Monson: The sisterhood of women's football
On a partly cloudy Saturday afternoon made for football, Utah's Mixsa Kafi takes a short pass over the middle and explodes up the field, making like Barry Sanders, juking left and right, then firing off straightaway, shedding and burning past tacklers, turning an ordinary play into an extraordinary touchdown. It is one of five TDs the slot/wide receiver scores in a 47-22 crushing of a team called the Nevada Storm.
Still gasping on the sideline after accepting congratulations from teammates, the 5-foot-6, 120-pound athlete articulates a profound love for the game, for the speed and the strategy and the hitting, as well as â¦ you know, shopping, getting a manicure and visiting the hairdresser.
Yeah, a perfect day for Kafi would include making angry defenders look foolish and plowing up and down the mall all day.
She is one of 44 players on the roster of the Utah Jynx, a women's tackle football team that plays a full schedule of games every spring and summer against opponents like the Storm, the Arizona Assassins, the Seattle Majestics and the Las Vegas Showgirlz.
Knock that grin off your face. It isn't what you think.
This is not the Lingerie Football League.
Women on the Jynx aren't supermodels and they don't wear lacy bra-and-thong combinations on the field. At least, that's not all they wear. With their gold helmets, dark navy jerseys and gold pants, they look more like the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame than Alessandra Ambrosio and Candice Swanepoel prancing down the runway.
The players are all shapes and sizes, from 100 pounds to 285. They range in age from 18 to 46, come from all walks of life, live in a geographical area spanning from Springville to North Ogden and all have their own reasons for playing football. None of them is paid for playing.
"This is fun," says Shauna Loftin, a 5-9, 160-pound offensive lineman/defensive end who works as an operations analyst in the health benefits department at Wells Fargo. "It's the best thing I've ever done. You put on the pads and hit somebody. It's amazing."
In the second half of Saturday's game, Stacey Shipmon, a middle linebacker/fullback who is an assistant manager at Walmart, absolutely blows up an opponent with a huge hit. "I do this because I love it," she says. "When I was young, all they had for girls was powder puff. This is football. It's a great atmosphere. We learn the game and we play the game. We're just mothers and daughters and sisters out here having a good time."
One of those mothers is Julia Guerrero, a 40-year-old outside linebacker/business owner from South Jordan who has five kids. Somebody with the Jynx asked her if she wanted to play some football the team takes almost any competent athlete who wants to join in and her response was: "Yeah, ever since I was a kid." She played soccer, softball and basketball in high school, but never had the opportunity to slip on the hat and pads until now.
"It's a little weird for my husband," she says. "He was worried about me getting injured. But â¦"
The main force behind the Jynx is the team's gregarious founder, Greg Cover, who finances the club with fundraisers and donations mostly from family members and a few sponsors. Home games are played at Taylorsville High School, where admission costs $5. On this particular Saturday, there are about 200 spectators in the stands, along with the Salt Lake Elementary School band, which plays the national anthem. Cover's wife, Erin, heads up the concessions and administrative tasks while her husband does his work on the field. A welder by vocation and now a head football coach by avocation, Cover is a former high school player and coach at Granger who started building the Jynx three years ago, after coaching the Utah Blitz, another local women's team.
"We wanted to do something a little more competitive with this team," he says, passing along that the Jynx beat the Blitz last week, 66-22. "And we are pretty competitive, one of the top-ranked teams in the country. We're No. 15 out of 55 teams in the league."
That league would be the Women's Football Alliance, which is divided into 13 divisions around the country. The Jynx play in Division 11, where they currently are in first place, with a 5-1 record. In the weeks ahead, they hope to qualify for and advance through the league's playoffs, culminating in a June national championship game in San Diego.
Against the Storm, Cover, who wears a shirt that reads: "Real men coach women's football," moves up and down the sideline, alternately encouraging and educating his players. He has a volunteer staff of nine assistants, who are completely engaged in the proceedings. Basically, the Jynx offense, a spread hybrid that features Kafi, along with a handful of other stars, runs efficiently and effectively. The defense, a 4-6, takes care of its business.
"Sometimes, the women have to get used to the intensity of football," Cover says. "And they do. We practice twice a week and work out on another night. The hardest thing is, all of these women have real lives. They play here today, they hit, they run, and, then, on Monday morning, they have to get the kids ready for school, go to work themselves, they all have jobs."
Still, at halftime, walking toward the locker room, Cover asks Rachel Cherry, a 5-6, 264-pound nose tackle, how she's feeling. Her response: "I hate you."
"They call me an a-hole," Cover whispers in the other direction. "Hey, I'm a football coach. I expect excellence."
Cherry later fills in a little color, with a laugh: "Football is hell. Pure hell. It's not easy physically, mentally or emotionally but everything you put into it, you get back out. It keeps me healthy and happy. This experience has been a life-changer for me. There's a real sense of family on this team."
Yan'Tu Barber, a defensive coach, puts it like this: "It's simple. If women want to play, they should have someone to coach them up. Football is a beautiful game. They soak it up like a sponge. It's back to women being able to do everything men can do. At first, I was skeptical. But it's good. These women don't have the misconception that they're going to be the next Deion Sanders. They just want to learn and play the game."
So, they do.
After taking one more trip to the end zone, leading her team to victory, Kafi says: "The sisterhood out here is great."
Jynx schedule and results
April 6 at Seattle Majestics L 18-47
April 13 Tacoma Trauma W 73-6
April 20 at Las Vegas Showgirlz W 38-28
May 4 at Arizona Assassins W 80-6
May 11 Utah Blitz W 66-22 May 18 Nevada Storm W 47-22
Saturday Las Vegas Showgirlz
June 8 Utah Blitz
June 29 Okotoks Lady Outlawz
Playoffs begin June 15, with times and locations TBA.
*Home games at Taylorsville High School