As the Maritime Women’s Football League proudly enters its second decade, the release of the 2014 season schedule brings with it a frenzied anticipation for fans and players alike. With the defending champion Fredericton Lady Gladiators hosting the playoffs, expectations will be high to repeat on home soil.
Opening weekend launches on April 26 with the inaugural game of the 2014 season kicking off with the Saint John Storm. The orange and black, who hosted the 2013 playoffs, open their campaign by hosting the Moncton Vipers. The Lady Gladiators shall begin the defense of their title on the road in Nova Scotia, challenging an ambitious Halifax Xplosion franchise, looking for their first-ever championship.
May 3 brings the first pair of home-and-home series in the season. A rematch of SupHer Bowl X sees Saint John travelling to Fredericton for what promises to be an intense matchup. With the rematch also signifying Fredericton’s home opener, the squad will want to set the tone early on.
Halifax Xplosion visit Moncton for a tete-a-tete with the Vipers, while the following week sees the Vipers hosting Halifax. Saint John shall host Fredericton on May 10 for their home opener. A win shall prove to be crucial as it marks the last game before the bye week.
Although no games shall take place on May 17, there will be plenty of activity. The MWFL will host a Jamboree in Richelieu, Quebec. Partnering with the Pirates de Richelieu, a newly launched female football team, various MWFL players shall be on hand for scrimmages, instructional sessions and an overall celebration of the game.
Following the Jamboree, the weekends of May 24 and 31 see another pair of home-and-home series. Saint John visits Halifax on May 24 in what shall prove to be a big test for the Xplosion. With Saint John having set the standard as one of the league’s most dominant franchises, a win on home soil for the Xplosion would be essential for the team’s confidence. The May 31 game in Saint John, especially if one of the teams manages to win both games, should help determine playoff seedings.
Fredericton and Moncton renew rivalries in this May 24-31 series. Perennial title contenders, the series may turn out to be a battle for first place. Moncton shall host the opening game, while home field advantage may work to Fredericton’s favor on May 31.
June 7 marks the final weekend of the regular season. Saint John visits Moncton in what could possibly be a playoff preview. Renewing rivalries, a win will be crucial in order to enter the playoffs on a positive note. Halifax closes out their season on the road versus defending champion Fredericton.
Playoffs kick off on June 14 as the first and second place teams host the first round games. All four teams shall be on hand for championship weekend in Fredericton on June 21. The defeated teams from the first round shall take to the field in the Friendship Bowl. Later in the day, the battle for the Judy Upward Trophy takes place in SupHer Bowl XI.
For Fredericton football fans, the festivities continue afterwards. The weekend after is another jamboree, closing out the season in time for Canada Day weekend.
As one of the premier pivots in the Women’s Football Alliance, Brittany Bushman only added to her legend with a strong 2013. From contributing to a second consecutive gold medal for an ecstatic US contingent at the IFAF Women’s Worlds in Vantaa, Finland, a conference title with the Dallas Diamonds would follow for Bushman. Of note, she would be one of six Diamonds (including Kenoris Blackmon, Alberta Fitcheard-Bryson, Rachel May, Odessa Jenkins and Dr. Jen Welter) selected to compete for Team USA in Vantaa, Finland.
One of the faces of the Diamonds, the most accomplished team in the history of Texas female football, she has played eight seasons on the gridiron, including three as the Diamonds quarterback. Since she has lined up behind center, the Diamonds have only lost one regular season game. Her first foray into football came in 2005 as a member of the Massachusetts Mutiny. Currently, she follows in the Diamonds proud quarterbacking legacy established by Karen Seimears, making the Diamonds one of the WFA’s signature franchises.
To those that know Bushman, they see her as a dedicated individual who possesses the heart and character of a champion. While also working as a substitute teacher, she has ambitions to attend the University of Texas at Arlington to earn a degree in computer engineering. Considering her dedication on the field, there is no question she can bring that same desire to achieve any goal off it.
Hailing from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, her first brush with football came through the famous Pop Warner program. She would eventually receive varsity letters as a high school player in her junior and senior years, becoming the first female in the history of Portsmouth High School to do so.
