Pure Pittsburgh Passion
For a serious fix of girl power, look no further than the Pittsburgh Passion, the area's all-female football team that draws thousands of supporters and fans around the region.
Football is a game of forces.
A linebacker crashes into a running back and the football falls to the ground. A quarterback completes a third-and-long and an old man hops up from the couch, sprints across the room and high-fives his son, his steps and stride seemingly two decades lighter. A football team wins a few playoff games and an entire city gets swept up, waves of hope, happiness and hysteria carrying it toward a Super Bowl across the country. A high school senior loses his last game and tears streak down his face as an empty feeling settles into his stomach.
The forces in the game of football start building on the field, but extend far beyond it. It’s a ripple effect that never ends, each game a giant rock tossed into a limitless body of water.
Shawna Rouse felt it in the bleachers one day. She was watching her friend play for the Pittsburgh Passion, a full-pads, full-contact, all-female football team. And something inside Rouse kept tugging her toward the field, pushing and pulling until it became impossible to ignore.
“I just loved everything about it,” said Rouse, a 29-year-old Grove City, Pa., resident who plays wide receiver. “All through high school I played sports, but once you graduate, there’s not a whole lot out there. It was a great opportunity. Of course I loved the intensity and the contact, too.”
It didn’t seem to matter that Rouse was only 5-feet, 6-inches tall, that she only weighed 115 pounds or that she worked during the day as a photographer, a job that requires loads of creativity, but not exactly any aggression. Rouse had to play for the Passion. She spent the next several months training for her tryout, running laps and lifting weights, recruiting muscles that had started to become dormant. Finally, a few days after tryouts ended, she got the e-mail that she had been waiting for.
Congratulations. You’re a member of the Pittsburgh Passion.
Taking the First Hits
Nicole Steele remembers the first time she got hit. She wasn’t like all those other people in Pittsburgh who were raised on football and spent much of their childhood years in helmets and shoulder pads. Steele was a 25-year-old female. It was her first full-contact practice. And some girl leveled her.
“I remember it being kind of scary that first hit. It was kind of frightening,” said Steele, a 28-year-old Lawrenceville resident who works as a music therapist at Children’s Hospital. “I hit the ground and thought ‘Oh my gosh, what just happened? But she grabbed my hand and shoulder pads and helped me up.”
It was a fitting introduction to Passion football. The approximately 60 players are tough and talented, winners of a national championship in 2007. They practice three nights a week, three to four hours each time January through March. They gather a few other times each month for community service. Somewhere between all those hours and commitments, they stop being players or teammates; they become like family.
“We’ve stood in weddings together and baby showers together,” said head coach and owner Teresa Conn, who spent six seasons as a player. “It’s a big sisterhood.”
Surely, something special must be taking place to keep the players together year after year. One player is 49. Her teammates affectionately call her “grandma.” Conn said there are three attorneys on the team, along with a college professor, an executive director, teachers, coaches and a host of other professions.
“I’d say the biggest motivating [factor] is you definitely have a fierce love of the game, but I love the team even more,” Steele said. “It’s a really strong network of women and men (coaches). They are wonderful. I like everything that comes along with the game. I thought I was signing up to play a high level sport—and it is. But it ended up being so much more than I signed up for.”
In football—and, often, in life—adversity can be the strongest force.
Making a Positive Impact
Rouse tore a ligament in her knee last year when her leg went one way in practice and her foot stayed planted in the turf. This season, she’s already damaged her meniscus, and the games haven’t even started yet. She says womens’ ligaments weren’t made for the rigors of football, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping her. Steele had a knee surgery of her own last summer. Other players have fractured ribs, broken countless bones and suffered countless concussions. And yet, they seem to stick around, waiting for time to heal the wounds so they can get back on the field.
“I think most of the players get that we’re training for life and not football,” Conn said. “In football you know you’re going to get knocked down, you have to get back up. Your success is based on whether you stay down and blame, or quit, or fail. Or do you get back up and inspire?”
She sees something special in the Passion—and she’s not alone. The team sometimes draws 5,000 fans to its games on the South Side and recently reached an agreement with ESPN3 to have games broadcast nationally.
That momentum is apparent in the relationships of the players. Rouse says she appreciates the interactions with younger girls, many of who promise to become football players themselves or become inspired to tackle their own dreams. But, to her, it was a chance encounter with an older woman that was easily the most memorable experience.
A woman who was in an abusive relationship somehow came in contact with the team. She wondered aloud how the Passion women could play a man’s game. How could they block and tackle and hit—just like the guys did? Weren’t they scared? Afraid? They must have been so courageous, she thought. And then she figured that maybe she had a force of her own, some of her own courage and strength hiding in a place she hadn’t looked yet.
She got out of the relationship. She got a better job. She became a stronger version of herself.
“I just want you to know,” Rouse remembers the lady telling the team. “I realized women can do more. I know you probably have no idea what you did, but just talking to you that day made me realize I can be stronger, I can do this.”
“I think the most important thing is to have someone come up to you and say, ‘You inspire me,’ or I know I can do this,” Rouse said, reflecting on the encounter. “It’s just fun to know that you’re making a little bit of difference. It’s not just a sport.”