Advertisement
Sports

‘Now this is becoming real’: Four Marylanders seek to help U.S. Women’s Tackle National Team win football world title

Kathryn “Lexie” Floor grew up watching her older brother Andrew get ready for his high school football games, and she was entranced by the uniforms and spectacle surrounding his games.

“I always remember thinking, ‘He looks like a superhero with all of his stuff on and his helmet,’” she recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘I want to be like that. I want to wear armor and go to war and just catch footballs.’ And I remember telling my dad when I was really young that I wanted to play football, and he said there wasn’t really football for girls. He said it was really a boys sport.”

Advertisement

Floor, a 32-year-old digital marketing manager from Beltsville, is helping to turn that way of thinking on its head. She is one of four Maryland residents to make the roster for the U.S. Women’s Tackle National Team, which will compete in Vantaa, Finland, from July 28 to Aug. 8 for the 2022 International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Women’s Tackle World Championship.

Floor, a 5-foot-7, 145-pound wide receiver, is joined by 6-0, 295-pound offensive lineman Jennifer Gray of Laurel, 5-6, 155-pound defensive back Chantal Ridlon of Monrovia, and 5-9, 195-pound defensive back LaShantel Wilson of Beltsville. All four are expected to attend training camp at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, from July 21 to 27, and Floor said she is looking forward to making her first appearance on the global stage.

Advertisement

“It’s a dream come true, but now this is becoming real,” she said.

Of the four players from Maryland, only Gray has international experience, as a member of the 2017 national team. Thirty-eight of the 45 players on the current roster will make their debut next month, which could be a factor, coach Callie Brownson acknowledged.

“It’s a big stage, it’s a big opportunity, and there are a lot of eyes on you,” said Brownson, a safety on the 2013 and 2017 teams and a current assistant wide receivers coach for the Cleveland Browns. “That’s something that in training camp, I plan on coaching them through and working with them on thinking that it’s OK to feel that. This is big. That’s why you work so hard to get here, and that’s why we work so hard in training camp.”

The U.S. team is the reigning world titlist, having won crowns in 2010, 2013 and 2017 — the only years the IFAF held the championships. Last year’s tournament was postponed due to concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, which is why USA Football officials are eager to compete again this summer.

“[The level of enthusiasm] is exceptionally high,” said Eric Mayes, senior director of football operations for USA Football. “The last few years that we’ve all experienced across the world have led to this, and there’s just an overall excitement to get back out there and compete. There’s also an excitement among our team to showcase the highest level of women’s football that we have here in the States and go out and do that again on the world stage. There’s been tremendous movement over the last five years in providing equitable opportunity to show the high level of women’s participation in all sports.”

Tackle football is slowly becoming a popular sport among girls. Forty-seven of 50 states experienced a rise in the percentage of girls who play high school tackle football in 2018 compared with 2008, according to participation data compiled by the National Federation of High Schools and cited by the NFL Football Operations, the league’s research arm. The report noted that the 593 girls playing tackle football in California was the highest total among all states and that the 204 female participants in New Jersey represented a rate that was 6.3 times higher than in 2008.

Those numbers confirm to Mayes why USA Football sponsors women’s tackle football.

“I think USA Football is in the vein of football for all,” he said. “And the goal as we look to expand opportunities for or reduce barriers to participation is showcasing hopefully a level of the game that inspires [women] to either get into the sport as a player or as an administrator or coach.”

Advertisement

Floor argued that the playbook for the women’s national team is as technical as that for the men. But she acknowledged that she has no misconceptions about the physical differences between women’s and men’s tackle football.

“Yes, I 100% believe that if I got tackled by an NFL lineman, I would be squished,” she acknowledged. “But I could give them a run for their money. I’d be able to catch the ball before they crushed all my bones.”

The sport is still in its infancy and dealing with hurdles such as minimal TV coverage and other media-related visibility. Also, players on the national team had to pay to help offset travel costs to Finland, which is a sign to Brownson that there is still room for growth.

“There’s the greedy part of you and the part that says that dollar amount should be zero, but it has gotten better,” she said. “We are moving in the right direction. It’s not good enough yet, but we’ll get there.”

For the first time in world championship history, eight national teams will vie for the crown. Germany and Sweden, both of which last played in 2013, will join Australia, Canada, Finland, Great Britain, Mexico, and the United States, all of which played in 2017.

Floor said she and her teammates are eager to meet their opponents not just on the field, but also in social settings.

Advertisement

“I love the fact that I can go to other places and be with like-minded people who are also pushing against the grain,” she said. “People are like, ‘This is not meant for you,’ but we can bond in that.”

Brownson is aware that the players have been hungry to defend the nation’s three previous world championships, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic. But she acknowledged that there is a delicate balance the players must achieve.

“I think there’s a difference between excited and redlining, and I definitely don’t think we’re in that redlining area,” she said. “And part of that is, when you walk into this experience, there’s still so much work to do. I think everybody is kind of at the base of the mountain. We haven’t gotten in the same room together, we haven’t gotten to camp, we haven’t practiced together. So it’s really hard to get to that point where you’re really excited.”

The national team’s toughest opponents are its neighbors in Canada and Mexico. Canada has been the runner-up in each of the three competitions, while Mexico finished third in its debut in 2017.

Floor described the players as being “gold-minded.”

“I think we have all put in the work, and there’s this last little bit of month of work to go and just play the games of our lives in this tournament,” she said. “This is it. I know a ton of people are going to put in their entire bodies and blood and sweat and tears to this trip. So it would be a disservice to not bring that mindset into it.”


Advertisement