Girls on the Gridiron
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On a rare warm Saturday in May, referee whistles and crowd noise pierce the otherwise calm air at Lussier Stadium at Madison La Follette High School. With just under four minutes to go until halftime, the Madison Blaze, in its inaugural season and first home game, leads the Iowa Crush 28-0.
Third and seven. Iowa has the ball. The Blaze defense stops the Crush for a 7-yard loss.
“Punt return!” yells a Blaze coach to his players. “Ready!”
Iowa’s punt goes out of bounds at the 42-yard-line, where the local team takes over. The game announcer bellows, “Another Madison Blaaaaze …” and the crowd fires back, “First down!”
The atmosphere is festive, but on the Blaze sidelines, it’s all business.
Women are sporting the black-and-orange uniforms on the field, but other than that, the game differs only slightly from men’s football. Quarters are 15 minutes long with a halftime, but the ball is smaller and there is no blocking below the waist.
“We just play our hearts out!” says Pam Close, 49, one of the team’s four female owners and the oldest player on the team. “We didn’t grow up playing football like guys do,” she adds. “Here, 50% of new players are learning the game for the first time, and some have never even watched football on TV!”
While the game is noticeably slower, “we hit just as hard,” Close says. Size-wise, there’s little comparison. The Blaze players’ average height is about 5 feet, 5 inches.
A tough start
Madison has fielded a women’s football team for the past seven years, but ownership and name changes have challenged the sport’s viability. The team was first known as the Wisconsin Wolves and then the Madison Cougars before Close, Tiffany Loomis, Nicole Funk, and Kim Sherman decided last year to take ownership, change the name one last time, and secure a franchise that would be around for years to come.
“We recognized that we wanted the team and the business to run differently,” Close said. “It hurt us every time we changed names. We want to create a solid foundation so that even if owners leave, the team will survive. We’re just the keepers right now.”
The Madison Blaze is a member of the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL), a 501(C)(6) nonprofit out of Texas with eight divisions around the country. It was founded to support the sport of women’s tackle football.
The Madison franchise is run entirely by volunteers who dedicate their time outside of their full-time careers to advance a women’s contact sport. The sport also provides mentoring. “We want our players to stay involved even after their playing days are over,” said Loomis. “There’s coaching, management, marketing, accounting, administration, many aspects. Right now, when women quit football, they just leave. We want them as advocates. My intent isn’t to own the team forever, but I want to set it up so that whoever takes my spot is successful.”
It costs $2,500 to put a game on, and with only four home games on the schedule, ticket sales are crucial to the bottom line. When possible, the team also reserves a portion of the gate proceeds for a local charity. “It’s important to be tied into the community,” Loomis says. “It takes a cut off what we could make but makes the girls feel so good about what they’re doing.” This game’s beneficiary is the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.
Currently, all the team’s coaches are men, including head coach Norm Killion, who drives up from Racine, but the owners envision an all-female coaching staff one day.
Close aspires to be a coach, while Loomis sees team management as her forte.
Both are Iowa natives and seven-year veterans of the game. Close, known to her fans as “P.C.,” is an accounting software consultant by day who grew up at a time when women weren’t allowed to play contact sports.