In the past decade, the women of Colorado Springs have been exerting some new kinds of badassery — from throwing elbows in flat-track and banked-track roller derby, to flaunting leather and lace in the four-year-old Peaks and Pasties burlesque troupe.
Now our women are taking it a step further with the Colorado Sting, a semi-professional, full-contact football team belonging to the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL). And they're serious about it. At a recent practice, going from hard-hitting drill to hard-hitting drill, they only rest for my benefit — granting interviews while panting and sweaty, all the while casting one determined eye back to the field.
The Sting is the product of head coach Lester Robinson. A longtime boys' football coach for the city's Parks and Rec department, Robinson had also coached a team in the indoor Foxxy Football League (FFL), which fell apart in 2011. He knew the women's hearts were still in the sport, so when one of his boys' moms wanted to start a new league, he moved on it.
The FFL was full-contact, but it wasn't quite what the IWFL is doing now. The FFL teams played seven-on-seven indoors, wearing hockey gear on top and no gear (meaning just shorts) on the bottom. The Sting, on the other hand, wear full pads and uniforms and play on a regulation field by NCAA rules. They play with a smaller ball to accommodate smaller hands, but, says Robinson, "It's actually football, 11-on-11."
Title IX lives
According to Title IX legislation passed in 1972, which mandates gender equality in secondary school academics and sports, girls are allowed to play on school football teams. Despite that, though, many girls don't feel welcome, either because they think they should be playing more feminine sports, or because the boys tease them. And only a few American schools already incorporated girls' football teams into their athletic programs.
Some of the Sting's players, whose ages range from 19 to 38, have never played football of any sort. And most have never played the way the boys play.
"I never played tackle until I met Lester," says wide receiver and safety Niquita Grayer, who's played intramural and flag football. "As a man, you kind of know what sport you want to play because you're taught that, being little boys. Little girls are taught to be cute, and I think that once a lot of women see this, they're going to want to be a part of it because it's so 'out there.'"
These players aren't concerned with being cute.
"Nobody worries about breaking nails. I don't think we even worry about breaking bones until it happens," says Grayer. And it happens. In the first game, the Sting lost five players to minor injuries, and a player from the opposing Phoenix Phantomz broke her ankle.
"Anybody who's out here knows that they're going to get hit, and knows that they're going to have to play hard, and that's why we practice," says defensive end Kim Bland. "You won't see a lot of the girls saying, 'Ow, I'm hurt.' You're going to see them get up and do it again."
Getting back up
With practices four times a week, the players — all of whom have day jobs — dedicate large portions of their life to building the team. They don't get paid; in fact, they pay for much of their own gear, and chip in for transportation. Their immediate goal is to expand the team from 30 to 40 players and grow as a community.
"If you look at all the other teams around the nation, they're getting pretty big, so our intent is just to be as big as them, whether it's getting paid to play or just having big sponsorships so we don't have to pay out of our pockets," says middle linebacker and team captain Abby Higginbotham.
Indeed, of 51 teams across the U.S., Canada and Mexico, some teams have been around long enough to earn some of those perks — like the Atlanta Xplosion, who in 2003 joined the then-nascent league and now enjoy sponsorships and tons of support.
Of course, the Sting first must prove they have staying power. A decade ago, the United Women's Football League, a tackle league that hosted the Koalas, Colorado Springs' first-ever women's team, fell apart after less than one season. The FFL only lasted partway through the second season, and Robinson says that's because "it wasn't managed right."
Grayer, for one, envisions the Sting going the distance. "If we continue to be as serious as we are about it and it continues to grow," she says, "it could lead to a WNFL or something like that."
In one respect, the IWFL is already like the NFL: New, or "expansion," teams often find tough sledding. In that first April game in Phoenix, the Sting fell to the Phantomz by an ugly final score of 75-0.
"We went up against a team that has 10 years' experience, and we got thumped," Robinson says. To which Bland adds, "They're absolutely huge."
The Sting will play the Phantomz again at their first home game May 19. But the women aren't intimidated.
"Not at all," Bland says. "We're preparing right now; that's what we're here for."
As the season progresses, the team will continue recruiting. And in the fall, it'll hold formal tryouts. Anyone interested can contact Robinson. "If you haven't played before, that's fine," he says. "We can put the works in and get you going."
As the team and the sport continue to grow, the players will naturally continue to fight for their place in the boys' club.
"It's been a while since Title IX," Higginbotham says. "We're still trying to break through barriers, and hopefully this is that final barrier we can break through and show people that we can do anything guys can do."