An Afternoon with the Connecticut Wreckers

by William Underwood

published March 6, 2015

For Connecticut Wreckers owner and head coach Gary Peloso, women’s tackle football was never a likely landing place. “My wife saw an advertisement for a women’s football team in the paper,” he recalled. “I had no idea. Women’s football?”

Though Peloso has spent much of his life around football, including years of coaching at the high school level, it’s not surprising that he knew nothing about the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL), the organization in which the Danbury based Wreckers participate as a member franchise. While professional men’s football dwarfs other sports in audience and revenue in the United States, women’s football claims a very small place in the American sports consciousness. Even the local press seems to be unaware of the Wreckers—a Google search yields three articles on the team, most dating back to 2013. “We’re based in Danbury and nobody in Danbury knows about it,” Coach Peloso noted.

Yet the sport boasts two major leagues—the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) and the IWFL—which combined maintain more than 75 franchises sorted into regional divisions and distinguished by their respective size and stability. Some franchises, like the Pittsburgh Passion, carry more than 50 women on their rosters and attract average crowds of as many as 4,000; other teams carry as few as 13 and host much smaller fan bases at home games. There is frequent shuffling within both leagues, as franchises fold or shift location based on the willingness of owners to finance teams. Wreckers quarterback and general manager Kate Stepp, who has played for three franchises in Connecticut over the past five years, is one of many Wreckers who has jumped from other rosters to play in Danbury.

The Wreckers joined the IWFL in 2012 after Coach Peloso and a group of players stayed together in the wake of the Northeastern Nitro’s 2011 collapse. A member of the IWFL’s North Atlantic region, the team travels as far as Baltimore and Montreal to play during the regular season, and even farther in the playoffs. Individual players often play offense, defense, and special teams, meaning that many spend entire games on the field without stop. This would be a chore in any sport, but in a game as physically demanding as football that level of exertion is almost unimaginable. When I asked Jessica LaSane—an offensive and defensive linewoman for the Wreckers who was sidelined due to a minor knee injury during the February 23 practice I visited—about this, she just laughed off the difficulty: “Yeah, but it’s more playing time for us.”

Players vary widely in age, ranging from 20 to 45 years, but almost universally the women on the Wreckers grew up playing football in their neighborhoods with family and friends. For many, like Laura Anderson—an offensive and defensive linewoman, punter, and kicker who played lacrosse, soccer, and swam in college—IWFL football is a natural pivot from other high level athletics. Much like college athletics, too, women are not paid to play for the Wreckers. In spite of the significant amount of time involved, the rigorous workout schedule, and the long commutes to games, playing football is a labor of love. Indeed, Wreckers players, who referred to themselves throughout our conversations as a family, contribute their personal funds to help pay for equipment, rent facilities, and organize travel. Alongside team fundraisers and sponsorship packages, these dues help the individually operated franchise finance itself with money that otherwise would not be available.

Like most people, I had very little conception of full contact women’s football before I visited the team’s practice last Monday night. I’d seen stories about the Lingerie League —a spectacle in which teams with names like the San Diego Seduction and the Los Angeles Temptation dress in helmets, shoulder pads, and their underwear for almost exclusively male crowds and pay-per-view audiences—but never knew that two regularly functioning international leagues existed in which women wear full pads and play 11-on-11 NCAA rules football.

As a result, my expectations of what I’d find at the Wreckers practice were largely colored by my own narrow conception of football as a distinctly male sport and my exposure to other instances of women playing in male-dominated athletic fields. Think of Mo’ne Davis, whose rapid ascent to national prominence as a star pitcher in the Little League World Series was cast by Sports Illustrated and countless other news outlets as the story of an exceptional girl breaking through gender-based assumptions in a traditionally male sport; or Mo Isom, a soccer star in the Southeastern Conference who nearly made the Louisiana State University football team as a kicker in 2012, and whose decision to try out was cast as a publicity stunt by outlets like Fox Sports, which emphasized “Homecoming Queen is no Ordinary Walk-On.” I was prepared to hear personal narratives from Wreckers players that would frame their football team as an act of resistance to a sporting landscape that minimizes women’s athletics and almost completely denies them access to sports like football or baseball.

