I lay on the ground flat on my back after the hit. I could literally feel the pain shoot down from my chest right out my butt; it was like I was trying to pass a knife through my digestive tract. It was, without a doubt, the most painful thing I had ever experienced.
I had two choices at that moment: cry for help or get up.
Adversity introduces you to you.
In a report card from preschool written twenty years earlier, my teacher had this to say about me: “Linda is very quiet.”
The report card also stated that I was godawful with scissors (my words, not Mrs. Peterson’s), but I digress.
I was pathologically shy and anxious growing up, so obsessed with being liked that I opted to either keep my mouth shut or cater to everyone else’s whims. Looking back, I endured some downright cruel behavior from the people I thought of as friends. At school, I let them mix up horrible concoctions using the food that came on my lunch tray and, at their command, managed to gulp down disgusting mouthfuls of mandarin oranges mixed with chocolate milk and spaghetti sauce. “Whatever it takes,” I’d think to myself in art class later in the afternoon with a grumbling stomach. I would beg my parents to buy me expensive toys, only to turn around and give them to my best friend when she requested them. But it truly felt like my heart broke when this same supposed best friend approached me in the bathroom one day and begged me to pretend that I wasn’t her friend because according to her, friendship with me was “embarrassing”. I complied. “Whatever it takes,” I thought to myself, holding back tears as she yelled across the lunchroom at me that same day, demanding that I sit far away from her. The kids around us laughed.
The problem was, I didn’t want to be a people-pleasing punching bag. There was a game one of my teachers had us play on the first day of school so that we could learn about each other: we would go around the room and say our name and something that we liked that started with the same first letter as our name. I said “Linda, lion”. Deep down, I knew I was strong and powerful and fierce, just like a lion; I just wasn’t in an environment conducive to embracing my true self.
While lying in bed unable to sleep because of the dread of going to school the next morning (and the dreaded conundrum of who to sit next to at lunch), I’d fantasize about playing on the hockey team that several of my male classmates played on. I’m not sure why playing boys’ hockey was the preferred daydream I’d escape into, but I figure it had something to do with playing hockey as a symbol of toughness. Also, playing a sport that is male dominated? That would make me truly special. Inspirational. A leader. A lion.
During those long sleepless nights, I also had fantasies of riding into school on a dinosaur and scaring everyone who was mean to me. Oh, and dating Daniel Radcliffe. As a 10-year-old I would spend hours thinking about that…but I digress.
I never did play hockey. But I would eventually take up another unusual sport for women to play, a sport that I never in a million years would have seen myself actually partaking in…and it finally would bring Linda the Lion to life.
The rest of my childhood and adolescence was more of the same: struggles to make and keep friends, frequently begging my mom to call me in sick from school to avoid the bullies, and rock-bottom self-esteem. I was so introverted and hurt that I didn’t participate much in extracurricular activities, preferring to spend time by myself at home. But that started to change once I started watching professional tackle football when I was in college. And I swear it wasn’t because I thought Tom Brady was cute.
…Okay, fine, I’ll admit it: the reason I started watching the NFL religiously was because of Tom Brady. Not just because he is so dreamy. Not just because he’s super talented, as was demonstrated during the game I first saw him in, where he handily delivered the Denver Broncos an embarrassing loss. But because his backstory, which I quickly Wikipediaed after the game, resonated with me. Putting up an “unimpressive performance” in the NFL Combine and drafted in the last round of the NFL draft, Brady’s work ethic and drive would prove the critics dead wrong. Even if you are not a football fan, you probably know who Tom Brady is: “the winningest quarterback in NFL history” (Wikipedia’s words, not mine. I didn’t even know winningest was a word. If Brady is the winningest, who is the winninger quarterback?).
As I continued to watch football, I would learn about other players with similar underdog stories. Najee Harris was a first-round draft pick who grew up in a homeless shelter. Critics voiced doubts about Russell Wilson and Julian Edelman, two eventual superstars in the NFL, because they were shorter than other NFL players. Shaquem Griffin had his left arm amputated when he was four years old and yet was picked up by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 after spending a lifetime of learning not to just live but to thrive with one arm. It occurred to me that football, and sports in general, are the great equalizer, the last true meritocracy we have left. It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you came from, or if anyone sat next to you at lunch when you were a kid: if you put in the work as an athlete, you will find success.
I started to hit the weight room at the gym with more vigor, finding inspiration from the stories of these hardworking players. “Would Tom Brady give up after only five pushups?” I would ask myself, sweat pouring down my shaking body. “No!” I went on long runs, envisioning myself fully geared-up and playing tackle football. How amazing it must feel to smack the crap out of an opponent! Or to catch a deep pass for a touchdown! But deep down I knew that would never happen. Me, playing tackle football? Did women even get to play football?
“See you guys later, I’m heading to football practice.”
