Football is a brutal sport — body-crunching, helmet-crashing, full-contact ferocity.
Historically, it’s been a man’s game, but that is changing.
Women across America play football in semi-professional leagues, and Chattanooga now fields two women’s football teams: Chattanooga Soul (formerly Chattanooga Locomotion) and Tennessee Train.
Chattanooga Locomotion, founded in 2001, was recently renamed Chattanooga Soul after the death of team owner Cheryl Jacobs, says Sheryl Talley, of Dalton, Ga., who joined the team as a player in 2002 and is now head coach.
“Our owner passed away in May, and the Locomotion name and logo are tied up in probate court,” she explains. “In order to continue the season, we had to rebrand our team.”
Starlisa Horton, a former player with Chattanooga Locomotion, now plays for Tennessee Train, founded in 2012.
“Most of us were former Chattanooga Locomotion players,” says Horton, of Chattanooga. “We were unsure of whether we would ever have a team again, so we took matters into our own hands.”
Horton says she doesn’t know why ffootball has historically been a sport limited to men.
“We may not be as strong, but we are just as good as any men’s team I have seen,” says Horton, a devoted fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. “We are trying to break down those walls that have been up for so many years. My team of women are hungry for greatness and are a wonderful group of ladies whom I love very much. We all have a bond, and we are all sisters. Win or lose, we are a family that grinds hard and plays harder.”
Talley says the team offers women the opportunity to play the sport they grew up loving but were only allowed to watch. “I think because of the physical nature of the sport, no one thought women should or could play.”
Like it is for men, the local women’s teams play full tackle, not touch football.
“People always ask if it is flag or powderpuff, ” says Talley, 43, a graphic artist. “You have to explain that women do play real tackle football.”
A high school and college athlete, Talley played softball, basketball, tennis and track. She added football to the list when she hit her 30s.
“I loved watching football and always wanted to play, so when I heard about the Locomotion, I knew I had to be a part of it,” she says, noting that her family supported her decision to play the male-dominated sport.
The Soul roster averages around 25 members, with a general age range from late 20s to early 30s, according to Talley.
“But we have had women ages 18 to almost 60,” she says. “We have college students, social-work professionals, teachers, manufacturing and just about everything out there.”
“Most have some sort of athletic background, but we do have women that have never played an organized sport before,” she says.
Chattanooga Soul is part of the Independent Women’s Football League, which has 36 teams, including one in Canada.
“We play our regular season regionally against teams in North Carolina and Alabama,” she says. “Playoff games could be anywhere across the league.”
The season, which runs from April through July, has eight games, more if they make the playoffs. Home games are played at Red Bank High School.
Horton also has an active sports background. She played basketball, volleyball, track, tennis and softball. But it’s football she now loves the most.
“Football is my passion,” says Horton, 35, a dock clerk at Amazon. “I was told that I couldn’t play football in high school, and that was not an option in my book. Football is not like any other sport. It’s a great stress reliever and it gives you such a rush.
“I love football just as much as any male player, if not more,” she says. “I think we women should have our own NFL just like the guys and hopefully we can open the doors and show them that we are no different.”
Horton says her family “[loves] the fact that I’m living out my dream, and they are there to cheer me on every step of the way.”
There are nearly 30 players on Tennessee Train, part of the Women’s Football Alliance. “Our age range is 17 to whenever you feel you can’t play anymore,” Horton says.
The Train, whose home field is at Hixson High School, competes with teams in Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Florida.
“There are about six leagues with anywhere from 20 to 50 teams in each league, but, as far as I know, there has never been a professional team. We are working very hard to make this happen around the world.”
Like their male counterparts, women on the team vary in size. They range from 4-feet, 11 inches to 6-feet, 3-inches in height to 120 to 350 pounds in weight.
“Like any sport, there will be injuries,” Horton says. “We see broken bones all the time as well as sprains or concussions.”
“It is tackle football,” Talley says. “There’s always injuries, mostly minor, but we have seen some major injuries over the years.”
Talley, a devoted fan of football whether it’s played by men or women, says her favorite teams are Ole Miss and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Lilli Montanez will start her third year as a member of Chattanooga Soul next April.
“I have always loved football,” says the 26-year-old Tennessee Aquarium employee. “I wanted to play when I was in school but they made it complicated,” she says.
Montanez played basketball, volleyball, softball and ran track during her middle and high school years. Today it’s all about football.
“Football helps me so much,” she says. “I play wherever I am needed. I am mainly on offensive line and defensive line, but I have played full back and running back. My favorite position is defensive tackle.”
She’s sustained only minor injuries playing.
“I’ve hurt my knee several times, but I play through it until I can’t anymore. It’s mind over matter in this game,” she says. “My goal is to play until they make it as known as the NFL and I get paid to play — that would be great for women everywhere.”
Both teams welcome new players and new fans.
Horton says she and her teammates meet people who aren’t interested in attending games or don’t believe women can play football “until they see for themselves.”
Contact Karen Nazor Hill at 423-757-6396 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to play? Come try out-Chattanooga Soul
* Where: Red Bank High School
* When: Saturday, Dec. 13, 9 a.m., rain or shine. (Wear athletic attire and cleats or tennis shoes.) You must be 18 years old by April 2015. No experience necessary.
* Contact: email@example.com
* Where: Hixson High School
* When: Saturday, Dec. 13, 11 a.m. No experience necessary. Bring water, towel, cleats or running shoes.
* Cost: $30 tryout fee (will be applied to league fee)
* Contact: tntrain.com
This article was republished with permission from the author, Karen Nazor Hill. The original article was published on Chattanooga Times Free Press.