February 14, 2014

Female football players from around the world knock pads at UT Arlington

A bragging-rights game is set for 8:45 a.m. Sunday at Maverick Stadium.

The football coaches on the practice field at UT Arlington on Friday shouted plays, called out numbers and tried everything but standing on their heads to hype up their teams.

But, though it was hard to tell because of the helmets and shoulder pads, this was no ordinary group of restless jocks distracted by an early case of spring fever. A more dedicated group of women might have been hard to find.

“You ladies sure are a lot easier to work with” than some male players, yelled assistant coach Bobby Gentry, showing his delight in the progress made on the second day of practice in the first-ever Women’s World Football Development Games.

Some 90 women from nine countries, including the U.S. — which won the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship last year — began practicing Thursday and will be split into two teams for a bragging-rights game at 8:45 a.m. Sunday at Maverick Stadium. Other players, all of whom tried out for the team last year, hail from places like Belgium, Hungary, Norway, Finland and the United Kingdom.

Sam Rapoport, director of football development for USA Football, said participants can learn a lot about themselves and the sport and develop their playing skills. The six coaches for the international team include former and current NFL players, and she said that makes the daily practices worthwhile for women traveling overseas.

During a water break, head coach and former Chicago Bears player Jim Farrell encourages his group.

“Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t play this game!” he shouts.

Assistant coach Jeffrey Vlk has been with USA Football for three years and coaches football at a high school in Illinois. He said his experience at the camp has been like none other.

“Women listen a lot better than the men do, honestly,” he said. “They’re very energetic, extremely enthusiastic and are just like sponges for the information, soaking it in.”

“It’s all about these women being able to take what they’ve learned from this camp and use it when they go back home,” he added. “To see them play against each other and with each other on Sunday and working as a team with women from different countries really will just be a beautiful experience.”

Jessie Spring flew 22 hours from Australia to be part of the team.

“These girls really take their sport seriously,” she said. “Over in Australia, it’s kind of like, ‘Eh, yeah, OK.’ ”

Spring, who started playing last year after wanting to try something “the guys were doing,” said she felt nervous the first time she put on a helmet.

“I didn’t think I’d actually survive, but I did,” she said. “After my first tackle, I stood up, and the nerves went away, and I said, ‘OK, I can do this!’ ”

At the back of the field, assistant coach Billy Hughes, a former player for Oklahoma, teaches the players how to bring down the ball carrier.

“I’m glad you’re not tackling me,” he tells one speedy player. “You probably would have killed me!”

Assistant coach Jimmy Thomas noted how well the players were catching on.

“People underestimate how much women grasp this game, how physical they can be,” he said. “All they need is a chance.”

Meanwhile, two-time gold medalist Alberta Fitcheard-Brydson takes in the moment and relishes her experiences playing football.

Fitcheard-Brydson is from Dallas and is part of the Houston Energy, a team in the Independent Women’s Football League. She has loved football since she was young, playing without pads with the boys in the yard.

Being part of a team like this, she said, encourages her to keep pursuing the sport.

“I have little girls, and I just love to let them know that they can do this if they wanted,” she said. “They watch Mom playing, and it’s good for them to know that they don’t have to be limited.”

She said she hopes to keep the sport in her life and is interested in owning a team someday. But for now, nothing beats breaking the huddle and going to the line of scrimmage with her sisters in arms.

“I couldn’t ask for a better way to come out and enjoy this sport,” she said, “than to be out here with other women who think the same thing.”

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