Women are fighting for space in football and they are here to stay

As Ravenwood’s quarterback fell back into the pocket and released a pass destined for the end zone, Michael Collier fired from his seat. When Morgan Collier, a freshman wide receiver, caught it over the head of the defenseman, Michael went berserk.

He never thought he could catch Morgan, his only daughter, a touchdown pass for her high school team.

Michael sprinted up and down the aisles of Ravenwood’s Raptor Stadium, high-five the other players’ parents, friends and family.

“Girls like football as much as boys do, but they don’t usually get a chance to show that kind of athleticism,” Michael said. “And it was really a great product that they’ve launched.”

Morgan Collier starred in the Inaugural season of girls’ high school flag football in Williamson County, the first opportunity of its kind for girls in the Nashville area.

The women's soccer team

But Williamson County is not alone. Whether through a grassroots high school program or an established pro team, women in Nashville are gaining ground in soccer, a sport that has historically excluded them, regardless of how many people say they don’t belong.

“What attracts women to women’s football is that women are told football is not for women. And that’s definitely not true,” said Donita Hines, owner of the Music City Mizfits, a Nashville-based semi-professional women’s tackle football team.

SOON:Schools in Metro Nashville, Titans partners for girls’ flag football program beginning in 2023

HERE TO STAY:Why coaches and players think girls’ flag football will be the next TSSAA-sanctioned sport

But that doesn’t mean that growth for women in football is easy to achieve.

“It’s not like there aren’t a lot of women out there,” said Hines, who has owned the Mizfits since 2016. “People just feel like women shouldn’t be playing football. We have all the SEC schools here and men’s football is basically what everyone sees.”

The younger generation helps lead a changing of the guard. Some schools in Williamson County have had as many as 100 players lined up for the inaugural girls’ flag football season. The Titans helped fund the experiment, which ended with a championship at Nissan Stadium on May 7.

A handful of colleges have even begun offering flag football scholarships to women at many Division II, Division III, or NAIA schools.

“I think it’s definitely going to explode,” said Jessica Mancini, Ravenwood flag football coach. “No matter where it goes, the interest in it is very high.”

Jennika Watts (24) of the Music City Mizfits at Lighthouse Christian Football Field in Antioch, Tenn., Friday July 15, 2022.

earn respect

It goes without saying that Chris Hughes knows what a good soccer player looks like on the pitch.

He’s seen a lot, both in 13 seasons for the Fairview High School boys‘ tackle football team and now in one season as coach of the Fairview girls’ flag football team.

Hughes went so far as to say that not only could some of his flag football players match his tackle players, but that many could outperform their male counterparts.

“Football is such a popular sport and girls are finding that they can play and are just as good as the boys,” Hughes said. “Some of the receivers on my flag team could probably play on mine [boys] high school team.”

The stands for this spring’s flag games were packed with his fall tacklers.

MJ Johnson (7) of Music City Mizfits poses at Lighthouse Christian Football Field on Friday July 15, 2022 in Antioch, Tennessee.

The rules of flag football are obviously different from those of tackle football. Aside from the visual difference in tackle, only seven players are allowed on the field per team, compared to 11 in tackle football.

But apart from the offensive and defensive lines, the positions are largely the same. Flag quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, linebackers, and safeties all play the same pack and play at the pace you’d expect on any gridiron.

“You can see the excitement and cheer when they make a good catch,” Hughes said. “It’s the same excitement. Girls have always stood in the stands or cheered on the sidelines. Now they are in the field.”

However, women’s tackle football is identical to men’s. The Mizfits wear the same pads and helmets, swarm the ball just as hard to make a tackle, and fight in the trenches just like men’s teams. They throw the same highlight reel passes and make the same goal-line stands.

“For a lot of women, it’s something they’ve never done before, and they come to our games and they see it’s no different than the men,” Hines said. “It’s full contact and the same competitiveness.”

When Hines and her players tell people they play football, they often assume they mean in a lingerie league, where women with full faces and little to no clothing play an abbreviated version of football.

But Hines and her players are quick to correct their doubters, saying the type of football they play isn’t just a glorified version of it.

“They’re going to be like, ‘Are you the ones who play in bikinis?'” said LeShay Shute, a wide receiver who ran back and into the corner for the Mizfits. “But we’ve earned a lot more respect now. Our name is out there. People come to see us.”

“We’re trying to prove to people that women are just as good at this sport as men,” Hines said. “They’re competitive, they can go out and get big hits and make good plays, throw these 40-yard passes and have all these highlights.”

Women's soccer team Football Field in Antioch, Tennessee. July 15, 2022. “/>

“Catch fire”

The Music City Mizfits roster is made up of women ages 18 through their mid-40s. The players include mothers, nurses, active military and veterans, doctors, and youth football coaches. They’re coming from near the Nashville subway station, or far away from Clarksville—maybe even further.

The desire to find opportunities for women in football unites them.

Women’s football is “catching fire,” Hines said, both in Nashville and across the country. After years of struggling to grow, the Mizfits see progress and make it to the playoffs this year with an active roster of just 20 players.

The Mizfits are part of the Women’s Football Alliance, a national women’s professional tackle football league that includes 65 teams in three divisions.

Most Mizfits had never played organized soccer before lacing up their cleats for tryouts.

“With the increasing momentum in women’s football, many women want to be involved,” said Hines.

For high school girls, too, the girls’ flag leagues are gaining ground. Eight states sanction soccer as a college sport: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey and New York.

Tennessee could be next. The inaugural season of Williamson County girls’ flag soccer was such a success that Davidson County announced on June 21 that it will follow suit this school year. Emily Crowell, the TSSAA’s assistant executive director, said Tennessee is “on track” to make flag football a sanctioned sport for girls.

“It’s good to see we’re still creating firsts for girls,” Crowell said. “Eventually we’ll run out of the first ones.”

The women's soccer team “Music City Mizfits” Rodneika Crutcher, 37, poses at Lighthouse Christian Football Field on Friday July 15, 2022 in Antioch, Tennessee.

“Send the elevator back down

whaWhen Phoebe Schecter was in high school, her only chance to play football was one powder puff game a year, where juniors and seniors dressed in pink jerseys to compete in a single flag game.

Now Schecter is a professional tackle football player for Team Great Britain and an ambassador for NFL Flag, which helps set up girls’ high school flag leagues in the United States. She helped bring flag football to Williamson and Davidson County Schools.

Schecter lives her life by a philosophy of “sending the elevator back down.” She’s risen through the ranks of football, and she feels an obligation to take other women and girls with her.

Gwendolyn Hardison (87) of Music City Mizfits poses at Lighthouse Christian Football Field on Friday July 15, 2022 in Antioch, Tennessee.

“These girls fall in love with the sport as soon as they start playing it,” Schecter said. “The life lessons, the values, the teamwork, the leadership and quite frankly the way it empowers you as a woman is so incredible.”

This sense of empowerment is one of the reasons why the presence of women in football is increasing.

For those who belong, this is why women’s football is here to stay.

“This is no joke. It’s not for show. Women play soccer and women will continue to play soccer,” Hines said. “People just have to get used to it because it’s not going anywhere.”

Emma Healy is a sports reporting intern for The Tennessean. Contact them at marriage@gannett.com or follow her on Twitter @_EmmaHealy_.

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