Having become the premier event on the female football calendar, the fourth annual Women’s World Football Games (WWFG) was undoubtedly its greatest yet. Hosted at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Facility in Orlando, Florida, there was no shortage of excitement as a group consisting of 200+ gridiron goddesses from over 20 different countries was in the presence of some of the elite talents from the National Football League.
Building on the proud legacy of last year’s Games, which saw the New Orleans Saints graciously become the first NFL franchise to serve as a host site for the WWFG, this year’s edition was part of a wondrous week for football. Culminating with the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl, the NFL’s annual All-Star showcase, the participants of the WWFG were proudly in attendance as the AFC prevailed. Adding to the jubilation was the fact that many images from the final scrimmage at the WWFG were featured on the Indianapolis Colts website.
The five-day event covered a wide range of aspects, going beyond the essence of competition. Incorporating concepts which included player development sessions, position meetings, and several days of practices, this was an educating environment built on encouragement. With four days of practices, always with an emphasis on safety, the fifth and final day resulted in the highly anticipated competitive game, which saw rosters composed of players, donning blue or red jerseys, from all countries playing side-by-side, with the flag of their homelands adorning the top of their white helmets.
Prior to opening kickoff for the WWFG, there was another significant event at Wide World of Sports that would demonstrate the drive and desire that defines the rapidly rising sport of female football. With the 2017 IFAF Women’s World Football Championships to be hosted in Vancouver, Canada, the first event to be hosted on North American soil, USA Football held its training and evaluation camp for players aspiring to wear the Stars and Stripes in 2017. As a side note, all participating players were encouraged to attend the WWFG either as players, or as members of the Coaching Academy. Past editions of the WWFG saw many Team USA alumnae proudly participate in this capacity.
Among the remarkable number of women gracing the gridiron at said camp, none may have been as inspiring as quarterback Samantha Grisafe. Having served as Team USA’s field general at the 2010 and 2013 IFAF Worlds, both gold medal triumphs, Grisafe is back in familiar territory, looking to achieve the feat once again.
Taking into account that Grisafe suffered an injury in what was believed to be her final season with the Chicago Force in 2014, coupled with relocation to her home state of California, where she continues to establish herself as one of the most talented independent female musicians, her return to the gridiron is truly stellar. Complemented by the goal of returning to the Chicago Force for their farewell season in 2017, Grisafe admirably commutes back and forth from California to the Windy City, testament to her dedication to both the game and teammates alike.
Most worthy of the moniker “living legend”, Grisafe’s presence in Orlando embodies what the gridiron game truly means and the relevance of events such as the WWFG. Like all the other women involved, it is more than just sporting equality or the chance at glory; it is about friendship and the chance to participate in a game that brings so much meaning and happiness in their lives. Whether Grisafe gains the opportunity to suit up for Team USA for a third and final time, her resolve and resiliency definitely established her as a role model for so many of the women in attendance.
Considering the approaching impact of Canada on the global football stage, it was only fitting that two of the nation’s most promising stars were on-hand at the WWFG. Having captured a WWCFL championship in 2016 with the Saskatoon Valkyries, Carly Dyck is a versatile athlete with skills as both a wide receiver and a field goal kicker. Joining Dyck was another competitor whose star continues to shine brightly in the WWCFL, Calgary Rage running back and franchise player, Lisa Gomes.
Having both participated at last year’s WWFG, their return to the event is more than just testament to its impact. For both Dyck and Gomes, the opportunity to return to the WWFG in 2017 was joined by a remarkable combination of both enthusiasm and momentum. While their experience at the Games served as the springboard towards becoming more than just elite competitors and better leaders, one could argue that it was a key learning tool in helping them elevate their games to a higher level, as evidenced by the fact that both were named to Canada’s national women’s team for the 2017 IFAF Women’s Worlds.
During the WWFG, running parallel to the festivities leading up to the Pro Bowl match, another significant event accentuated the growing impact of women in the game. Having already established a solid gridiron legacy as a builder, which includes serving as a co-founder and organizer of the WWFG, Samantha Rapoport’s remarkable body of work with USA Football has taken on an even grander purpose.
Currently serving as the Director of Development with the National Football League, Rapoport’s legacy with the WWFG has extended beyond just providing women from all over the world an opportunity to learn and play the game. Having also organized the NFL Careers in Football Forum, it consisted of a two-day session providing advice, education and strategy on career opportunities for women in professional football. Said opportunities included coaching, scouting, and officiating, while emphasizing the admirable effort to bring gender diversity throughout the NFL. These sessions were not only open to the participating players but to the individuals that also registered in the USA Football Coaching Academy, also held at the WWFG.
In addition to Rapoport, other women have made a significant impact during the 2016 NFL regular season. Michelle McKenna-Doyle, whose presence as Chief Information Officer has resulted in a new communications system, eliminated the much maligned drama of visiting team’s headsets and other communications devices malfunctioning. Home to one of the most loyal fan bases in the NFL, the Buffalo Bills welcomed Kathryn Smith to their coaching staff, making her the first woman to work full-time in such a capacity.
With the anticipation towards Super Bowl LI building, Smith is not the only woman whose impact in the coaching realm was the source of admiration and wonder during the Forum. There was also another coach whose impact ran parallel to Smith. Having served as a preseason coach with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, following the trail blazing path of Dr. Jen Welter with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, Katie Sowers has emerged as one of the most celebrated women in the game.
Having also worked in a coaching role under the tutelage of coach Charlie Weis as the East-West Shrine Game, Sowers groundbreaking contributions with the Atlanta Falcons, working with their wide receivers, not only gained her newfound respect, it was reciprocated in an exciting finish to the season. With the Atlanta Falcons defeating the Green Bay Packers to capture the NFC championship, the club has qualified for Super Bowl LI against the New England Patriots. Although Sowers was not a full-time coach like Smith, it still represents a historic element for NFL football, as Sowers becomes the first female coach to be part of a team playing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the same season. While New England’s Tom Brady looks to be the first quarterback to win five Super Bowl championships, it would be a unique feat if Sowers was rewarded for her preseason work with a Super Bowl ring.
While the NFL association with the WWFG has succeeded in providing these remarkable women with a most worthy major league feeling, there was a collective sense of victory in the aftermath. Regardless of whether Team Red or Team Blue emerged victorious, the proud reflections by participants on social media displayed the sense of gratitude. Rapoport’s influence as one of the most inspiring women in football was evident during a highly successful WWFG in 2017, as praise and thanks were evident on social media, signs of a job well done.
Representing the potential of what women can bring to sport if given the opportunity, the remarkable potency of gender equity has served as one of the benchmarks for the WWFG. It was also an invaluable learning tool, preserving a special time where participants did more than learn the game, whether as players or coaches. The experience was an education in believing in themselves, emerging from Orlando with a newfound confidence, proudly adding to the momentum of women in football.