Madison Blaze veteran Stormy Justice was one of about 30 women who showed up for a Jan. 7 team tryout.
There’s a quiet intensity on the football field where about two dozen players are running drills. There’s no clack of pads or helmets, no shrill blasts from a coach’s whistle, just the muted pounding of cleats on artificial turf. When voices are raised, it’s to shout instructions or offer words of encouragement. The players are working hard — so hard that head coach Justin Weaver has to remind them to take a break. This isn’t a prison camp, he says, lightening the mood.
But it is a serious tryout for a serious squad — the Madison Blaze is a full-contact, professional football team that travels all over the Midwest. They’ve won the division title three years running. The players train hard and hit even harder. Oh, and they all happen to be women.
The Jan. 7 tryout at the American Center, a UW Health sports medicine and performance facility on Madison’s east side, is the first event of the 2017 season for the five-year-old team. Veteran players are here to show coaches how they’ve grown from the previous season, and a fresh crop of rookies are eager to make an impression. Nobody is getting cut, but players are jockeying for their preferred positions.
“This is a rebuilding year for us,” says Tiffany Loomis, a player and team co-owner, watching from the sidelines. Last year’s roster was in the low 30s, but she’s hoping to boost the number closer to 40 this season, and she’s pleased with the fresh talent. Players range in age from 18 to 50, and some have traveled from as far as Milwaukee, Wisconsin Dells and Iowa.
“This team is a big draw because it offers something different,” Loomis says. “People don’t expect it at all.”
That certainly applies to coach Weaver. A former defensive coordinator for the University of Chicago who now works in the UW-Madison athletic department, he didn’t even realize a serious women’s football league existed until about three years ago, when a Blaze player reached out to him about possibly coaching the team. “The only thing I had known about was lingerie league,” he says, referring to a novelty franchise founded in 2009 that features women playing football while wearing skimpy underwear. But his interest was piqued when he saw a promotional video of a Blaze player making a heroic tackle.
“I saw that hit, and I was like ‘Wow, they really are playing football,’” he recalls. “This is football as I know it, and they’re playing their butts off. I want to try my hand at this.”
Katie Hurtis, a 28-year-old Epic employee, found her way to the Blaze by way of the Madison Gay Hockey Association. A three-sport athlete in high school, she was looking for a way to meet new people and stay active. “Being on a team was an aspect of life that I was missing,” she says. And while the women on the team are connected by their love of football, the politics of feminism and women’s empowerment are also central to the team.
“There’s a lot of powerful women out there,” Hurtis says from the sidelines. “And for us to be playing football, traditionally that door isn’t open to us.”
Lydia Sujewicz, who goes by the nickname “Savage,” remembers her boyfriend laughing at her when she told him she wanted to try out for the Blaze. Four years later, she’s coming off her best season ever, and the boyfriend is no longer in the picture. “This team is a family,” she says. “People allow you to be who you are.”
The team also has the power to inspire. On the sidelines, 11-year-old Aveyaunna Hughes is ready with a caddy of water bottles; she sprints onto the field when her dad, one of the coaches, signals that his players are ready for a drink. She watches the drills closely, imitating the footwork patterns. She says she wants to be a quarterback someday. When asked if the boys at school give her any trouble, she says it happened once, but she dealt with it easily.
“I took the ball,” she says, “and I threw it farther than him.”
Year Madison Blaze was founded: 2013
Previous women’s football teams in Madison: Wolves, Cougars (groan)
Independent Women’s Football League Division Championships: 2014, 2015, 2016
New league for 2017 season: Women’s Football Alliance
Want to play? Next tryout is Jan. 15, 7:30-9:30 am, UW Health American Center, 4602 Eastpark Blvd.