At dusk on a Wednesday night, two columns of football players are tearing up the grass doing practice drills, hitting, spitting, cussing and getting reamed by the offensive line coach.
“Give me some F— energy or get off of the field!”
If they don’t win in the playoffs, their season is over.
Dressed out in full pads, the blue-and-orange horse head logo on their helmets looks a lot like the Broncos’, their jerseys are caked with dirt and they’re wearing … hot pink knee socks?
They’re all women.
The Mile High Blaze is a professional women’s tackle football team in the Women’s Football Alliance, which is headed to the Marv Kay Stadium at Colorado School of Mines in Golden for the WFA’s 10th annual National Championship games on Friday and Saturday, July 12-13.
Just like the NFL, the WFA plays in stadiums with certified referees, has cheerleaders and offers diamond-studded championship rings. The players are checked for steroids.
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But these aren’t the pampered male players with multimillion-dollar NFL contracts and endorsements. These women pay to play, and they finance their travels, teams and equipment with bake sales, car washes, fundraisers and garage sales. They would gladly accept cast-off gear from their male counterparts — hello, John Elway? — but their sport hasn’t seen much love so far from the Broncos or other teams. The Blaze’s 10 coaches volunteer their time.
“For the men, it’s about the money,” says captain and linebacker, 37-year-old Yolanda “Yoyo” Searcy. “For us, it’s about the love of the game.”
Many of the women juggle other jobs. Searcy, who gave up a college basketball scholarship 30 years ago to have a baby and marry her high school sweetheart, now works two jobs and goes to school while playing for the Blaze.
“We’re not a women’s football team. We are a football team,” says owner Wyn Flato-Dominy, whose blonde hair, dyed pink and blue, is thrown up in a visor with a “B” on it.
“It’s good football”
The Blaze was headstrong from the moment it splintered off from the original state team, the Colorado Springs Sting, in 2014. When the Denver women first gathered to form a separate organization, they mutinied the minute they realized the new coach had registered them as the pink, black and white “Mile Hi Cowgirls” without asking anyone.
Today’s Blaze traded that yeehaw lady lariat logo for an intimidating, grimacing stallion with flame for a mane. They are four-time Pacific Region champions, and have been one game from the national championship game the past three years. This year, they went 7-1 in the regular season.
The Women’s Football Alliance started in 2014 with 24 teams. Today there are three divisions and 62 teams, which have names like The Portland Shockwave, DC Divas, Music City Mizfits and Acadiana Zydeco. Teams average around 40 players who train year-round on their own dime and time.
“We’re slowly chipping away at getting respect,” says WFA Commissioner Dr. Lisa King, a former Division 1 college soccer player who plays wide receiver as a “soldier” on the field for the Cali War. At 46 years old King is an old-timer who has literally rolled with the punches since women’s combat football began for the WFA six years ago. Her husband is on board, but not everyone who loves her is all in.
“My brother told me ‘I do not want you playing football any more. When you first started, they didn’t have those huge players. You’re gonna get killed.’ I said ‘You’re right.’”
The WFA averages 1,000-2,500 fans per game. The national championship is expected to draw up to 5,000 women’s tackle football fanatics with thousands more watching the Facebook livestream.
“Sometimes when we say we play women’s football, people assume we’re out there in our bra and underwear,” says Dominy. “We have to explain, ‘For Pete’s sake, NO! We pad up just like the men.’”
She’s referring to the Legends Football League, sarcastically referred to by fans as the “Lingerie League.” The local LFL team, The Denver Dream, plays at Loveland’s Budweiser Center in tiny briefs and sports bras that reveal plenty of cheek and cleavage.
“Sex is always sold. That’s a wall we’re trying to break down,” explains Amy Roberts, a mountain of a woman who plays center for the Blaze. Beneath her shoulder pads, her T-shirt says “Don’t Rush Me: I get paid by the hour,” which in fact, is not true when it comes to her football career.
Blaze players actually pay around $2,000 each to be on the team, and there’s no money for travel, so Roberts held a garage sale to raise the cash she needs drive to the playoffs against the St. Louis Slam.
“I’m a lineman, so I eat a lot, plus the gas to get to St. Louis. I made about $400,” she said.
Roberts is one of 72 players on the Blaze roster, most of whom Dominy says make the road trips to places like Kansas City and New Mexico.
Not your mother’s bridge club
A woman in a black T-shirt with “WIFE” sequined across the chest bursts into our interview huddle shouting, “Hometown 303! Tell her we’re going for the victory!” Nicole “Boxer” Gallegos plays corner, line and special teams.
“For the ring, baby!!” says KT, who spells her name just like that. “We’re chasing glory, that’s for sure.”
Defensive end Chantel “Chi Chi” Hernandez, is tall and could be a model, but she’d rather fish for a living — “I’ve had a fishing pole in my hand since I could walk,” she says. During the off-season, she makes the long trip home to Anchorage to help provide salmon for her dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins.
The coaches love her positive attitude, and one of them has made her a cheesecake, which is waiting in his car.