Like so many of her colleagues on the gridiron, Bushman is also adept at more than one sport. In addition to her gridiron glories at Portsmouth High, she was a star on the hardcourt. Her skills would earn her a spot with Emmanuel College in Massachusetts, competing in basketball at the NCAA Division III level.
Her experiences with basketball have served her well. Currently, she serves as an AAU basketball coach. The patience and leadership skills necessary to serve in a coaching capacity have translated from the hardcourt to the gridiron, where she employs those same skills to command an elite offense which strikes fear into opposing defenses in the WFA.
Such results were evident during the 2012 WFA season, where she earned American Conference MVP honors as she was the key component for a 10-1 Diamonds squad that boasted the league’s highest scoring offense. Registering an astounding figure of 68.5 points per game, Bushman’s arm strength and breakout speed punished opposing defenses. With an average of 532 offensive yards per game, the Diamonds qualified for the American Conference title game against the San Diego Surge.
Another strong season followed in 2013, as Bushman recorded a passer rating of 140.4, ranking fifth overall among passers. In an undefeated regular season, Bushman would throw for 14 touchdown passes, while recording only one interception. While she helped the Diamonds improve on their 2012 postseason performance by winning the conference title in 2013, the focus on a national title is stronger than ever heading into 2014.
Having grown up in the suburbs of the football mad city of Cleveland, there is a great deal of irony in the fact that Lisa Horton lines up behind center for a team out of Pittsburgh. With a love of the game cultivated in a youth spent cheering for the Browns, Horton was destined for gridiron glory.
Like so many others of her generation, opportunities for football were non-existent. While participation in high school sports such as basketball, softball and volleyball offered some distraction, her love of football could not be extinguished.
While athletic competition at the Division III school Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio maintained her competitive juices, it was not uncommon to see her observing the football practices. After a two-year stint on a full softball scholarship at Cleveland State, her graduate studies would be the unlikely path towards a chance at gridiron glory.
Studying exercise science at Slippery Rock University, while serving as the softball team’s graduate assistant, she had heard about a women’s tackle football team hosting tryouts in Pittsburgh. Having made the team, she would embark on a new and exciting chapter in her life, while establishing herself as one of the Iron City’s greatest female athletes.
Educating herself in the game through a training program borrowed from former Pitt Panthers quarterback Tyler Palko, it would lead to a season with the minor-league men’s team Pittsburgh Colts. She would leave her mark on the club as she became the first female to throw a touchdown pass in a men’s game.
During the 2007 season, when Horton was named league MVP, one of her performances led to the popular SportsCenter broadcast from ESPN featuring her as one of their Top 10 Plays of the Day. She has followed it up with MVP nods in 2009 and 2012.
As the Pittsburgh Passion boast one of the most loyal fan bases in female football – attendance of 5,000 fans is not uncommon – it has transformed Horton into a local celebrity. Being recognized in public and getting requests for autographs are part of life for the Passion’s field general.
Ironically, the co-owner and coach of the Passion, Teresa Conn, also graduated from Slippery Rock. With the Rock having had a positive impact on Conn’s life (she would graduate in 1986), she and Horton are part of a tremendous group of alumnae that have suited up for the Passion.
Other alumnae have included the likes of Angela Baker, Talisa Beachom (whose husband is the wide receivers coach), Robbin Carlos, Michelle Cook, Jen Hoffman, Tera McIntosh, Cathy Lee Peffer, Shawna Rouse, Jordan Zeunges and Shelley Zoelle. Team photographer Dayna Manipole also graduated from Slippery Rock.
Horton’s remarkable character shone in the 2008 conference championship loss to the Chicago Force. Despite the heartbreaking 8-7 loss, the injuries she sustained are like a badge of honor. A bruise on her shoulder was attributed to a third quarter tackle that placed her out of bounds. The ensuing tackle would lead to a tear in her anterior cruciate ligament. She would return in the fourth quarter despite playing on a leg that was severely injured.
Statistically, Horton is still one of the WFA’s elite passers. During the 2013 campaign, her 1802 passing yards ranked second among all WFA quarterbacks, trailing only Sami Grisafe. In addition, her 116 completions and 215 attempts also ranked second to Grisafe. The 23 touchdown passes she accumulated in 2013 tied with Rachel Gore of the Majestics for third overall while her 109.9 passer rating placed her in the league’s Top 20, respectively.
