For the Love of the Gridiron: Meet the Women Who Will Do Anything to Play Tackle Football in Los Ang
The Los Angeles Bobcats women's tackle football team gets ready to snap the ball against the Las Vegas Silverstars. (Anthony Ciardelli)
It was 45 minutes of hell.
It was football practice, just under half of it, but it got Kris Brannon into the sport of tackle football, and she's never looked back.
"I was tired,” she said. “I felt like I was going to throw up a whole bunch. At that 45-minute mark, I was just going in a circuit; you had to hop over a bag. I remember feeling pretty good about it. I was tired, but I went over that bag, and I thought my leg got stuck on the ground. It didn't stick, it just collapsed."
That wasn't Brannon's first 45 minutes practicing for a new team or returning to the sport after a long hiatus that was her first football practice ever, at 34 years old.
The coach of that team told her if she could get through the first 45 minutes of practice, she would make the Los Angeles Warriors, a now-defunct 11-on-11 women's tackle football team.
Since that first practice, Brannon, now 42, has played eight seasons of tackle football. She isn't alone.
If you're caught up on the "she" pronoun of that previous sentence, get used to it, you're about to read it a lot. That’s because female participation in 11-on-11 tackle football is growing while participation in tackle football among males is declining nationwide.
According to statistics compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations, as of this year, female participation in football at California High Schools has grown from 236 to 593 in 16 years.
While that’s a modest increase, high school football participation by boys in California alone has fallen 3.1% in a year according to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF).
It's also happening even though there is no professional football league that pays them a livable wage and no national TV deal with a network that regularly broadcasts their games. Most women who want to play tackle football have to pay to play, a significant hurdle that teams must overcome to add players.
There is also strong evidence that women are more prone to concussions than men and are affected more adversely. Zachary Kerr, director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Injury Surveillance Program, told Scientific American that female rates of concussions are higher than males and, "larger portions of females are reporting sensitivity to light, sensitivity to noise, nausea and drowsiness."
Also, most women learn to play as adults, when they have jobs and families to balance.
Kris Brannon, a co-owner of the Los Angeles Bobcats who retired as a player after this season spent eight seasons playing women's tackle football. (Anthony Ciardelli)
However, Brannon and her teammates still battle through these obstacles to play football because even with all the difficult circumstances they have to overcome, football is a part of their lives they can't live without, here's why.
Kris Brannon: From Fan to Player to Owner
Imagine waiting close to 30 years to play a sport you knew you loved.
Brannon sprouted her love for football early, by watching the Los Angeles Raiders. When her older brothers played Pop Warner football, the urge only grew.
"I was like, 'I want to play,' and they just weren't having it," Brannon said. "Girls couldn't play boys."
Brannon tried to scratch the itch, anyway, borrowing her brothers' pads and helmet to practice with them in the backyard.
"I remember my grandma was throwing an old mattress out," Brannon said. "Instead of us throwing it out, we put it in the backyard. She didn't know about it, but we would hit each other, do flips with the helmets, get injuries on helmet to helmet contact. That was my first memory of wanting to play football."
Brannon waited 30 years until her adopted son started playing Pop Warner Football. From there, Brannon couldn't resist.
"I wanted to learn how to play so I could teach him how to play because his dad doesn't play and his grandpa's not in the state, so he doesn't get the knowledge of the game. I learned how to play because of him."
That was in 2011, and Brannon didn't just dip her metaphorical toe into the football waters, she crashed forward into it like left guard fending off a linebacker. She's a veteran of nine seasons of tackle football now she’s a part-owner of the Los Angeles Bobcats making her an expert on just how hard it is to encourage women to play tackle football.
"Women don't want to get hit," she said. "We have plenty of women that play flag football, and I've been playing with these women for the last four-five years, and I can't get them to play tackle. I'm looking for the women that say, 'Tackle football? 'Oh, hell yeah,"
Brannon went from rookie in 2011 to player/co-owner in just a few years. (Courtesy of Kris Brannon)
When asked if there's a common thread among the women who play football, Brannon's response is 100% honest, if not slightly shocking.
"I think there's a bit of mental illness," she said. "We all have mental illness. We all connect on some level because we're all crazy."
It feels even crazier when considering that Brannon and her teammates have to pay a fee to play for the Bobcats which runs between $750-$900. That fee does not include postseason play or many other costs from coaches’ stipend to field fees, media, referee fees, trainers and travel. Paying to play is the standard if you want to play women's 11-on-11 tackle football at even the highest level.
To help more players afford to play football for the Bobcats, Brannon and the two other Bobcats co-owners have to spend even more money out of their own pockets. Brannon estimates they spent $20,000 over the last four seasons.
Brannon says teams in other leagues face much higher price tags since the Women's National Football Conference, the league the Bobcats play in, provides a sizable stipend to offset costs.
