There's an elephant in the room, so let's just get this out of the way: If I say "women" and "full-contact football" in the same sentence, many of you are gonna think "dykes." Here are the facts: The Portland Shockwave, your local full-contact all-women's football team, has about a 50 percent lesbian turnout in their ranks. But like any activity that's been historically male dominated, when women take it up, their being queer is the assumption. (Then, after the idea settles in, it usually becomes considered a hot thing for gay and straight women to do. See: boxing, welding, wearing pants, going to college, etc.)
Some of the Shockwave players are big, some are huge, and some are average to small. The team members vary in age, too, ranging from under 20 (you have to be over 18 to join the team because of liability issues) to over 40. Their backgrounds vary: Some are lifelong football fans, while others won't even watch it on TV—but once you get them on the field, they're all no-bullshit athletes.
The preceding lengthy setup is meant to convey that any woman can do this; you don't have to be butch or burly or thin or in the physical prime of your life. You do, on the other hand, have to be willing to knock and be knocked down, and dedicate yourself fully to the sport and to its training, with the knowledge that if you don't do your best on the field, you or one of your fellow players could get hurt. This is just one of the unifying aspects of football that makes being on a team one of the most emotionally bonding experiences available in the sports world—a bond that's a big part of why every single player is out there.
FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
On the field, the helmets and padding make the Portland Shockwave virtually indecipherable from, say, a high school boys' football team. Unlike many other tough-girl sports—the obvious current favorite locally is the Rose City Rollers roller derby league—you'd have to get seriously creative to sexualize these women. And while part of the roller derby marketing scheme is to emphasize the intrinsic hotness of the participants, the Shockwave's main selling point is that they're tough players who play for the love of the game, and with a rawness that couldn't be further from the NFL.
This season marks the fifth for the Portland Shockwave—although most locals aren't even aware it exists. With very few exceptions, the women playing this fledgling sport aren't being paid, although in the case of the Shockwave, they make a habit of donating a portion of their home game gate sales to charities like women's shelters and SMART (a nonprofit literacy program).
The sport is still new enough that virtually every player is in a perpetual learning stage, something that makes Head Coach Brian Allinger's job a little easier.
"They just want to learn the game," says the former high school football coach. "If they have egos, they really check them at the door."
Now in his third year of coaching the Shockwave, and his second year as head coach, Allinger originally became involved in the team because his wife is one of the players (although she's taking this season off because of pregnancy).
Just as the girls have no apparent problem with being coached by a man, Allinger reports that the coaches of other men's teams have been surprised but overwhelmingly supportive of the existence of women's football. In fact, many high school coaches have, or more often would have, accepted women on their team. Allinger says it's understandable that most girls don't try out, because of the disadvantages of "size, strength, and speed," and that, at least in football, women generally have trouble competing against the other gender.
THE PAIN THRESHOLD
So what's a girl got going for her? In the case of the Shockwave, Allinger points to technique, noting that, "You can beat someone who's physically superior to you if you have good technique."
Lisa Lum, a wingback for the team, also suggests that women's lower center of gravity might come in handy, as well as a higher pain threshold, quipping that "women who have had children know what pain is." And as middle linebacker Rebecca Dawson points out to people who tell her she's too small for football, "Okay, yeah, I'm smaller, but so are the women I'm playing against. It's proportionate." And, unlike most sports, Lum notes that it's a sport in which "bigger, slower women can actually succeed. It's the people on the line who create the holes for other players to run through."
Lum, a former body builder, is one of the players doing the running. In fact, she's known as the team's fastest ("I can run away from people because of the fear factor," she jokes humbly, comparing the experience to being chased by a bear. "I'm good at it."). And while it's often the quarterbacks who get the glory, Lum is quick to illustrate the importance of the team working as one body.
"My speed is a tribute to everyone else doing a good job," she explains. "If there's a hole, I'm going to run through it. I'm only as fast as people make me. It's the team as a whole."
It's the feeling of being on the team that's the most compelling attraction for these players, and one that's stronger than the camaraderie found in other team sports. Dawson, who is also a founding co-owner of the Shockwave, is vivid in her description of the experience.
"You go into this battle together," she says, "where you literally can't breathe—you're bruised, you're tired, you might be bleeding or crying, and there's 11 people who will carry you off the field, if need be."
The women speak of the powerful feeling of winning and losing as a collective emotion, and of a familial bond that extends off the playing field.
"You put your body on the line for the person next to you," says Dawson. "It bonds you a little bit differently than in other team sports."
THE FUTURE OF FOOTBALL
While the women of the Portland Shockwave bring enough passion and hard work to virtually guarantee a great game of football, they tend to be pessimistic about their sport ever reaching the level of prominence enjoyed in the mainstream. Still, progress has recently been made in other brutish women's sports, like wrestling, which was in the 2004 Summer Olympics, and hockey, which was recently made available to girls at the high school level.
At this point what the sport needs is to reach a new level of exposure: to build a greater fan base and attract bigger financial backers, as well as generate interest in younger potential players, for whom the thought of football hasn't even crossed their minds. In the meantime, count yourself lucky to have the opportunity to get in on this underground sport, with a team of remarkable women making sports history happen in your very own backyard.
The Portland Shockwave's first home game of the season is on Sat May 13, 6 pm against the Eugene Edge at Lincoln High School (all home games are held at LHS, 1600 SW Salmon), $7. Hit portlandshockwave.com for more information.