As I approached 40, life had acquired a kind of sameness. Work. Cook. Vacuum. Watch Netflix. Drive the kids to soccer practice.
I need something — something different. So when I hear from a friend that there is a women’s football team in our city, I jump at the chance to join.
Sure, I’ve never played football before, and I’ve rarely watched it. Truth be told, I don’t actually understand the sport. But I can’t help but feel it might fill some holes in my life. “Me” time. Exercise. Fun with other grown-ups. All things that tend to be in short supply when you have three young kids.
Sometimes, when I watch my kids play softball, ride their bikes super fast or practice handstands in the living room, I think, When did I stop doing that? I tell myself I can still be athletic. After all, I played sports in high school (cough, cough) 20 years ago. How hard can it be?
It turns out — pretty hard!
The local women’s football team, I learn, operates as a fundraiser for youth sports in the community. Proceeds from ticket sales, admissions and fundraisers go toward sports equipment, scholarships for low-income kids and other expenses. These women play football, the website says, “in the spirit of fun, inspiration, and community support for youth sports.”
Though the team is billed as a local “moms” team, not everyone is a mom — in fact, the youngest player just graduated from high school, and the oldest is in her 50s. Several neighboring communities have similar teams, and every year they play one another. Some of the rivalries are fierce, from what my friend says.
I have no idea what to expect, and I’m uncharacteristically nervous before the first practice. At first, I only tell a couple of friends, whose opinions are mixed — “Whoa, you could get badly hurt!” one exclaims, while another proclaims me “badass.” My husband seems impressed; my kids think I’m joking.
“You are not exactly the type to tackle someone,” my 8-year-old says matter-of-factly. Thanks, kid.
The team’s email updates instruct us to prep for the season by exercising, eating right and drinking lots of water. Good idea, I think. But, as is often the case, I lose momentum and don’t really do any of it. I start to feel sick every time I think about football. I worry I’ve made a mistake.
I knew I was out of shape, but the first “speed and agility” practices are even tougher than I’d imagined. Under the watchful eyes of our five(!) coaches, I ― and a couple dozen women, only one of whom I know ― jog around the field and catch footballs and jump over hurdles. We high-step over a rope ladder and attempt a complicated shuffling drill they call “karaoke.”
But the worst part, the absolute worst, are the “duck-walks” where we squat down low, stick our arms straight out and waddle down the field. My thighs are burning after a few waddles ― and I can’t imagine there’s anything adorably duckling-like about it.
“This is exhausting,” I say to another player during a water break.
She smiles knowingly. “Just wait until the season really starts.”
She’s right. A few weeks later, at the first official practice, we’re issued huge protective pads and helmets. The pads are bulky and hard to get on, and they make me feel like I’m wearing a Tin Man costume. The helmet pinches my head, causing a pounding headache. I can’t stop gagging on my rubbery mouthguard and keep spitting it out.
“Mouthguard in!” the coaches holler. The drills feel five times harder than they were before.
I’m so tired that night, I fall asleep on the couch after dinner.
Then the season begins in earnest. We practice twice a week: Wednesdays for two hours and Sundays for up to three hours.
The team has a hierarchy of skill, I quickly realize. There’s a talented quarterback and several women (some young enough to be my kids) who can catch balls and run fast and tackle skillfully and just generally have it all together.
I am not one of them. I huff my way around the field, noticing several other players casually chatting while they run. The first time I attempt to tackle a blocking dummy, I miscalculate, slide across it and end up sprawled in the grass, mud caked on my yoga pants.
My wobbly throws don’t get the ball where I intend. I can catch OK — but after a football hits my finger wrong, it swells so badly that it takes two weeks of daily attempts (plus generous amounts of canola oil) to slide off my wedding ring.
I feel pretty hopeless.
We soon get our position assignments. I’m on the line for offense and defense. Sure, there’s a lot I can’t do, but I can push people pretty hard. Huh. Who knew?
During lineman drills, we shove the heavy sled across the grass. We hurl ourselves at the tackling dummy. We pair off and learn how to tackle each other. I fight the urge to apologize every time I knock someone down.
The morning after each practice, practically every muscle burns … I limp down the stairs, feeling every minute of my 39 years. I ask my youngest son to please stop grabbing my arms, which are covered in bruises, some shaped like handprints.
We’re issued a huge playbook, and it might as well be in a different language. I study it every chance I get and try to soak up everything the coaches say. Blitzes. Iso. Gaps. Whiffing. Alleys. Shit …
But I figure out pretty quickly the one chance I have of doing this thing right: I show up at every practice, and I work. I work hard. Slowly, things start to click.
My mouthguard stops making me gag. My helmet stops hurting. My bulky pads feel comfortable. I start jogging in my neighborhood wearing all three (can you imagine what my neighbors must think?).