Currently a Health and Wellness Operations Director for the YMCA in Metropolitan DC, she also worked for the YMCA at their branch in Pittsburgh’s U.S. Steel Tower. In addition, she was also the wellness operations and performance coach at D1 Pittsburgh. It is a similar role that she occupies with the Passion as she pulls double duty as strength and conditioning coach. Developing the team’s conditioning program, she is an integral component of the squad’s success.
Combining the ability to provide a superlative effort on and off the field, Horton represents the spirit of female football. Dedicated, hard-working women not afraid to tackle new challenges and push themselves to higher limites. With the city of Pittsburgh having produced some memorable sporting heroes, it is only fitting that former Steelers running back (and Hall of Famer) Franco Harris is a co-owner of the Passion. While he played for a remarkable team during a legendary period in pro football history, he is now part of a new football legacy in the Iron City. As the city has many great male sports heroes (such as Terry Bradshaw, Roberto Clemente, Mario Lemieux and Willie Stargell to name a few), Harris can boast how one of the greatest female quarterbacks in WFA history broke ground by becoming one of the city’s finest female sports legends.
When the football conversation arrives at some of the most impactful and remarkable athletes who have competed on the gridiron in Washington, names such as Sammy Baugh, Art Monk, Charley Taylor and Joe Theismann may quickly come to mind. It is now time to consider Donna Wilkinson in such circles.
A member of the DC Divas since their inaugural season in 2001, her contributions in helping to grow and strengthen the female game are nothing short of Hall of Fame worthy. Having grown up in Riverside, California, she would also spend one season with the WPFL’s Los Angeles Amazons in 2007.
Off the field, her heroics are just as impressive. From engagements as a public speaker to providing inspiration to children at schools and clinics, she is the true embodiment of strong feminine leadership.
Competing in a sports market where pro baseball and football based out of both Washington and Baltimore is predominant, Wilkinson has helped transform the Divas into a successful franchise that has captured the hearts and minds of fans in the capital district. Four consecutive undefeated regular seasons, a world title in 2006 and a conference crown in 2009 are part of the remarkable legacy the burgundy and gold have carved.
Known affectionately as The Animal, she has also competed on the world’s biggest stage – twice. Proudly donning the Team USA jersey, she has helped the red, white and blue capture the gold medal at the 2010 and 2013 IFAF Women’s World Football Championships.
Statistically, she was the fifth leading rusher for the US contingent in 2013 while running for a touchdown against Canada in the gold medal game. Her five PAT’s tied with Mia Brickhouse for tops on the team, although Wilkinson was a perfect 5-5. Of note, she also showed versatility in her game as she registered tackles against Germany.
Her coming out party took place during the 2003 Divas season, a watershed moment in franchise history. A 7-1 regular season campaign was highlighted by Wilkinson becoming the first running back in female football history to pass the magical 1,000-yard rushing mark.
She would finish with 1,267 yards, making national news, while the Divas won their first postseason game in franchise history.
Ten years later, she remained an invaluable component of the Divas offensive attack. In 2013, she was the second leading rusher on the Divas, while her 12 rushing touchdowns ranked second behind the 18 registered by Kenyatta Grigsby. In addition, Wilkinson’s 312 combined yards from scrimmage ranked second overall behind Grigsby.
Named the Divas offensive MVP during that magical season, a rare accolade would follow. The Washington Pigskin Club bestowed upon her the prestigious John W. Posey award for professional athlete of the year. As the first female in history to win the award, she is in rarified air. Past winners have included Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens.
Honored as a league all-star at the linebacker, running back and tight end positions during her distinguished tenure with the Divas, it is testament to her well-rounded game. Even as a collegiate athlete, she possessed remarkable athletic skill. Attending Columbia Union College on a softball scholarship, she was equally adept in basketball, cross country, softball and volleyball.
One of the most unique aspects of her career occurred in September 2012 when local CBS affiliate WUSA-TV9 provided her with a remarkable opportunity to showcase her strong knowledge of the gridiron game. Working as a sports analyst for the program GAME ON, she proudly follows in the footsteps of former player Anita Marks, who is currently has a national radio show for NBC.
