Tackling Women’s Pro Football

16 May 2012, Posted by admin in Packages,Two Bank, No Comments. Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Tackling Women’s Pro Football

Mounty Airy’s Shannon Helseth has been hitting opponents – and enjoying it – since the Sizzle’s debut in 2003.

Story, photos and slideshow by Chelsea Gilbertson

What’s so unique about Shannon Helseth? Like most people, the Mount Airy resident works a 9 to 5 schedule, visits with her family and goes out with her friends on the weekends. She regularly exercises with a personal trainer.

What’s so different about that?

Oh, and for the last nine years, every spring, she puts on a helmet, pads and a uniform and plays center for a women’s professional football team.

Yes, Shannon Helseth, a 38-year-old compliance specialist for a pharmaceutical company, also happens to play for the Cincinnati Sizzle, a women’s professional football team in its ninth year.

The team is made up of 32 athletes who began an eight-game regular season on Saturday, April 14, against teams associated with the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA). The alliance has more than 50 teams from cities nationwide.

“People’s first reaction is normally, ‘Oh they have a team?’ or ‘Wow, really?’ ” Helseth said of the Sizzle. “But then we get the obligatory questions like, ‘Oh, is it flag football? Oh, is it two-hand touch? Oh, it must be powder-puff,’ and I reply that it is just like men’s football. Yes, we do wear pads. Yes, we do wear helmets.”

Helseth began playing women’s professional football in 2003 after her father told her about the women football tryouts taking place in Cincinnati. He had learned about the tryouts from a friend who recently joined the Nashville Dream Team, the very first in the National Women’s Football Association.

“He knew growing up that I always wanted to play. My brother and I used to play all the time. I mean, in high school, I tried to tryout for the boy’s soccer team, but of course, no girls allowed.”

So on one cold Saturday morning in January 2003, Helseth saw the opportunity and went for it.

“I almost talked myself out of it,” she said. “There were so many girls. I just sat in my car and was like ‘Can I really do this?’ Then I immediately stopped myself and was like ‘No, you wanted to do this your entire life. Get your butt out there and try.’ So I did. And I loved every second of it.”

Contact sports like tackle football subject players to a lot of pain. But Helseth says such pain serves to motivate and empower her.

“After getting hit, realizing I didn’t know where I was, then coming back to life and finding myself in a football game, wearing pads. The only thing that came to my mind was, ‘Okay. Now I want to hit someone. And hit them hard.’”

Talk about the super empowerment.

While the sport has its psychological benefits, it is not financially rewarding. In fact, the athletes do not receive a salary and have to pay for their own gear.

With no paychecks rolling in, who would want to play women’s football? For that matter, who would want to coach women’s football?

Ickey Woods, that’s who.

The former star running back for the Cincinnati Bengals is head coach of the Sizzle.

Woods and Helseth have a great relationship both on an off the field. Woods looks to Helseth as the team leader.

“Shannon Helseth is a heck of a player. She is one of the veterans and one of my main stages,” Woods said. “She helps run the drills and run the offensive huddles. She is just an overall player and an overall teammate. And you know, the game doesn’t start until she snaps the ball.”

Not only does Coach Woods look up to Helseth, but the players do too. Rookie Danielle Morris says Helseth has helped her tremendously.

“I came into my first practice nervous as all get-out. Shannon came into practice with open arms, glad to see new faces,” Morris said. “There is no doubt that she is a team leader. She takes this very seriously, but with a smile on her face at the same time. She is a goofball and everyone loves her for that.”

By now you should get the picture. Yes, there is professional women’s football. Yes, the players, who are all between the ages of 18 and 55, wear helmets. Yes, they wear pads. They also watch film, condition, and lift weights.

Helseth says football has molded her into a woman who is up for any challenge. Even after losing her mother, Helseth continued to play.

“I took a year off and couldn’t get out of this funk. Then I realized that she wouldn’t want me to quit. She knew how important this was for me, so I came back, ready as ever, and I know she is proud of that,” Helseth said.

Even after straining her MCL and breaking her finger during a game, Helseth did not want to be away from football. She needed back in the action for her teammates, Coach Woods, and for the young fans that come to watch them play.

“If I can, I’ll play for another nine years. This is where I belong.”


This story originally appeared on WCPO.com on April 13, 2012.

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