The rules of flag football are obviously different from those of tackle football. Beyond the visible difference in tackles, only seven players are allowed on the pitch for each team, compared to 11 for tackle football.

But aside from the offensive and defensive lines, the positions are largely the same. Flag quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, linebackers and safeties play the same packages and play with the speed you expect to find on any grid.

“You can see the excitement and the cheers when they get a good catch,” Hughes said. “It’s the same excitement. The girls have always been in the stands or applauded on the sidelines. Now they are on the ground.

The women’s football, however, is identical to the men’s. The Mizfits wear the same pads and helmets, race for the ball just as hard to tackle, and fight in the trenches like the men’s teams do. They throw the same assists and make the same stands on the goal line.

“For a lot of women, it’s something they’ve never done before, and they come to our games and see it’s no different from guys,” Hines said. “It’s full contact and the same competitiveness.”

When Hines and his players tell people they play football, they often assume they mean in a lingerie league, where women in make-up and little or no clothes play a shortened version of football.

But Hines and his players are quick to correct their doubts, saying the type of football they play isn’t just a glamorous version of it.

“They’re going to ask ‘Are you playing in a bikini? “But we have earned a lot more respect now. Our name is there. People come to see us. »

“We’re trying to prove to people that women are as good as men at this sport,” Hines said. “They’re competitive, they can go out there and get some big hits and make some good plays, throw those 40-yard passes and have all those highlights.”

The women's soccer team, 'Music City Mizfits' Rodneika Crutcher (37), MJ Johnson (7), Jennika Watts (24) and Gwendolyn Hardison (87) pose together at the Lighthouse Christian soccer field in Antioch, Tennessee on Friday , July 15, 2022.

“Catch fire”

The Music City Mizfits roster is made up of women between the ages of 18 and 40. The players are moms, nurses, active military and veterans, doctors and youth soccer coaches. They come from as close as the Nashville Metro or as far as Clarksville – maybe even further.

The desire to find opportunities for women in football brings them together.

Women’s soccer is “catching fire” both in Nashville and across the country, Hines said. After years of struggling to create growth, the Mizfits have started to see progress, making the playoffs this year with an active roster of just 20 players.

The Mizfits are part of the Women’s Football Alliance, a national women’s professional soccer league that includes 65 teams in three divisions.

Most of the Mizfits had never played organized football before lacing up their cleats for the tryouts.

“With momentum building for women’s football, a lot of women want to be a part of it,” Hines said.

For high school students, women’s flag leagues are also gaining momentum. Eight states sanction women’s flag football as a college sport: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York.

Tennessee could be next. The inaugural season of women’s flag football in Williamson County was such a success that Davidson County announced June 21 that it would follow suit this school year. Emily Crowell, deputy executive director of the TSSAA, said Tennessee was “moving in the direction” of making women’s flag football a sanctioned sport.

“It’s good to see that we’re still creating firsts for girls,” Crowell said. “At some point, we will run out of firsts.”

The women's soccer team, 'Music City Mizfits' Rodneika Crutcher (37), poses at the Lighthouse Christian soccer field in Antioch, Tennessee on Friday, July 15, 2022.

‘Send the elevator down

Wheren Phoebe Schecter was in high school, her only chance to play football was one powderpuff game a year, when junior and senior girls dressed in pink jerseys to compete in a singular flag game.

Now, Schecter is a professional soccer player for Team Great Britain and an NFL flag ambassador, helping to set up girls’ high school flag leagues across the United States. She helped bring flag football to Williamson and Williamson. Davidson County schools.

Schecter lives his life through a philosophy of “pushing the elevator down.” She has come through the football ranks and she feels it is her duty to bring other women and girls with her.

Gwendolyn Hardison (87) of Music City Mizfits poses at the Lighthouse Christian football field in Antioch, Tennessee on Friday, July 15, 2022.

“These girls, once they start playing this sport, they fall in love with it,” Schecter said. “The life lessons, the values, the teamwork, the leadership and quite frankly how it empowers you as a woman is so amazing.”

This sense of empowerment is one of the reasons why the presence of women in football is on the rise.

For those who are part of it, this is why women’s football is here to stay.

“It’s not a hoax. It’s not for show. Women play football and women will continue to play football,” Hines said. “People are going to have to get used to it, because it’s not going anywhere.”

Emma Healy is a sports reporting intern for The Tennessean. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @_EmmaHealy_.

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