Legendary Redskins players such as Darrell Green and Dexter Manley comprise part of the panel with Wilkinson. Christine Brennan of USA Today joins Wilkinson as another strong woman on the broadcast while Redskins beat writer Grant Paulson is part of the program. From discussing the collegiate SEC Fotoabll Game of the Week broadcast on CBS to discussing local NFL teams such as the Redskins and the Baltimore Ravens, it is a suitable showcase for the articulate and charismatic Wilkinson.
Encompassing an entrepreneurial spirit and a love of athletics, complemented by a passion for life, Wilkinson is one of the great success stories in modern day women’s football. Employing the power of positive thinking, she has set the standard for other players heading into their fabulous forties, as her commitment to training and conditioning is unmatched.
If two words can describe her calling as an athlete, it may very well be expanding opportunities. Helping to shatter barriers while ensuring that women had an equal chance to shine on the gridiron, she is more than just a pioneer, but an inspiration to future generations whose sporting legacy they
shall proudly carry on.
One of the most accomplished women’s basketball players for the Valparaiso University Crusaders program, Jeanette Gray has found new life athletically as an elite wide receiver for the WFA’s Chicago Force. Earning Rookie of the Year nods with the Force in 2010, it is testament to her skill as a remarkable athlete.
Known affectionately as J-Gray, she followed up her Rookie of the Year campaign with 2011 Offensive Co-Player of the Year honors and All-America selections in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Such feats complement her skills on the hardcourt. Her tenure with the Crusaders resulted in multiple Mid-Continent All-Conference team selections, the Mid-Con All-Newcomer Team in 2001 and CoSIDA Academic All-District honors.
Ironically, she is not the only former basketball player turned Force competitor. Former ABL competitor Ashley Berggren (also a wide receiver), who also played on the 2013 edition of Team USA with Gray, has gone from the hardcourt to the gridiron. Following in her accomplished footsteps has only helped make Gray an even better athlete.
Adding to the irony is the fact that Gray, like Berggren, is also an educator. When not on the gridiron, Gray’s occupation is serving as a mathematics teacher at the high school level. It would come as no surprise to know that Gray (who was a 17-under AAU All-American) has also returned to the hardcourt. She is also giving back by sharing her expertise as a coach for the girls’ varsity basketball team.
Returning to her hardcourt glories is only part of the story. Coaching, along with a love of sport, is definitely in her blood. Her father, Gary Gray, not only coached at the high school level for the better part of three decades, he has also served on the coaching staff of Valparaiso University.
In the effort to undertake the role of coach, it has also become an educational experience for her. Force head coach John Konecki is educating Gray in the fine art of motivation and coaching adjustments. With his drive and determination, Konecki may very well be the Vince Lombardi of the WFA. Having also played for Konecki as a member of the gold-medal winning US contingent at the 2013 IFAF Women’s Worlds in Vantaa, Finland, she could not have found a better mentor.
On the gridiron, Konecki certainly has a very dependable receiver. Having caught 97 passes in 2013, it set a Force franchise record. As no player in WFA history has yet reached the magical century mark in receptions during a season, Gray may be poised to achieve such lofty heights in 2014.
During the magical run that the Force made towards the 2013 WFA National Title, Gray tallied a touchdown in each postseason contest. It offered Gray and her Force teammates more than a championship but sweet redemption. After a heartbreaking loss in the 2012 title game (of note, the first women’s football game contested in an NFL stadium), it only added to the prestige of being called a champion.
Commemorating the magical year that was 2013 in women’s tackle football, the efforts of these fearless female gridiron competitors is the subject of The Tackle Girls. A non-profit production that captures the efforts of the US national women’s football team during their golden glory at the 2013 IFAF Women’s World Championships in Vantaa, Finland, it is a rare glimpse into a world that continues to grow.
Spearheaded by Boston Militia wide receiver Adrienne Smith, the journey towards making the documentary a reality was motivated by posterity. Holding an MBA in Media and Entertainment from Columbia Business School, the highly articulate Smith was looking to empower the game in a unique fashion. Having also been a member of the 2010 US squad that captured the inaugural IFAF Women’s World championship, she felt it was important to record the accomplishments for the upcoming Worlds in 2013.