This statement wouldn’t have made me do a double-take if a dude had said it. But it hadn’t been a dude. It was a female…a full-grown, adult female.
I was working as a personal trainer, hanging out in the breakroom at work and chatting with one of our front desk workers, Robin. She was at her locker, pulling out a large, overstuffed duffel bag when she had revealed her after-work plans.
“Wait…football practice?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah. We have a women’s tackle football team here in town. The Thunderkatz.”
I wouldn’t let Robin leave without giving me the date and time for the next practice.
It turns out that the town I live in does indeed have a women’s tackle football team. The Rocky Mountain Thunderkatz are part of the Women’s Football Alliance, the nation’s largest women’s tackle football league in the country (over 65 teams play in the league, representing nearly every state in the union). This is 11-on-11, full-contact, full-pads, NCAA-rules tackle football. The teams travel all over the country to play one another, and the regular season culminates in playoffs and a championship game held in a different city every year. The players in the league are quick to tell you that this is NOT that “lingerie football crap” (if you don’t know what that is, Google it; just make sure no young kids are around to see the results of your search). About 2,000 women have heeded the call of the gridiron and play in the WFA. But aside from having mental and physical toughness and a passion for the game, you need to have…money. These women don’t get paid to play football. No, no, no: they pay to play. It’s women’s tackle football, after all. No multi-million-dollar NFL contracts or Nike endorsements for us, even though we too put our bodies on the line. But for most players in the WFA, it’s worth the investment of thousands of dollars. We finally get to play tackle football. Us! Women!
Never heard of the WFA? Or knew that women played tackle football? You’re far from alone. Despite many marketing and outreach attempts on the WFA’s part, buy-in from the NFL and the general public has been nearly non-existent.
I showed up to my first ever tackle football practice with a pair of cleats and a water bottle. Even amongst a group of unusual people like female tackle football players, I stood out: skinny blondes aren’t exactly the typical player in the WFA. Most of the players and coaches were friendly to me, except for one: this nasty gal with a thick Midwestern accent said, “Who brought Barbie here?”. That rubbed me the wrong way. We’re already playing a sport that lacks external support. As women struggling to legitimize our participation in this male-dominated sport, aren’t we supposed to uplift each other, not tear each other down?
I wasn’t deterred. Annoyed, but not deterred. This was literally a dream come true for me. I wasn’t going to be shoved away because I didn’t fit the stereotype of a female tackle football player.
I made an impression that first practice. At receiver, I burned the defender and caught a pass for a big gain. Without wearing any pads, I tackled a gal as she caught the ball. I felt pride swell up in me as I heard a coach yell out, “Get this girl a helmet, she’s ready to play!”. In the huddle at the end of practice, the head coach said, “Everyone, let’s welcome Linda to the Thunderkat family.”
I became obsessed with football after that first practice. I consumed as much material as I could about the sport because there is a steep learning curve to becoming a competent football player, an entirely new language one must learn. I loved attending practice and was forming healthy relationships with my teammates. My family noted how happy I finally seemed. And best of all, I could walk up to people and say, “Hi, my name is Linda, and I am a football player”. The confidence that was hibernating deep inside me, that strength that was lurking there under the anxiety and people-pleasing, were both starting to show. I was becoming who I was meant to be.
But the hardest tests were yet to come.
It was a warm, pleasant night in Lincoln, Nebraska: my first out-of-state game. The team had crammed together into vans and made the eight-hour drive earlier that day (in order to save the players money on their team dues, many teams opt to travel on game day to avoid spending the night in a hotel the night before, even if the drives are long). During the trip, my teammates warned me about the team we were about to play: the Nebraska Stampede were tough and BIG. “Corn-fed girls” was a phrase I heard many times on that drive.
As we were warming up on the field, I looked over at the opponents’ sideline. My teammates were right: these women were much, much bigger than me. Not only that, but they had more players than we did. This is a common problem in women’s tackle football: the away-teams usually travel with fewer players, with work schedules or family commitments such as a kid’s soccer game or birthday forcing players to sit out games that require extensive time away from home. Compared to the Stampede, the Thunderkatz were undersized and undermanned - the obvious underdogs.
In the locker room before kickoff, our coach gathered us for his pre-game speech.
“There’s a scene from ‘Gangs of New York’. Daniel Day-Lewis’ and Liam Neeson’s characters gather their gangs together for a fight. Daniel Day Lewis makes fun of Liam Neeson for bringing such a small group of men. Neeson responds ‘You said this was a battle between warriors, so warriors are what I brought’. That is what we have here tonight: warriors. And we have everything we need here to win.”
