Ray Simoneau purchased the New Hampshire Freedom (formerly the Manchester Freedom) women’s tackle football team eight years ago when the team was going to be dissolved, as it was up for sale and no one was ponying up to take it on. He bought the team out of love for his daughter, who played on the team at the time, and thought his ownership would only last a couple of years.
“But I’m still here,” Simoneau said. “There is definitely a need for an outlet for women to play football.”
The all-women team plays by NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) rules.
“What you see on TV on Sundays, this is what you’re looking at. It’s banging, hitting, running, tackling, getting-dirty football,” Simoneau said. “[The players] don’t believe it’s just a man’s game anymore.”
Simoneau said the success of the New England Patriots may have sparked interest in football among women in the state. “It’s like the [Boston] Bruins in the 1970s. No one really knew about hockey until the Bruins started winning. It brought everyone out to play hockey,” he said. “Since the Pats won the Super Bowl, the focus on football got bigger.”
For Julie Carignan, football was the “next great challenge” after college. She joined the Freedom in 2001 and retired two years ago. She now serves as the team’s defensive coach. Carignan, a former linebacker and safety, also played on U.S. Women’s National Tackle Team.
“We all grow up playing the same sports. We played backyard football with our cousins and friends growing up,” she said. “We don’t want to play against the guys … it’s kind of a challenge for people to try to accomplish.”
One difference in how the game is played by the women’s league is that women’s center of gravity is in their hips whereas men’s center is in their chest. “We wouldn’t want to play males,” Carignan said. “It doesn’t make sense for those body types to fight each other.”
Football combines different elements of many sports, Carignan noted. The whole field is used. The sport involves using your hands and learning offensive and defensive positions.
So if you’ve played other sports, “you just take the skills you’ve learned and put them into a new sport,” she said. Football, she added, allows for women of all shapes and sizes to participate. “It doesn’t matter what body type you are,” she said. “We will find a spot for you.”
Players get what they want out of the game in regard to skill and knowledge, Simoneau said, adding that what it all comes down to is heart.
“They love the game so much,” he said. “A lot of players have had knee surgeries and we expect them to quit but they come back.”
Quarterback Jamie Naylor, 30, of Salem, said during her eight years on the team, the worst injury she has experienced is a sprained ankle.
“All the bumps and bruises — I don’t really consider those injuries,” Naylor said. Players must provide proof of health insurance, though the league does offer an affordable supplemental insurance for those without.
Players pay $850 in user fees each season to play on the New Hampshire Freedom and are encouraged to seek sponsorships to defray the cost. The money is put toward the cost of field time — the team practices at the New Hampshire Sportsplex in Bedford during the winter and plays its games at West Memorial Field in Manchester. The team has to budget $12,000 for facilities alone. Equipment (helmets, shoulder pads, leg pads for hips and thighs and practice gear, pinnies and uniforms) is provided for all players and must be returned at the end of the season. The user fees would likely decrease if more players joined the team, Simoneau said.
“I hate charging these girls outrageous fees, but it costs money to get all of the equipment and to pay for a bus trip to wherever we go,” he said.
The team trains indoors, twice a week, from January through March. Coaches start the season by teaching players basic skills, footwork and handwork. The different positions of the game are learned by the time the team is ready to start training outdoors and that is when the focus is put on stances and ball handling. It is on the field at Manchester West that players start working on plays and attacks, Carignan said. The season proper, during which the Freedom plays other teams in the Independent Women’s Football League, begins in April and runs through the end of June.
The team recruits by word of mouth and its online presence. It is not able to recruit from local colleges because it is not affiliated with them. The Freedom has never had a full roster of 45 but came close last year, starting the season with 34 players.
“We still struggle to get together a whole team but I think that’s because we’re not well-known,” Naylor said. “Most people we talk to are surprised there is a women’s tackle football team in New Hampshire, or a league at all.”
“I think there are a ton of women out there that would love to play and be very good once they know we’re here,” she said.
New players are allowed to start by learning the positions they are most interested in, while being evaluated by the coaches, who will make changes according to ability.
“A lot of women come to us with no clue how to play football, but if they are an athlete we can train them to play football,” Carignan said. New players will be accepted through Jan. 8 and Carignan said rookies should prepare to join the team by getting in shape — even if it just means walking for a 30 minutes a day.
“You gotta get moving and get stretching,” she said. “We’ll put the skills in when you get here.”
Team tryouts involve running drills, broad and vertical jumps.
Naylor had a few tips for potential players: “Give it a shot,” she said. “I didn’t know a lot of the technique or things like that. You can come into the game knowing nothing about football and be a successful player.... It’s a lot of commitment but it’s definitely the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Visit newhampshirefreedom.com to learn how to join the team.