Are You Ready for Some Football? (2021 edition)

By Russ Crawford

The Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), the largest and longest running professional women’s tackle football league in the United States will be holding their national championships at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio the weekend of July 23-24. Since women’s professional football arguably started in Ohio in the 1930s, it will be something of a homecoming.

The WFA has around sixty teams, divided into three divisions. The championship games for Division 2 and 3 will be held at the stadium located across the street from the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Friday with the Division 3 game between the 7-1 Derby City Dynamite and the 7-1 Arizona OutKast set to go at 3:00PM. That will be followed by the Division 2 game between the undefeated (8-0) defending champion Nevada Storm and the 5-3 Detroit Dark Angels at 6:00PM. The weekend will conclude on Saturday evening with the Division 1 contest between the defending champion 6-0 Boston Renegades against the 8-0 Minnesota Vixen.

In addition to the championship games, the WFA also will be holding additional events. The league, along with the Cleveland Browns, will be hosting a free clinic for middle school and high school girls on Friday. The league will host the All-American Game, for top players not on finals teams, on Saturday, and there will be a high school flag football exhibition during halftime of the Division 1 game on Saturday. Before the Division 1 game, the league will present their Breaking Barriers awards to NFL coaches such as Callie Brownson of the Browns, Lori Locust of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Jennifer King of the Washington Football team. Also to be honored are author, and former NY Sharks owner, Andra Douglas, as well as documentarian Viridiana Liberman (Born to Play), and Kathy Kuras (Open Field).

Two teams will be back in the final game in consecutive championships. The Storm won Division 3 in 2019 and, according to Oscar Lopez on his Gridiron Beauties podcast, if they win this year, they will be the first WFA team to win championships in two different divisions. They are joined by the Renegades who are seeking to accomplish a three-peat.

The Renegades are arguably the marquee program in women’s football. They (under a previous iteration as the Boston Militia) are the only women’s football champion to have celebrated their championship by visiting the Obama White House. During the lost pandemic year of 2020, the team still made news when Lieberman’s documentary Born to Play aired on ESPN. The film, which is available on Netflix and Hulu, followed the Renegades as they made their run to the 2018 WFA championship. They are also one of the few women’s teams that have gained notice from an NFL team. The New England Patriots tweeted their support of the documentary, and when the Renegades made the finals, Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft surprised their women’s opposite number by offering to fly them to Ohio on the official team plane.

The Bostonians will be in Canton on the strength of QB Allison Cahill’s arm and the legs of RB Chante Bonds. Cahill, who is in her eighteenth year, threw for 967 yards and 19 touchdowns. She has been named the league’s 2021 MVP. Bonds added 484 yards and 10 TDs. Late in the season, the 2019 Championship game MVP Ruth Matta, who also plays RB for the Birmingham Lions and the British Lions national team, rejoined the team and contributed 175 yards and 3 TDs.

The Vixen team was one of the two original barnstorming squads that began playing in 1999. 2021 was their first season in Division 1, but they have handled the promotion well, winning all eight games. The Vixens depend on QB Errin McIsaac who passed for 778 yards and 15 TDs. She also added 255 yards and 3 TDs on the ground. RB Grace Cooper rushed for 904 yards and had 14 total TDs. Michele Braun, who played for twenty years before becoming the O Line coach told me that “this team has really bought into Coach Ryan McCauley’s ideals. We have a great group of rookies, and vets back to lead them. Our defense is really strong, and of course, the awesome (WFA Offensive MVP) Grace Cooper and our offense has been terrific. We are hungry to get that ring!”

The Dark Angels are the descendents of the Detroit Demolition, who won five National Women’s Football League, and one Independent Women’s Football League championships from 2002-2007. Their season record is deceptive, since they lost two games to the Renegades, and the other loss was to the championship bound Dynamite. Clarissa Tullis anchored their ground game with 525 yards, and with her three backfield mates, they gained over 1,000 yards rushing. Jacquie Bennington, a former player and now part of the ownership group, told me that she has “watched this group of women work hard, especially with the amount of rookies we have this season, to get to where we are. I’m proud of all their hard work and dedication to back in this big game.”

The defending champion Storm has American Conference Offensive MVP Jasmine Plummer who rushed for 814 yards and scored 15 TDs. Plummer gained notoriety in 2008, when the story of how she became the first girl to play QB in a Pop Warner tournament was turned into the film The Longshots. In 2019, they defeated three time champion Orlando Anarchy 62-45 for their first championship. Chris Garza, their head coach was named the league’s coach of the year for 2021.

The Dynamite versus OutKast game pits two teams with identical records against each other. QB LaEssence Houston Becker led the Dynamite with 363 yard through the air, and added 687 on the ground. Their team defense ranked number one in the division. When I began researching women’s football, the first game I saw in the U.S. was the Derby versus the Columbus Comets. In that game, the Comets defeated the Derby handily, so it will be interesting to see how much the Louisvillians have progressed since 2017.

RB Jazmyne Reining led the way for the OutKast rushing for 1,546 yards and scored a league leading 21 TDs. Their offense was the most productive in the league, scoring an average of 45 points per game. This game that has the top defense against the top offense will be an interesting challenge to the proposition that while offenses win games, defenses win championships.

The teams in the championships faced more adversity than is normal for any winning team. Along with many other sporting leagues, the pandemic cancelled the WFA’s 2020 season. Women’s football is played in the spring, usually starting in early April, so they had to use innovative means to practice and play this year. Braun mentioned that “Covid really bummed us out for 2020 because we were ready to take that leap and challenge St. Louis (Slam) for the D2 top spot. But when we moved to D1, everyone bought in and believed that we deserve to be there.” Bennington added that “We…have had to navigate around the pandemic, from hosting socially distanced tryouts, to having limited practice times due to facility usage limits. Coming from an appearance in 2019 (a loss to the St. Louis Slam), then not having a season last year, it just meant that we had to step up and put in the work needed to get us back on the championship platform this year, but this time to take home the win.”

All of the teams hard work and innovative use of technology in an unusual season will pay off on the 23rd and 24th. Some will feel the thrill of victory, and others the agony of defeat, but all will know that they endured the drudgery of hours of practice, made more difficult by the pandemic, and have made it to the big stage. They will be playing on the same field where the NFL plays their Hall of Fame Game each fall, which is a fairly large stage.

Russ Crawford is Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a history of women playing tackle football in the U.S. and around the world. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963 was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.

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