Having contacted USA Football in January 2013 about obtaining permission to produce a documentary about the US women’s team, Smith received the greenlight. From there, she had proceeded to develop the documentary under the title of Gridiron Queendom. With a production crew that featured Sasha Santiago, a director friend, and a former football teammate, Leeann Brzozowski, Smith’s ambitious dream was about to begin.
Consultation from the National Football League began with the contributions of Mark Waller, the league’s Chief Marketing Officer. Having originally communicated with him at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, Texas, he was a key figure in providing any support that Smith and her team required. Other NFL luminaries that were involved included the likes of two-time Super Bowl champion Deion Sanders and 2013 NFL Draft pick Geno Smith. The two donated their time to be interviewed for the project.
By April, Smith had come to the realization that the documentary would be too large for her to accomplish on her own, as she had to juggle the demands of performing on the field. Enter Pyewackitt Productions, an established and seasoned production company that would partner with Smith. She discussed how the partnership yielded positive results,
“One of the first suggestions Bill and Megan made was to change the title of the documentary from “Gridiron Queendom” to “Tackle Girls” as they thought it would be more catchy, and I agreed. From there on, Pyewackitt Productions successfully filmed Team USA’s training camp in Chicago, the tournament in Finland, as well as the WFA Championship and All-Star game in San Diego.
We were even able to film the team’s historic meeting in Washington D.C. with the White House Council on Women and Girls – an endeavor I had been working to make happen since 2010.”
The executive producers and co-directors featured Bill Harris and Megan Smith-Harris. Bill Harris made a remarkable contribution to television as he was integral in the development of the award-winning series Biography on A&E. Of note, Smith-Harris once wrote comedy programs for CBC Radio in Canada. Other members of the production staff that have contributed include Ann Marie O’Brien as the Director of Development and Kelsey Harkness with Social Media.
With six nations, including host-country Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Spain (making their debut in the event), the game has quietly grown on a global scale. Although the rest of the world will need time to catch up to the US, several breakthroughs have occurred. Tea Tormanen from Team Finland played with the WFA’s DC Divas franchise in 2010 and 2011. Cheryl O’Leary, who was recently elected President of the MWFL in Atlantic Canada, served as a mentor coach on the Canadian contingent. Her presence is helping to break barriers in another aspect of football; coaching.
Although this is not an environment of multi-million dollar contracts and endorsements, these wondrous women are truly worth their weight in gold. Any of these fearless competitors is worthy of having their image grace the Wheaties box.
As 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of Title IX legislation, other female gold medal performances have been celebrated and emerged as part of American sporting lore. Mary Lou Retton became America’s sweetheart after the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games. Beach volleyball has made Misty May and Kerri Walsh household names. Perhaps the most famous female sporting event in America was the 1999 World Cup of Soccer with Brandi Chastain.
With female football having yet to reach such heights in the American sporting conversation, a preview airing in New York City’s Times Square on January 30 during Super Bowl week may certainly augment conversation. For all the fans that may not have known of the sports’ existence, the documentary not only provides a crash course, but it endears the viewers to the remarkable personalities that make up the sport.
The documentary harkens memories of a similar production in Canada titled The Game of Her Life. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, it provided a much-needed introduction to a nation of sports fans that may not have been aware of the existence of women’s hockey. Capturing on film the events from the 1997 IIHF Women’s Worlds to the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, the jubilation and desolation of the Canadian National Women’s team served as a landmark in helping the sport grow.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the production is the fact that it captures the unique dynamics between players. WFA players go from rivals in league play to teammates on Team USA. After sharing in the glories of earning the title of the world’s finest in Vantaa, Finland, they return stateside for postseason play as rivals again.
Such intensity is captured perfectly at the WFA National Title Game when the Chicago Force and Dallas Diamonds clash in San Diego. More than a dozen players represented these two titans on Team USA as emotions ran high.