What makes it worth the cost? Brannon and her teammates say football is therapy.
"It is very therapeutic," Brannon said. "For me, it's any time that I had stress during the week, and I come out to the field, I look at the person across from me, and they become that person I'm angry with. They become that subject, and I let it out. When I get home, I go to sleep like a baby. There's got to be something to be able to let off your frustration and not go to jail."
Erika Collins: From the Battlefield to the Football Field
People often compare football to war, but few rarely experience both. Even fewer are female.
Erika Collins is one of those rare few, and she uses football as a tool to recover from the scars of her deployment.
Collins developed a love for football in her childhood, growing up with four brothers who she'd play pick up football with.
She had an opportunity to play high school football when the head coach of Kaiser High School called and tried to convince her mother to let her try out for quarterback.
The answer was no.
But football would re-enter Collins' life when she needed it most.
In the summer of 2004, and at the age of only 17, Collins enlisted in the Army. Her first deployment, lasting 15 months, came in 2006 when she was sent to Camp Warhorse in Iraq's Diyala Governorate as an automated logistical specialist.
That first deployment came during the deadliest two-year period for U.S. troops in the Iraq War and when the Islamic State of Iraq declared the city of Baqubah, just northwest of Camp Warhorse, its capital.
Her time serving in Iraq would inflict lasting damage on Collins' psyche.
Collins (left) served two tours in Iraq as an automated logistical specialist. (Courtesy of Erika Collins)
(Courtesy Erika Collins)
"From the first day we stepped out of the plane and the vehicle ride we took there, we were bombed," Collins said. “We were constantly getting mortared every day for a month. They were constantly trying to get you, especially when you were just hanging with your friends in the chow hall and boom mortars come flying in the chow hall and all that stuff. It will get to you."
She returned to Iraq in 2009 for a 10-month tour at Camp Liberty.
Collins developed post-traumatic stress disorder, which made it difficult for her to be in crowded places, and her shy nature kept her from seeking help from a therapist.
Football has filled that role for Collins.
"It allows me to get out a lot of anxiety that you have walking through day to day life," she said. "I can go to Disneyland now. I can go into a crowded area and be fine because of the way football is."
Bobcats quarterback Erica Collins (No.3) huddles with the rest of her offense. (Anthony Ciardelli)
You might ask how football would help someone deal with large crowds, but Collins says it forces her to physically be around people and replicates some of the positive environments she had while she served.
"They teach you it's ok to be surrounded by a bunch of people especially when you are in the huddle," Collins said. "You have to be comfortable with it and take charge of your own mental state. If you're not, you're going to get yourself or one of your teammates hurt."
It's about camaraderie and working as a team, but it's also about adrenaline. Football helps Collins replicate the complex emotional and chemical process she experienced in Iraq
"It's like the calm before the storm," Collins said. "You know when you snap that ball; everything is coming at you. You get all amped up, and your adrenaline and blood are flowing and pumping, and you are extra hypersensitive to everything, and you're very alert. I get that feeling that you learn to miss when you leave that place, when you leave overseas that you want, you crave it. You become an adrenaline junky. You get that same feeling, in a safer manner in football. It's great. I love it."
Collins' experience as a veteran isn't unique. Many veterans have described a need to replicate the "rush" experienced during battle, which can lead to increased risk-taking and dangerous behavior.
“I had no real outlet at all,” she said. "I just kept it down and tried not to explode by playing softball occasionally. I talked to a couple of doctors here and there but really, I just stayed in the house and worked with no real friends. I had a great support system like my family to keep me away from dangerous ways of getting my adrenaline. Football allows me to release everything. It’s like a trash dump the harder the week the more aggressive I become during the game. Meaning I will get out of the pocket to hit someone on the run just to feel good.”
Collins says she uses football as an outlet for her need to replicate the feelings of her deployment. (Anthony Ciardelli)
Collins, who is earning her bachelor's degree in sports management and is minoring in sports and recreational management, says the mental game of football helps in another significant way, overcoming a learning disability.
As the Bobcats' quarterback, Collins is responsible for learning the team's pro-style offense. Add her learning disability into the mix, and Collins faces a daunting task, but she found that memorizing plays and watching game tape taught her valuable study habits.
"Learning plays is very difficult for me," she said. "I have to see them. I have to perform the actual drills, and I have to write it down. That's something that I really struggle with, but I've learned to overcome."
"At the beginning of school, I struggled to figure out what was the best way for me to learn something," she said. "When it came to plays, I had to go through and kind of apply the same concept to them. Once I started understanding the plays better, I started understanding my assignments."
Collins says the risk of a potential brain injury outweighs the mental benefits to the sport.