Every football game starts with the kickoff. Playing on kickoff sucks. I hate it. It’s terrifying, whether you’re on the kicking team or the receiving team. If you’re the kicking team, you’re charged with weaving between blockers and chasing down a ball carrier going at full speed. If you’re the receiving team and happen to catch the ball, which in itself is a difficult task…well, you better run for your life, because you must evade eleven opposing players who have been told that their goal is to knock your head off. For whatever reason, coaches in women’s football love to put rookies on the field during kickoff. And that’s where I was for most of my first season as a Thunderkat.
“Just run down the field and hit the first person you see,” our coaches told us as we lined up to kick the ball to Nebraska.
I trotted over to my spot on the line: at the very end. Teams usually put their fastest players at this position to sprint to the other end of the field and tackle the player receiving the kickoff before they get a chance to pick up too much speed. I put my foot on the line and crouched down, ready to start sprinting as soon as I heard the “thud” of the kicker’s foot making contact with the ball. I scanned the other end of the field. The Nebraska players looked foreboding in their black and red uniforms. They looked ferocious and scary. My heartrate started to increase, and I felt woozy. I was low-key freaking out.
At that moment, I remembered something my coach said at practice: “Just remember, adversity introduces you to you.” Our team was staring adversity right in the face: we had just completed an exhausting all-day drive straight to the opponent’s home turf with a smaller team with smaller players. The Nebraska Stampede had a reputation of being a very successful, talented football team; the Thunderkatz were average at best. The odds were completely against us.
But sometimes it’s these very adverse situations that bring out the best in us, a version of ourselves that we didn’t know existed. For me, I decided this was the moment Linda the Lion would come out. I was going to be a complete animal on that field. Savage. A warrior. One of Liam Neeson’s scrappy but powerful gang members. I was going to do exactly what my coach told me to do: I was going to lay out the first person that dared to get in my way.
The whistle blew. I ran. And I saw my victim. She easily had 100 pounds on me. But I didn’t care. She was going down. And besides, she was just standing there. Easy kill.
As I neared my opponent, I extended my arms out to shove her. I barely tapped her before she slammed her palms into my chest. I learned Isaac Newton was right: when two bodies collide, the smaller of the two always loses the battle of momentum. Which in practical terms meant that I went flying right on to my back, smacking my head on the ground.
And so there I was, lying flat on the ground, feeling as though my digestive system was trying to pass a knife. My organs must’ve exploded from the impact. Were those bright lights I was seeing the stadium lights, or fragments of my soul floating out onto the field?
I had survived hits in practice before. But this was something else. Something that made me, in that very instant, start to regret my decision to play tackle football. I must be crazy for doing this, I thought. Getting up at five A.M. just to drive all day and play against this much more sophisticated, much more experienced, much larger team. Putting myself at risk to get seriously injured. Spending all this time away from home and my precious dog Jasper. And I’m not even making any money off of this.
Then I remembered what that nasty girl with the thick Midwestern accent said to me that first practice: “Who brought Barbie here?”
Oh HELL no.
I am NOT a Barbie. I’m a football player!
I sprang back up and started running again, catching up with my other teammates who were cornering the ball carrier.
“You know,” I thought to myself as the ref whistled the play dead. “That actually wasn’t too bad.”
And it would end up being the proudest moment of my football career.
We lost that game against the Stampede. But that, plus the massive hit I took that must have shaved a couple of years off my life, did nothing to diminish my dedication to the sport. 2022 will be my sixth season with the Rocky Mountain Thunderkatz (there was no WFA season in 2020 due to COVID) and I’ve made a name for myself in the world of women’s tackle football. In 2017, my coach moved me to the position of outside linebacker, and I’ve flourished there. I’ve been named to the league’s All-American Team four times; hold several national records for tackles, tackles for a loss, and sacks; played as a member of Team United in Canada; and was a member of the Hall of Fame West Coast Team. My highlight reel will show you some impressive plays I have made over the years, from chasing down a receiver all the way to the one-yard-line and preventing a touchdown, to catching an interception that nearly resulted in a touchdown, to smacking the crap out of quarterback after quarterback. But it won’t show the football moment I’m proudest of: getting back up from that hit in Nebraska in my rookie season.
“Adversity introduces you to you” is my favorite quote, and it’s served me well. Since I started playing for the Thunderkatz, I’ve had my share of tough moments that I’ve persevered through, moments that would have destroyed me if I hadn’t learned the mental toughness that comes with playing tackle football. I’ve also had incredible successes in other endeavors that I owe to that same mental toughness and tenacity, successes that came after taking risks that pre-football Linda would never have taken. Because seriously…if I can survive getting hit like I did in Nebraska, I can survive anything.
The younger version of me would be proud of the woman I’ve become. No, I never did become a hockey player on an all-men’s team. I never managed to bring dinosaurs back into existence to scare my foes, nor did I date Daniel Radcliffe or Tom Brady. But I became something even better than Linda the Lion: I became Linda the Thunderkat.
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