Dallas featured the likes of Kenoris Blackmon, Brittany Bushman, Alberta Fitcheard-Bryson, Odessa Jenkins, Rachel May and Dr. Jen Welter. Chicago countered with Ashley Berggren, Tami Engelman, Jeanette Gray, Sami Grisafe, Brandy Hatcher, Kimberly Marks, Jamie Menzyk, Elizabeth Okey and Dawn Pederson. Friendships were quickly replaced on the field by a desire to leave San Diego with the coveted title.
Of note, The Tackle Girls also features the music of Chicago Force quarterback and recording artist Sami Grisafe. Having performed the Star Spangled Banner before the gold medal game of the 2013 IFAF Worlds, it is as powerful and emotional as Whitney Houston’s rendition of the anthem prior to Super Bowl XXV. Grisafe would also get to perform at Wrigley Field (where the Force were honored by the Cubs baseball club) and at the Illinois State Legislature. One music critic stated that if Janis Joplin and Eddie Vedder had a child, it would be Grisafe.
The female football version of Peyton Manning, she was born to play quarterback. Having played at the quarterback position against boys at the high school level in California, she is a marvel. Establishing herself as the finest player of her generation, she extols all the qualities of leadership. 2013 would prove to be a banner year for the rocket-armed Grisafe. She would begin by leading the US to its second consecutive gold and wrapped it up with a highly-coveted WFA crown.
As a side note, it is not the first time that WFA football has been captured on film. Nikki Johnson, who has played in Las Vegas with their WFA and LFL frachises, was a former intern with NFL Films in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Johnson and her WFA teammates on the Las Vegas Showgirlz were featured in a brief documentary by NFL Films, helping provide much-needed exposure.
The Tackle Girls builds on such momentum, representing a watershed moment for female football in America. With the goal of ensuring the rest of the sports world catches up to the wonder that is female football, it deserves to be essential viewing for any young female in sports looking to make her sporting dreams come true.
Although competing on the offensive line may be one of the most thankless jobs in sport, it is also one of the most essential. Very few have the proven track record of Jamie Menzyk; quite possibly, the WFA’s greatest at the position.
Competing for the Chicago Force, she has been at the forefront of unprecedented growth for the franchise. Known affectionately as MegaBus, her contributions on the line have helped Chicago develop a high-octane offense that culminated with a well-earned WFA National Championship in 2013.
Since 2008, she has blocked and protected at the right guard position for world-class quarterback Sami Grisafe on The HIT Squad, the moniker for the Force’s O-Line. Like Grisafe, she has also known the exhilaration of competing on the world’s biggest stage.
As a member of the US contingent that captured the gold medal at the 2010 and 2013 IFAF Women’s World Football Championships, she is one of several Force competitors that have proudly donned the Team USA jersey.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to her talent was when she was recognized as the championship game’s Most Valuable Player in 2010 and 2013. In 2013, she would provide the protection necessary for Team USA to overwhelm its three opponents by a convincing 253-7 cumulative score. Of note, Force head coach John Konecki was part of Team USA in both events, serving as the head coach in 2013.
To know Menzyk’s athletic background is to see that greatness was always part of the equation. At Whiting High School, Menzyk challenged convention by competing as a member of the special teams unit on the boys’ football team. This was complemented by a sterling athletic career that features stints on Whiting’s softball, basketball and volleyball squads. She would extend her basketball and softball participation by competing for Calumet College.
Of note, her resume with the Force is one that is truly Hall of Fame worthy. Recognized as the Offensive MVP of the Force in 2009, she also won the club’s Do It All Award. IFWL All-Star accolades in 2009 and 2010 (the club started in the IWFL) were followed by WFA All-America nods in 2011 and 2012.
Gameday MVP honors from 2009-13 have also been a prominent part of her tenure with the Force along with the opportunity to compete in a very historic game. Despite emerging on the losing side, the 2012 WFA National Title Game is one that shall provide Menzyk with a lifetime of cherished memories. Contested at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, it marked the first time that a female football game was played in an NFL Stadium.
Challenging the cultural norm is part of a normal day for Menzyk. When not on the gridiron, she is conducting an apprenticeship to be an ironworker through Chicago’s Local 395. Employing the team-first approach that has made her such a valued football player, she will likely become just as valued a member of her working crew as she engages in welding, burning and connecting.