"Your life is going to be what you make of it," she said. "If you look at football in a negative way like 'Oh I can get a concussion.' I can get a concussion walking down the stairs and falling. Why not do something that's fun and allowing that outlet out."
Kim Cade-Henry: Taking the Long Road
At age 39, Bobcats defensive end and fullback Kim Cade-Henry is going on 10 years of playing football. During that decade, she's never been paid to play and has made remarkable sacrifices with her time to better her game and promote the sport.
Bobcats defensive end Kim Cade-Henry tries to pressure the quarterback in a game against the Las Vegas Silverstars. (Anthony Ciardelli)
Cade-Henry's childhood football experience never included more than tossing a football with friends, but her interest in the game continued into adulthood.
That’s when she saw a picture on the once popular social network Myspace.
"I was just clicking through one day and saw this woman dressed in full football gear with the helmet the pads and everything," Cade-Henry said. "I actually took the time to hit her up and ask her, 'Are you dressed in your brother's gear for football for Halloween? What were you dressed as?'"
It turned out not to be a Halloween costume. The woman informed Cade-Henry she played women's tackle football, and with that information, Cade-Henry began her football career.
Like many of her teammates, Cade-Henry's enjoyment of football comes partially from the cathartic experience of hitting someone without legal consequences.
"From happiness to anger to sadness, it's given me an outlet to just… just be," she said. "I mean it's just super therapeutic, very, very therapeutic."
She's also in it to prove people wrong.
Cade-Henry never looked at football as an option for her during her youth. She, just like Collins and Brannon, picked up the game in her twenties, when she already had her adult life to live.
Like many of her teammates, Cade-Henry's first experience in competitive tackle football was as an adult, which forced her to fit in the time around all of the other responsibilities of adulthood. (Anthony Ciardelli)
Cade-Henry says she's out to fight the stereotypes that keep women out of tackle football.
"A lot of guys or even females will say, 'You don't belong on a football field,'" Cade-Henry said. "I'm loving that we are the pioneers to help push this sport into more of a mainstream and more people's view."
How does she respond to the doubters?
"I love asking the question, have you ever been to a game? That's my favorite question," she said. "Have you ever seen what women do, what women tackle football players do on the field before you judge anybody? Why don't you come out and see for yourself? If you're still not satisfied, at least you came and made an effort. Thank you so much for being a fan for us for that day!"
Being an advocate for her game and her team is natural for Cade-Henry, but not the time commitment. She's lived in the San Fernando Valley during her entire football career, which has included playing for teams from Palmdale to San Diego.
For two seasons, Cade-Henry made the trip from the San Fernando Valley, where she works as a family support coordinator for autistic children, to San Diego three times a week to play for the San Diego Surge.
The routine was grueling.
"I came in [to work] about Eight o'clock in the morning," she said. "I left about three o'clock in the afternoon to drive from Mission Hills all the way down to Long Beach to meet up with my teammates to carpool at around 5:30 p.m. to San Diego. I was getting home between 12:30 a.m. and 1:30 in the morning and that's just pulling my car into my driveway. I spent about 5 ½ hours each day in the car."
She wasn't traveling in a fully stocked $200,000 Luxury SUV complete with film viewing room like Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Nor will she make $15,000,000 in 2019 like Rivers.
What made her travel so far when there were teams closer to her home? She wanted to push herself further in her football career.
"I felt like I needed that extra jolt," she said. "I needed that extra oomph. I've been in many playoff games and conference games, but a championship game was something I had never experienced, and that franchise has a history of being successful in getting to that level. Within my first two years, I was able to meet that goal with the Surge, and I couldn't have been more thrilled about my decision."
The Future of Women's Tackle Football
The goal for Brannon, Cade-Henry, Collins and their teammates is noble.
"The bottom line is that there is a game where all the girls that want to play tackle football don't have to pay any more," Brannon said.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, Cade-Henry thinks one way for women's football to grow is for all the leagues to unify.
There are multiple women's football teams and leagues in the Los Angeles area, including the Bobcats of the Women's National Football Conference, the Cali War of the Women's Football Alliance (WFA) and potentially the Los Angeles Warriors reforming in the WFA.
Cade-Henry says one league needs to take the lead to make significant strides.
The Los Angeles Bobcats score a rushing touchdown against the Las Vegas Silver Stars (Anthony Ciardelli)
"I think one of the biggest things that needs to happen is having maybe the two biggest markets come together and become one giant unit," she said. We need to have our big giant. We have too many baby giants. There needs to be some unity amongst one league that can really explode and bring awareness and attention and show that we can be taken seriously. The same way that the WNBA grew. They had to become a big giant entity to make things more successful."
As the landscape for women's tackle football and football, in general, continues to change, one thing is for sure; there will always be women willing to play tackle football for the love of the game.