Football, for all its female fans and female reporters, is still a heavily male-dominated sport. When you watch football on television, you are watching men. I mean, what do you think of when you think of a female football player? I can honestly say I don’t know what I think of, because I’ve never known one.
When women do get involved in the game, it’s usually in powderpuff games or lingerie leagues. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. You do you, lingerie players!) But, unbeknownst to most people, there are plenty of women out there who are playing hard, full-tackle football, in leagues like the Independent Women’s Football League and the Women’s Football Alliance.
Since the Super Bowl is just a few days away and everyone has football on their mind, I wanted to take this opportunity to learn more about what it’s like to play full-tackle football as a woman. Mostly because I couldn’t care less about the Super Bowl. And if we’re going to be stuck talking about football for the next few days, I’d rather focus the conversation on the badass women who are playing just as hard as the guys.
I spoke to Laura Cantu, the quarterback for the IWFL’s Houston Energy, about her experiences playing in the Independent Women’s Football League. Whether you like football or not, it’s pretty interesting to hear about what it’s like to be a woman in the sport.
What were your experiences with football growing up?
Growing up, football was a big part of my life. My dad coached Little League and both my brothers played. Most of my interaction with the sport was supporting them; I went to every practice and game. Being out there all the time is when I got my most practice in throwing the ball. Once my brother taught me how to throw a spiral, it was on!
What made you want to start playing organized women’s football, in a league?
What led up to me making the decision to play was my dad. At that time he was a coach, so he wanted me to try it. But what really made my decision for me was the passing of my brother. In April 2003, he was in an accident and suddenly passed away.
I wanted to play for him and I knew he would be proud of me if I made the decision to go ahead and play after graduation [from high school]. He played football growing up for many years; He wore #51 and if I wasn’t a QB, I have worn that number as well. (Instead, I wore #4).
He was the one that I spent most of my time throwing the football with and he was the one that taught me how to throw a spiral, so I wanted to play in his memory. We used to throw the ball after school for hours. He was happy that he was going to have the chance to see me play, until his life was cut short. I still continue to play for him and even though he’s not in the stands watching me, he’s watching from above!
Does your team or game have different rules that that of men’s football?
No, we play by both NCAA and NFL rules. More NFL than NCAA, I think. There are only a handful of NCAA rules that we use.
Are your coaches at the Houston Energy men or women? Does having a male or female coach affect the team, the game or you as a player?
All of the coaches on the Houston Energy are men. Some teams in our league have women coaches though. I don’t think it matters if the coaches are men or women. Most, if not all, the women coaches for the teams that are part of the IWFL have played football before.
What’s your research process like? How much time do you spend watching film?
After every game, we spend at least one practice going over our previous game to review mistakes and fix some of the problems that happen during that game. Then, we’ll go over film from the team we are about to play to show us what to look for on both sides of the ball and to help us prepare.
One practice may not seem like a lot, but when you only practice twice a week during the season, it’s actually really good that we are able to at least get that time together to go over everything. For playoffs or the Super Bowl we practice more, so we put more time in to watching film during those weeks.
What are your thoughts on traumatic brain injury, considering that it can often have worse effects for women?
It’s really nothing that I have thought too much about. By playing the sport, I know what it can do to my body and I know the effects that I might have later because of it, but it’s not something that I focus on too much. I do all I can to protect myself during the season and I also try my best to take care of my body, because I know it will help me in the long run.
What are the fans of women’s football like?
Fans for every team are different. Here in Houston, our fans are loyal and will support us wherever we go. We average about five hundred fans at each home game.
How does it feel to be a woman on the field and also have women cheering for you (ie. the cheerleaders)?
The Houston Energy dance team is called Code Red and it actually has guys and girls on it. I think its great that we have a team that supports us, cheers us on during each home game and entertains the fans.
Can you talk a little bit about your life off the field? What’s your day job or every day life like and how do you balance it with being a quarterback for an all-volunteer team?
Life off the field is not too busy for me right now. I do have a boyfriend, but I am not married nor do I have kids. I am currently a senior at TSU (Texas Southern University) and will be graduating this May with my BBA in Marketing. I have chosen to take off this last semester of college from working and just focus on getting my degree.
My prior work for the past couple years has been working in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Houston Texans. I completed three different internships, all of which were the a lot of fun. The experience was priceless! I definitely plan to work in the NFL after I finish school.
I do volunteer for some summer camps, but it varies every year depending on my availability. Our football season is played between April and July so, sometimes I don’t have time to volunteer.
What’s your favorite thing about being a football player?
My favorite thing about being a football player is being part of my team. I play QB and I have the opportunity to lead my team every time we step foot on the field.
I am absolutely in love with football and I love suiting up and going to war with my team. My team is full of some pretty amazing women, all of whom are very passionate about football. Since we’re finally given the opportunity to play the sport a lot of us have never had the chance to, we give all we can for each other when we are on that field.
Are there any misconceptions you’d like to address about women’s football or women’s football players?
It’s already understood that women aren’t as strong, aren’t as fast and aren’t as knowledgeable about the game because their experience isn’t the same as men. But I want people to know that we are very capable of playing the sport the same way they are. We hit hard too!
Some women on the teams in the IWFL have been playing football longer then men in the NFL, including myself. I am going on my twelfth season playing this sport. I’m not as fast as the guys, but I definitely know the game. I just want people to respect the fact that we risk our bodies, make sacrifices and give up a lot of time to play this sport because we love it.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you, your team, or women’s football?
Playing football is a hobby for all of us. We do not get paid nor do we get endorsements. Every player is responsible for raising money to be able to play each season so we actually pay to play. We all either have full-time jobs, are full-time students and some of us even have children and husbands.
I just would like people to know that we give up and sacrifice a lot to play this sport. I’d like people to also know that just because we are women, it doesn’t mean we are not capable of playing a “man’s” sport. We work hard year around to be the strongest, fastest and the smartest we can be. Come check us out if you are in Houston, we definitely put on a show and will probably surprise you!
Photos courtesy of Laura Cantu