As Ravenwood’s quarterback dropped back in the pocket and unleashed a pass destined for the end zone, Michael Collier shot out of his seat. When Morgan Collier, a freshman wide receiver, caught it over the head of the defensive back, Michael went wild.
He had never imagined he’d be able to see Morgan, his only daughter, catch a touchdown pass for her high school team.
Michael sprinted up and down the aisles of Ravenwood’s Raptor Stadium, high-fiving parents, friends and family of the other players.
“Girls like football as much as boys, but they don’t normally get a chance to show that type of athleticism,” Michael said. “And it really was a great product they put out there.”
Morgan Collier played in the inaugural girls high school flag football season in Williamson County, the first opportunity of its kind for girls in the Nashville area.
But Williamson County isn’t alone. Whether it’s through a grassroots high school program or an established professional team, women in Nashville are gaining ground in football, a sport that has historically excluded them, regardless of how many people say they don’t belong.
“The thing that draws women to women’s football is that women are being told that football is not for women. And that’s definitely not true,” said Donita Hines, the owner of the Music City Mizfits, a semi-professional women’s tackle football team in Nashville.
COMING SOON:Metro Nashville schools, Titans partner for girls flag football program starting in 2023
HERE TO STAY:Why coaches, players think girls flag football will be the next TSSAA sanctioned sport
That’s not to say, however, that growth for women in football is easy to achieve.
“It’s not like there’s not a lot of women out there,” Hines, who has owned the Mizfits since 2016, said. “People just feel that women shouldn’t play football. We’ve got all the SEC schools here, and men’s football is basically what everyone looks at.”
The younger generation is helping to lead a changing of the guards. Some Williamson County schools had as many as 100 players try out for the inaugural girls flag football season. The Titans helped fund the experiment, which concluded with a league championship at Nissan Stadium on May 7.
A handful of colleges have even begun to offer flag football scholarships to women at many Division II, Division III or NAIA schools.
“I think that it’s going to explode no matter what,” said Jessica Mancini, Ravenwood’s assistant flag football coach. “No matter where it goes, the interest in it is already very high.”
It goes without saying that Chris Hughes knows what a good football player looks like on the field.
He’s seen plenty, both in 13 seasons for Fairview High School’s boys tackle football team, and now in one season coaching Fairview’s girls flag football team.
Hughes went so far as to say that a few of his flag football players could not just line up against his tackle players, but that many could outplay their male counterparts.
“Football is such a popular sport, and girls are figuring out that they can play, and they’re just as good as the boys,” Hughes said. “Some of the receivers on my flag team could probably play on my [boys] high school team.”
The stands for the flag games this spring were full of his tackle players from the fall.
The rules of flag football, obviously, are different from tackle football. Beyond the visible difference in tackling, only seven players are allowed on the field for each team, compared to the 11 of tackle football.
But other than the offensive and defensive lines, the positions are largely the same. Flag quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, linebackers and safeties play the same packages and plays with the speed you would expect to find on any gridiron.
“You can see the enthusiasm and the cheering when they make a good catch,” Hughes said. “It’s the same excitement. Girls have always been in the stands or cheering on the sidelines. Now, they’re on the field.”
Women’s tackle football, though, is identical to men’s. The Mizfits wear the same pads and helmets, swarm toward the ball just as hard to make a tackle and fight in the trenches just like men’s teams do. They throw the same highlight-reel passes and make the same goal-line stands.
“For a lot of women, this is something they’ve never done before, and they come out to our games and see that this is no different than the guys,” Hines said. “It’s full contact and the same competitiveness.”
When Hines and her players tell people they play football, they often assume they mean in a lingerie league, where women in full faces of makeup and little-to-no clothing play an abbreviated version of football.
But Hines and her players are quick to correct their doubters, saying the kind of football they’re playing is not just some glamorized version of it.
“They’ll ask ‘Are you the ones who play in bikinis?’” said LeShay Shute, a wide receiver, running back and corner for the Mizfits. “But we’ve earned much more respect now. Our name is out there. People are coming to see us.”
“We’re trying to prove to people that women are just as good at this sport as men are,” Hines said. “They are competitive, they can go out there and get big hits and make good plays, throw those 40-yard passes and have all these highlights.”
The Music City Mizfits’ roster is composed of women from age 18 up to their mid-40s. The players are moms, nurses, active military members and veterans, doctors and youth football coaches. They’re from as nearby as metro Nashville or as far as Clarksville — maybe even farther.
The desire to find opportunities for women in football draws them together.
Women’s football is “catching fire” both in Nashville and across the country, Hines said. After years of fighting to create growth, the Mizfits have begun to see progress, making the playoffs this year with an active roster of just 20 players.
The Mizfits are part of the Women’s Football Alliance, a national women’s professional tackle football league that includes 65 teams across three divisions.
Most of the Mizfits had never played organized football before lacing up their cleats for tryouts.
“With the momentum picking up for women’s football, a lot of women want to be part of that,” Hines said.
For high school students, girls flag leagues are gaining ground, too. Eight states sanction girls flag football as a varsity sport: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Jersey and New York.
Tennessee could be next. The inaugural season of girls flag football in Williamson County was such a hit that Davidson County announced on June 21 that it will follow suit this school year. Emily Crowell, the assistant executive director of the TSSAA, said Tennessee is “headed in the direction” of making girls flag football a sanctioned sport.
“It’s good to see we’re still creating firsts for girls,” Crowell said. “At some point, we’ll run out of firsts.”
‘Sending the elevator back down
When Phoebe Schecter was in high school, her only chance to play football was one game of powderpuff per year, when junior and senior girls dressed up in pink jerseys to compete in a singular game of flag.
Now, Schecter is a professional tackle football player for Team Great Britain and an ambassador for NFL Flag, helping install girls high school flag leagues across the U.S. She helped bring flag football to both Williamson and Davidson County schools.
Schecter lives her life through a philosophy of “sending the elevator back down.” She rose through the ranks of football, and she feels as though it’s her duty to bring other women and girls up with her.
“These girls, once they start playing the sport, they fall in love with it,” Schecter said. “The life lessons, the values, the teamwork, the leadership, and truthfully, the way it empowers you as a female, is so incredible.”
That feeling of empowerment is one reason why women’s presence in football is growing.
To those who are a part of it, it’s the reason women’s football is here to stay.
“It’s not a hoax. It’s not for show. Women play football, and women are going to keep playing football,” Hines said. “People are just gonna have to get used to it, because it’s not going anywhere.”