It’s tempting to view the Connecticut Wreckers and their players with a similar interpretative lens. Along with the lack of funding and media attention given to women’s football, there are no clear developmental tracks that funnel women into full-tackle football, and players are often stigmatized for their participation in the sport. Stepp recounted for me her early experience in football, including people’s reaction to her new hobby: “After any game the women are totally bruised. A new level of soreness,” she explained up front. Having never played a contact sport like football, she began to show up to work with bruises along her arms. She quickly learned to wear sleeves so as to avoid fielding the types of questions that accompanied her participation. “I’m proud to play, and I love playing, but it’s definitely not what’s expected. Not everybody thinks women should be playing tackle football.”

Stories like Kate’s emphasize the significance of women’s full contact football and its ability to challenge pervasive assumptions about women’s athletics and women as athletes, yet for the women who play for the Wreckers these types of questions are secondary. Christie Koukopoulos, a slot wide receiver and cornerback in the Wes Welker mold whose three kids love coming to games and who, though injured, was running drills in sweats and a helmet, provided perspective when she ran over from a drill to talk to me during practice.

Behind her, half of the team was busy running the Oklahoma drill, a famous exercise in which players line up one-on-one between two rows of pads, one carrying the ball, with simple objectives: tackle if you are a defender; break the tackle if you have the ball. The drill has fallen out of favor at all levels of football because of its excessive violence, high risk of injury, and lack of application to in-game settings, but there’s no debating its allure. No drill offers glory like the Oklahoma drill.

As players collided behind her, I asked Christie, called “Pops” by her younger teammates, if she ever faces resistance when she tells others that she plays full contact football. At the same moment, an impressive whack echoed from the other side of the field, where one woman had just hit and pinned another to the ground. The team whooped and cheered around her. “No,” she replied nonchalantly.

It was around this point in my conversations with the Wreckers that I realized the only person in the building surprised by the existence of the IWFL was me. More tellingly, I was the only person referring to the sport as women’s football, a distinction that was at once patronizing and descriptively unhelpful given that the only game-related difference between the IWFL’s product and that of the NCAA is a slight variation in football size. In my eagerness to cast the team in a conversation about empowerment and athletic equality—a well-intentioned inclination that is unfortunately often the default orientation for female sports coverage—I had almost blinkered myself to the women themselves, their skill as players, and their personal motivations for playing football.

As more women found time to come over to the sideline, I continued to press the idea of resistance that informed my initial interest in the team, with little success, and even less enthusiasm. Players consistently answered questions about how they began playing football with replies like, “I was looking for something to do,” or simply, “it seemed like fun”—not the indignant, stereotype-defying narratives I had been looking for. For women with lifelong athletic pedigrees, trying football is hardly a major leap. Most women hadn’t had the opportunity to play football in high school or college, but the IWFL offers an obvious athletic outlet with more structure and rigor than recreational leagues in other sports. The one comment that fit with the narrative I had expected to hear was Coach Peloso’s remark that playing for the Wreckers gives women on the team “the ability to prove they’re athletes.” Of course, the idea that they should need to prove that, or that football in particular is the vehicle through which to do so, trivializes the impressive athletic careers that most players on the Wreckers can already claim, and so is at odds with the attitudes of the women I spoke to. “For a lot of us, we’ve played volleyball, soccer, softball, rugby,” Anderson pointed out. “Why not football?”

The Connecticut Wreckers finished last year’s season 4-4, and begin this year’s schedule on the road, April 18, against the Maine Rebels. Their first home game is May 2 in Danbury against the Montreal Blitz.

WILLIAM UNDERWOOD B’15 played a year of high school football, then quit.