In the aftermath of the 2016 Atlanta Steam season, which resulted in the club competing in its respective conference championship game, it was also an opportunity for fans to appreciate the greatness of Leanne Hardin. Having considered retirement following the 2015 campaign, there was a collective sense of relief among fans and teammates alike when Hardin was back in Steam colors for 2016.
Undoubtedly, one of the most talented middle linebackers in the Legends Football League, Hardin embodies the pioneering and empowering spirit that reflects the growth of female football. During this decade, said growth has been experienced at a quantum leap at all levels. From the introduction of a world championship, an indoor league that has hosted leagues in three different countries, multiple outdoor leagues, complemented by women coaching in the men’s ranks, it has served as a watershed moment for the sport.
Holding the prestige of having been a charter member of the Steam, Hardin worked tirelessly (alongside the likes of Jodie Nettles and Jenny Mac among others) to elevate the red and black from expansion team to perennial contender. It was in effect a full realization of expanding the game’s profile in Atlanta, a constant process which also saw Hardin earn All-Fantasy honors in 2014. Consistently ranked among the team’s leading tacklers, she provided an exceptional presence that helped the team transition to unprecedented heights.
“The things I enjoyed most about playing for the Steam were the bonds that I made with my teammates. It was a true sisterhood the first couple of seasons…which made me want to keep coming back.
Also, I felt like there really was not much out there for female athletes that had as much recognition as this league. It seemed like after college (that) there were no professional leagues for females anymore. Plus, I joined the military right after high school, so I never had the chance to play sports at the collegiate level.”
Adding luster to such a magical time is the remarkable commitment and sacrifices of the players to juggle family, career and an admirably ambitious gridiron endeavor. Hardin was definitely admired for her efforts, as she engaged in a career as a proud member of the United States Armed Forces, representing the ultimate meaning of teamwork.
Of note, Hardin was not the only wondrous woman in Steam history with a military career. Fellow defensive player Sebastiana Lopez was part of those early years for the franchise. Although her career sadly came to an abrupt end due to a traffic accident, resulting in a tragic amputation, she showed great character by competing in the 2016 Invictus Games. Through it all, Hardin showed remarkable empathy, strengthening their friendship while showing support through social media, a symbolic power of teamwork.
During the 2016 season, Hardin was one of three titanic players whose heroics involved both football and military service. Tiffany Merritt, a member of the expansion Austin Acoustic was also joined in this sensational sorority by Katie Whelan, who captured a championship in 2015 with the Seattle Mist. As a side note, both are also mothers.
Perhaps the greatest hallmark of the 2016 season for Hardin was the chance for her leadership skills to shine through. Having always shown leadership through example, Hardin’s experience also made her a mentor for the younger players. As said season represented her fourth with the franchise, having been there since that inaugural kickoff, it was a role that Hardin accepted with great pride, helping lay the foundation for the next generation of players that shall eagerly attempt to emulate her proud gridiron legacy,
“In my third and fourth seasons, I did feel like I was a mentor for the younger players. I was one of the Steam players from Day 1. From 400+ girls at tryouts, I earned a spot on the 20-player roster as a captain and a defensive middle line backer.
I was never a loud (or) dramatic person, but I knew as well as all the other girls (our) roles on defense. They knew that they could come to me to see where they should be lined up. My fourth year role kind of changed a little bit due to all the girls we recruited from other teams.”
Reflecting on four fantastic seasons with the Steam, filled with memorable milestones and astounding accomplishments, there was a moment that stood out among others as a proud career highlight for Hardin. It was the kind of moment that ran parallel to the Steam’s evolution in their rise among the league’s elites.
The 2014 Eastern Conference championship game against the Jacksonville Breeze served as such a catalyst, enhanced by one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Legends Football League. Taking into account that the Breeze were a championship contender for several seasons, featuring the likes of KK Matheny, Bryn Renda, Saige Steinmetz, Adrian Purnell and Lauran Ziegler, the Steam entered the championship game as an underdog.
Displaying remarkable character and a never quit approach, the Steam engineered one of the greatest comebacks in league history. Highlighted by the heroic contributions of the Steam defense, successfully nullifying a high octane Breeze offense, Hardin recounts the exhilarating jubilation that came with such a dramatic victory,
“The game that stood out the most was by far the (2014) Eastern Conference championship game vs. the Jacksonville Breeze. They had all the veterans and bigger players. As the Steam, we had not yet made a name for ourselves…until that game.
We were down two touchdowns with one minute and 16 seconds left. People in the stands were starting to leave. We forced a Breeze fumble on the one yard line. Our offense took over and scored.
Then we had to successfully do an onside kick, which we did! We got the ball back with less then a minute left and we scored again, tying up the game. Our defense held the Breeze from scoring in overtime. We gave our offense good scoring position, and they scored, winning the game!”
Serving as the defining moment in early Atlanta Steam lore, it was a pivotal and victorious validation for Hardin and the rest of her teammates, testament to their sweat and struggle.
“It was the best game in Legends Football League history and I played a big role in it. I will always remember that. We did not have the years of experience and the size on our side, but we never gave up. We were ALL IN that year.”
Coincidentally, several Breeze players would join the Steam for the 2015 and 2016 campaigns, including Purnell, Ziegler and Dina Wojowski, the inaugural winner of the league’s In the Trenches Award. Although their collective efforts, unified in the quest for an elusive championship, were stymied in the postseason by the Chicago Bliss, there may not have been another team with such a strong sense of family.
Although that family must look towards 2017 with the fact that Hardin has hung up her cleats for good, her impact is unforgettable. In the detailed and complex back-and-forth minutiae between touchdowns and field goals, testing mental and physical limits, it is where the game’s legends were truly forged. Hardin’s legend is one that is without dispute, making her the type of teammate that any player would desire to have battling alongside them in the determined road towards victory.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”