Tonight, though, Chi Chi says she is “getting butterflies” thinking about the playoffs, staring down the Slam’s O- line.
“Intimidation is my mind game,” she says.
Dominy nods, arms folded across her chest: “She slobbers and shows her teeth to scare ‘em.”
For head coach Rob Sandlin, a 40-something former football player, running a team of women offers more reward than coaching the guys.
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“The passion they have, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sandlin says. “Men think they already know everything. Women are open to learning.”
“With the men, it’s like you’re screaming into the wind. Women are more disciplined,” adds defensive line coach Donny McElroy. He shakes his head, “ When it snowed this spring, they grabbed a shovel and cleared off the fields.”
Each player has a different reason for committing to practice four nights a week from April until mid-July with games on the weekends.
Most are former high school star athletes who play for the love of competition and game strategy they left behind when they graduated. Others like to hit, and still, for most it’s as simple as the Sisterhood.
“It’s the camaraderie,” Roberts says.
“And you get to hit people and not go to jail,” adds Nicola Williams, a former cheerleader and grandma who works full-time and is studying to be a nurse.
“People say women don’t have what it takes, but we have broken feet and torn hands,”
says Searcy, who recently earned a double masters in forensic science and critical incident management.
National title, Colorado style
The title games are sponsored in large part by Adenation, a sports hydration drink founded by former Pittsburgh Steelers great Franco Harris.
Commissioner King tells The Colorado Sun that while many of the NFL teams and “beer-drinking sports guys” have turned their backs on women’s tackle football, Harris has stepped up with dollars and respect.
“If we could just multiply him, we wouldn’t have any issues,” King says. “Our marketing has been awful. We don’t have the budget. People are always telling us they didn’t know we existed. I say know … I know! But we’re trying.”
Harris co-owns Pittsburgh’s WFA team, the Pittsburgh Passion, and was influential in getting an earlier WFA national championship played on the Steelers’ Heinz Field.
King says Harris and the Steelers, along with the Washington Redskins and the New England Patriots, have supported their cities’ women’s teams. Other cities, including Denver, not so much.
Last fall, a Nielsen survey found that more people than ever are likely to watch female athletes compete. The report found that a whopping 84% of sports fans in eight key markets around the world, including the U.S., Germany and the U.K., have an interest in women’s sports. Surprisingly, over half of those were men.
Fandom took off this year when the American women’s soccer team marched game by thrilling game to win their fourth World Cup. It was the No. 1 Fox MLS game ever ratings-wise, drawing 14 million to watch the final game between the Americans and the Netherlands. Fox Sports Executive Vice President Michael Mulvihill tweeted, “With a 10.0 overnight rating, the Women’s World Cup Final outrated last year’s Men’s World Cup Final by +20%. #USWNT #FIFAWWC” and then a sarcastic “But it’ll never catch on here.”
Dominy says she has gotten no response when she’s called and emailed Elway and company for support with cross-promotion or hand-me-down equipment. “I was hoping for a pad or a pair of gloves … they don’t even sneeze my way.”
When The Colorado Sun contacted Patrick Smyth, the Broncos’ executive vice president of public and community relations, said he’d never heard of the Mile High Blaze. After a string of emails, and various conversations with colleagues, Smyth finally tracked down a person who had spoken with Dominy by phone a year ago, and found an email from a Blaze team captain who asked about a grant, but he says she never filled out the required form. Still, he would like to help their look-a-like football sisters.
“The (Broncos) are still learning about the league, but are always open to looking for ways to expand its football outreach,” Smyth says.
Smyth notes that the Broncos host a Crush Fan Club for Women, and also put on “football events for mothers that focus on health and safety.”
On Monday, in response to The Sun’s inquiries, the Broncos put Dominy in touch with another representative in hopes of moving the conversation forward.
“She gave us an autographed football to auction off and offered to help promote our championships this weekend,” Domini says. It’s a thin trickle of water after years of drought.
“The NFL is opening their eyes a little bit, but it’s hit and miss,” King says.
Dominy’s dream is to see the Mile High Blaze play a short exhibition game during a Broncos halftime.
Down, but not out
The jig is up this year for the Mile High Blaze. They took their 7-1 regular season record to St. Louis but forgot to bring the heat, losing 47-0 on June 29. They’ll now have to watch in pain from the stands as the St. Louis Slam take on the Detroit Dark Angels on Saturday in their own backyard for the Division II final game. D-3 will see the Orlando Anarchy play the Nevada Storm on Friday.
WFA Commissioner Lisa King’s team, the Cali War, has advanced to the Division 1 final Saturday night showdown against the Boston Renegades.
King, the Roger Goodell of the Women’s Football Alliance, spoke to The Sun with a kid in the back seat as she headed out to sell fireworks to raise money for the trip to Colorado.
She acknowledges that the league has been slow to attract attention, but she’s confident that women’s tackle football is here to stay.
“I want people to come out and see the games because it’s good football,” she says. “Not because we’re women.”
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