Women’s football driven by love, not money

MADISON, Wis. — Chris Stamer grew up longing for an opportunity to showcase her talents on the football field — and not the two-hand touch or flag football variety played with the boys in the backyard. She hoped one day to find a professional full-contact women’s league where she could slam someone her own size to the turf.

“I always knew I could play,” Stamer said. “I just wasn’t sure how.”

So when Stamer heard from a friend that a women’s football league actually existed and a team called the Madison Cougars was looking for players, she knew this was a moment too good to bypass — even if it meant making a 200-mile round-trip drive from her home in McHenry, Ill., for each practice and game.

“Take an opportunity that you’ve never been given and all of a sudden you have it right in front of you,” Stamer said. “You’re going to go with it.”

Stamer is one of 28 players on this year’s roster for the Cougars, who are part of the Independent Women’s Football League. The full-contact league, founded in 2000, is comprised of approximately 40 teams across the United States and Mexico with more than 1,600 players.

For Stamer, a starting left guard, and other members of the Cougars, the opportunity to participate in a sport that wasn’t available as a child is a dream come true.

“You get a sense of pride because you’re doing something kind of groundbreaking,” said Stamer, who works for a shipping department in a factory near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. “Not many people know about the league. To be on the same level as guys and say this is what we’re doing, it’s pretty emotional I guess you could say. You feel like a pioneer almost.”

The rules of the league are quite similar to those of the NFL, with a few major exceptions: kickoffs come from the 40-yard-line, the ball is slightly smaller and a kicking tee is used for field goals and extra points.

Madison competes in the Midwest Division against teams from Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa. The Cougars finished the regular season 6-2, in second place in their division. As a second-place finisher, the Cougars qualified for the playoffs, where they will compete against Tier II teams from other divisions across the country.

Madison plays the Iowa Crush on June 30 in an opening-round playoff game — a team the Cougars already defeated 20-12 and 25-0 this season. The Cougars would need to win one more game to advance to Tier II IWFL championship game in Round Rock, Texas, on July 28.

According to Madison Cougars owner Andre Green, all but three of the 28 players on the team live in Madison. Green said the youngest player is 19, while the oldest is 55 years old.

During the season, the team practices on Wednesday and Thursday nights at a local high school. Some stick around to watch game tape of upcoming opponents and may not leave until after 10 p.m.

The level of devotion from players, Green said, is the reason Madison has experienced so much success in recent years. Last season, Madison captured the Midwest Tier 2 championship and had seven players invited to the all-star game in Texas.

According to Green, rookies such as Stamer spend upwards of $1,000 just to play on the team because they must purchase their own equipment, as well as travel and hotels for road games.

As a result of the costs — and the fact the team averages about 300 fans per game at $7 per ticket with $5 of that going to charity — fundraising is always a priority for Green and the rest of the Cougars. This weekend, for example, the team will hold a bowling event on Friday, a beer bash on Saturday and a car wash on Sunday in an effort to raise money for a possible championship game trip to Texas.

“There’s not a lot of money involved, and obviously not for the coaches, either,” said Cougars coach Rick Heuer, who owns a construction business in Madison. “Everybody is pretty much passionate about what they’re doing. You do it because you love what you do and the people you’re doing it with. It makes a huge difference. This is probably one of the closest-knit teams that I’ve ever been a part of.”

Tiffany Loomis has been a member of Madison’s women’s football team every year since its inception in 2006, when the team was known as the Wisconsin Wolves. Like may players on the team, Loomis competed in other sports in high school or college, playing two years of softball at Iowa Central Community College. But she admits nothing can match the camaraderie of playing on a football team, even if it means risking significant injury for little personal gain.

“There’s been concussions that have ended people’s careers, teammates of mine in the past,” Loomis said. “Broken arms, broken legs, ACL, MCL. Most of us play somewhat hurt the whole year, with nagging injuries that don’t go away until preseason of the following year — if they’re gone by then.”

Loomis, a linebacker and wide receiver, said team operations last almost the entire year. Players take August and September off before the Cougars hold tryouts and practices in October, as well as offseason workouts. This season, league games run from April to July.

“It’s one of those things that when I look back and tell my own kids and grandkids some day that I used to play women’s football, it’s something to be proud of,” Loomis said. “Not every woman has the opportunity and not every woman can play the game. It takes a special person who is dedicated, athletic and willing to be a good teammate.”

Green indicated the Cougars were on stable ground moving forward because of efforts to raise money and a willingness to keep the option open for a women’s football team in Madison in future years.

Stamer, for one, is grateful for the opportunity. She already is exploring options to move to Madison to play for the Cougars for years to come.

“The way that I look at it is I only live once and this is definitely something that I’ve wanted to do for quite some time,” Stamer said. “As long as I can stand and run and knock somebody over, I’m going to strap on my pads and be a part of the league.”

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