Rec & Sports » Rec Features

Girl on Girl

Boise State Sixxes women's football team knocks down gender barriers

by

"Playing like a girl" has never quite meant the same as it does when referencing the Boise State Sixxes.

Challenge any of these ladies to a game of football, and she'll probably lay you out flat on the field with a tackle so hard that you may see those cartoon birds circling your head.

These women play football—not flag football or touch football, but full-on helmet-wearing, take-down-your-opponent-and-do-a-dance-in-the-end-zone football.

"I thought I was pretty tough until I joined this team," said Sixxes quarterback Dee Heberger. "Then, I realized there were tougher out there."

But for the 38-year-old mother of two and manager at the Simplot Company, it's not about blowing off some steam on the weekends, it's about the team.

"[They're] part of my life," Heberger said of her teammates.

While Heberger has just completed her first year, the team has been around in one form or another since 2000, the same year the Independent Women's Football League was founded. It might not be well known in the West, but in the Midwest and on the East Coast the league is made up of professional teams of paid athletes who tour the country on custom buses with a full staff of trainers, coaches and physical therapists.

While that has never quite been the case in Boise, the team started life as the Boise Xtreme, an 11-player full-contact football team complete with a team owner and a $50 per-game stipend for players.

The team made it to the national championships twice as an 11-member team, but two years ago, the financial reality of being an isolated team in the West hit the Xtreme.

"It's really, really expensive to have an 11-man team," said Angie Rodgers, the team's defensive coach and one of the original players. Travel costs for up to 30 women add up quickly when the nearest team is six hours away.

Instead of giving it up entirely, the team re-formed as the Boise State Sixxes, becoming a six-player team and joining forces with the university. In exchange for financial support, the team guarantees that 51 percent of players will be students. Many of those who aren't in school are either alumni or faculty, although everyone is welcome.

With six-player football, there are a few differences in the rules: No goalposts, every player is able to receive a pass, and the front line is small, among other small changes. The game is also quicker and there's more scoring.

But the change in formation has put the Sixxes in a different tier of the IWFL. Now, the team is able to play others from Utah, Montana and two in California. Not only is the cost to be part of the league less, but the travel costs are reduced as well, since only 15 players can be on the team's travel roster.

Ideally, Rodgers said she'd like to see other universities form six-player teams and start a collegiate league.

Despite being around for eight years, the team is virtually unknown, even around Boise. Heberger first learned about the Sixxes through an ad posted on Craigslist and was intrigued by the idea.

"I played a lot of sports, but I never had the opportunity to play football," she said. "It's really difficult for girls to cross that line and participate in [what is] traditionally a boy's sport. I had to grab the opportunity."

While Heberger had always enjoyed watching football, she said the game took on new meaning once she took to the field herself.

"You don't have an appreciation for the sport until you play," she said.

It was a little intimidating at first, but that was nothing compared to the first time she put on pads and the full-contact part of the game began. "I had never been tackled before and never tackled someone before," she said. "It was scary and exciting."

And the first time she got tackled? "It hurt," Heberger said.

Rodgers found the team through an ad as well, but she had even less experience with football than Heberger. While she was an athlete, her exposure to football was limited to watching her high school boyfriend play.

But just six weeks after having her second son, Rodgers said she was feeling out of shape and needed an athletic outlet. She knew she couldn't play her beloved basketball, but with her post-baby weight, she figured she could play the line in football.

"The first time I was timed in sprints was an out-of-body experience. I couldn't figure out whose body was running those sprints because it was not the body I remembered," she said.

Physical pain and intimidation aside, Rodgers fell in love with the camaraderie of the team.

"Football is more of a team sport than anything I've ever played," she said.

A massage therapist and teacher by trade, Rodgers found herself playing every position, from linebacker to center to running back, and in the process losing 30 pounds.

"I like the hitting and the physical contact," she said with a laugh.

The possibility of injury is the biggest deterrent for would-be women football players, but Rodgers said that as long as you're fearless, you won't get hurt.

The public is continually surprised by the ferocity of the game.

"There's usually a big smile and disbelief," Heberger said of the reaction when she tells someone she plays full-contact football in a women-only league. To help prove her point, she carries around pictures of the team.

"People think we won't tackle hard," she said. "They have the notion of flag-football, but they're impressed by the hard hitting. We're putting everything we have out there."

In fact, they hit so hard that Rodger said her mother won't come to watch the games anymore. Of course, they occasionally run into the male football fan who offers a humoring grin when told of the full-tackle women's team.

"Those are the guys we like to see come watch us play," Heberger said. "We really have to prove ourselves. They hear someone get a good hit, and they have a good time. It's pretty entertaining."

The Sixxes are trying to change their anonymity by stepping up promotions for the team.

"We want to be role models for younger generations," Heberger said. "It doesn't matter what gender you are."

Neither does it matter your age. The majority of team members are in their 20s, but the age range goes from 19 to 38. Heberger's own daughters, age 7 and 17, are always on the sidelines cheering their mom on, and she's proud that she's leaving some cleat-marked footprints for them to follow in.

Last season the team was made up of roughly half rookies and went 2-4 for the season. But next year, the Sixxes are ready to make a statement. The team is in the midst of a recruitment drive to fill out its roster, with the first workout scheduled for January in preparation for its spring/summer season.

Heberger will definitely be back. "As long as I'm physically able," she said of her future with the Sixxes.

For more information on the Boise State Sixxes, e-mail bsusixxesfootball@yahoo.com.