One practice, after eating a big lunch, I have to run out to the parking lot, grab a plastic bag out of my car, spit out my mouthguard and throw up. Five minutes later, I’m back to duck-walking, trying to pretend it never happened. From then on, I eat lightly on practice days.
As the weeks pass, though I am still out of shape, I stop feeling like I’ll die when I run or duck-walk or do pushups. In fact, I have more energy than I’ve had in years.
I get my specific positions: left tackle on offense, right tackle on defense. I know where to stand. I learn how to get low. Never low enough for the line coach (“Hildenbrand, get lower,” he growls regularly), but better.
I keep studying the playbook. The little letters and solid lines and dotted lines start to make sense. I can run-block or pass-block, left or right. It’s not actually that complicated. I decide I might not fail spectacularly.
One day, I look around the field and realize I know everyone’s name. Most of all, I gravitate toward three other rookies: Lindy (a wide receiver and linebacker), Courtney (a fullback) and Liz (our center). It starts with conversations before and after practice. Then comes a play date with all our kids. Walks around the track. Margarita night. Dinners. Birthday celebrations. A never-ending group text thread. We tell one another things we’ve never told anyone. It’s hard to believe these women were ever strangers.
Our coaches, too, are no longer strangers. They aren’t just football encyclopedias who tell us which play to run ― they’re also smart and funny and kind, and they give countless hours of their time, unpaid, because they love the sport.
We practice twice a week, religiously. We practice on Mother’s Day. We practice no matter the weather.
One particularly rainy day, I’m slogging across the muddy field, chasing someone who’s much faster than I am, and something goes wrong. I feel a pop in my calf.
A muscle cramp, I think. But a week later, after icing and limping around, I find out it’s a torn muscle. I take a few weeks off and watch our practices instead of participating. I don’t want to miss a game.
Though our season is three months long, we play just three games. “We need the recovery time in between,” our line coach explains.
The games are like nothing I’d ever imagined. The first time I step on the field in uniform, everything happens in slow motion. I hear myself breathing around my mouthguard. Our quarterback is yelling plays I know but I don’t know, all at the same time.
That first game is hard. I slam into strangers, which is actually more enjoyable than slamming into my teammates. I shove down a player on the other team and she yells at me. Instead of apologizing, I yell back. Who am I?
We win, and it feels amazing. I’m still struggling to remove my pads when I get a text from my husband that says, “That was INCREDIBLE You really did it!” My closest non-football friend meets me outside the locker room, wraps me in a huge hug and tells me she’s never seen my husband or my kids so excited and proud.
That night, my kids can’t stop talking about the game. “You really tackled someone, Mommy!” my 8-year-old says, in apparent awe. “It was so cool … she fell and everything!”
But happy as I am, there’s no denying my hand hurts after the game. I remember hitting someone’s helmet by accident. Our team doctor X-rays it and says my wrist is cracked. It’s not bad, though. I wear a splint during practices.
We lose our second game. That team is big, strong and young. We just can’t pull it off.
Our third and final game, though, is incredible. My kids, my husband, my closest friends are in the stands cheering, as excited as I’ve ever seen them. My kids wave the signs they painted that morning; my 5-year-old’s sign features a colorful drawing of “mommy pushing someone.” We end up winning in double overtime against our biggest rivals after our kicker makes a field goal.
After the game, our fans, families and friends run onto the field. There’s hugging and screaming and so many selfies. It feels like a movie — but it’s better, because it’s real.
People ask all the time why I play tackle football. Why at my age? Why with the risk of getting hurt? Why not stop after cracking a wrist and tearing a muscle? Answers roll easily off my tongue: But it’s so much fun. It’s such great exercise. It’s a great way to make new friends.
This is all true. But it’s not the whole story.
The bigger picture is that when I fasten my pads, pull on jersey No. 39 and snap on my helmet, something magical happens.
The past 20 years of working and cooking dinner and paying bills and driving a minivan briefly fall away. I am not just mom or wife or writer: I am the 11-year-old who loves to strike people out in softball. I am the 15-year-old who can sink a free throw even while the other team’s fans boo loudly. I am the 17-year-old soccer goalie who isn’t scared to dive for the ball.
But really, I am the mom who can do 20 pushups in a row. I am the wife who can sack a quarterback in a game. I am the writer who can memorize a dozen plays. I am the 39-year-old woman who feels stronger than I’ve felt in years.
There’s one thing I know: I will never forget how it feels to stand on a dark football field, aching and shivering, with a shiny trophy and a team full of amazing women whom I am proud to call friends and plan to keep in touch with for the rest of my life.
And another thing I know: I can’t wait until next season.