On a chilly Saturday last November, while the national media was intently focused on any number of NFL games, more than a dozen women arrived at Wilson High School’s football field. They were happily submitting themselves to an exhausting number of speed and agility drills, all in hopes of scoring a spot on the roster for the Portland Fighting Shockwave, one of two local full-contact football squads made up entirely of female players.

“It really is empowering,” says Rae Timnick, who plays on the Shockwave’s offensive line. “To be able to go on that field [and] do the exact same thing as guys do. You put on those pads; you hit as hard as you want. And I like hitting people and it being legal.”

In recent years, Timnick and her fellow players have had plenty of opportunities to get their licks in on the football field. The Fighting Shockwave was founded in 2002, initially as part of the now-defunct Independent Women’s Football League, and joined the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) in 2013.

That league is no small thing, either. The WFA currently boasts nearly 70 teams around the US, including one squad that plays in Medford and two in Washington. It’s an impressive amount of growth considering that—unlike the WNBA, which is affiliated with the NBA—the WFA is wholly independent from the cultural and commercial juggernaut that is the NFL. The Alliance picked up plenty of attention from the sports establishment: ESPN broadcast the league’s Division I National Championship game this past July, and major sponsors have come calling.

The Fighting Shockwave have certainly helped feed this growing fire. After an ignominious 0-8 start in their initial season, the team has logged winning records for the majority of its 18 years, including last year’s 7-1 season.

“We’ve had a very, very good run,” says Rebecca Brisson, a former player and current president of the Shockwave, during the recent combine. “I don’t see us slowing down, especially with the rookies that came out today. I really expect us to get back out there and continue where we left off.”

The number of prospective players who attended the Shockwave’s combine may have been smaller than in previous years, as the team has some new competition in town. The newly founded Oregon Ravens will kick off their inaugural season on April 4, joining with another young organization, the Women’s National Football Conference, as part of a six-team expansion.

Started by two former Shockwave players, Leah Hinkle and Oana Dumitrescu, the Ravens have already disrupted the dominance of the WFA. The new team has bumped the Shockwave from its home field at Roosevelt High School, and at the three combines the Ravens held to scout for players, many of the women had logged time with the Shockwave.

The Ravens also got an immediate boost thanks to a sponsorship deal with Adidas, and a national platform with the league’s agreement to broadcast 10 regular season games on cable network YouToo America.

“The WNFC is the first league to not require teams to buy into the league,” says Hinkle, a former fullback and linebacker who also played for the now-defunct Corvallis Pride and competed in the first IFAF Women’s World Championship in 2010. “They are providing financial assistance to all the teams, which is unheard of. Back when I joined the Pride, football was considered the final frontier for women in sports. I would just say to women now, ‘We’re breaking glass ceilings. Let’s do it. Let’s do something special.’”

One issue many of these women have had to push beyond is dealing with the ingrained cultural biases around their sport. When the independent women’s football league began in 2019, there were assumptions that it was a powderpuff or “lingerie league.” There were snap judgements about them not being able to handle the physicality of the game, and critics who asked why they would want to bother playing such a dangerous sport.

When I told friends I was working on a story about a women’s football team, their responses were usually some variation of, “Well, I guess women deserve to get traumatic brain injuries as much as men.”

“Back when I joined the Pride, football was considered the final frontier for women in sports. I say to women now, ‘We’re breaking glass ceilings. Let’s do it. Let’s do something special.’”—Leah Hinkle

“I think the contact aspect of tackle football has always been something that, historically, women have been pushed away from,” says Devon Küntz, the Ravens’ wide receiver coach and assistant offensive coordinator, “because we don’t want them to get hurt. Now I think that we’re showing that women can play the exact same sport at the same confidence level. They’re never going to be as fast and they’re never going to be as strong, physically, but they can learn the game and develop a football IQ equivalent to any decent college player.”

Considering the success of college football, that’s a great thing to aspire to. According to LA’s City News Service, a recent playoff game between Clemson and Ohio State averaged over 20 million viewers.

Hanging out at these combines erases any doubts about the stamina and toughness of these athletes. Nearly every woman trying out for the team spoke with excitement about the prospect of delivering big hits to opposing players. Plenty had stories to tell about injuries they sustained playing other demanding sports like rugby and soccer. And watching them get run through the wringer of ladder drills, 40-yard dashes, and play patterns was as exhausting to watch as it was inspiring to see.

Equally encouraging was the range of ages, body types, and skill levels on display at both the Ravens’ and the Shockwave’s tryouts. Brisson reckons that the oldest player on her team is in her 50s, while their youngest rookies are fresh out of high school.

“We run the gamut, for sure,” Brisson says. “We’ve got grandmas whose grandkids come to see the games, doe-eyed little 18-year-olds, and everything in between.”

What was seemingly absent from the combines was any sense of ego among the prospective players. Even in these early stages, the women were already becoming a team, shouting encouragement at one another, trading war stories, and geeking out about their favorite sport.

“It’s inspiring having a group of girls that really love the game they’re playing,” says Stephanie Kotula, one of the women trying out for a spot on the Ravens’ roster. “I look forward to the community and to be driven by my teammates. This is going to be really challenging—but empowering at the same time.”

For more information and a season schedule for the Portland Fighting Shockwave, visit portlandfightingshockwave.com. For the Oregon Ravens’ schedule, see pg. 11, and for more info, go to wnfcfootball.com/oregonravens.