A petite woman dressed in all black stood among a sea of red jerseys. Her silver hoop earrings and high ponytail swung to the beat of her speed walk as she hustled down the sideline.
“Let’s go, ladies! Let’s go,” she shouted, clapping her hands before placing them back on her hips. She had already defused a couple of officiating-related conflicts, prompting the women in red to call her “Madame Moody.” Now her team was just a few short drives from beating the Jacksonville Dixie Blues 58-14 to cap off a 6-0 regular season.
“Madame Moody” is Jen Moody. By day, the 47-year-old works as the director of administration at the Tampa Metropolitan YMCA. But for three nights a week every April through July, she storms the field as owner of Tampa Bay’s professional women’s tackle football team, the Inferno.
Women’s participation and interest in football is on the rise nationwide. In the last year or so, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics added women’s flag football as a sport at its membership schools; a woman scored in a Power Five college football game; and most recently, the Bucs’ Maral Javadifar and Lori Locust coached on a Super Bowl-winning staff.
With the passage of Title IX in 1972, prohibiting sex-based discrimination in federally-funded American schools, opportunities exploded for women to play youth and college sports. Women and girls under 50 have grown up in this era, so they’re more likely to play and consume sports from an early age. According to American Football International, an estimated 4,000 women in the United States play organized tackle football.
Forty of those women play for the Inferno. Twice a week, they practice at Temple Terrace Soccer Fields in Tampa. Home games at Sickles High School on Saturdays draw between 350 to 500 fans. The team pays for facility rental fees, travel costs, equipment and uniforms to the tune of $50,000 to $75,000 a year almost entirely out of their own pockets.
Off the field, these athletes study game film and the playbook while also juggling full-time jobs, school and family obligations. Among them are lawyers, physical therapists, teachers and first responders, brought together by their love of the game. The pressures that come with their graceful balancing act have molded their eclectic roster into a family.
“I’ve played sports my entire life, and the community that this group has is almost, like, surreal,” said Jen Marshall, a Women’s Football Alliance first-team All-American linebacker for the Inferno, full-time physical therapist and former collegiate softball player at Presbyterian College. “It doesn’t even feel normal.”
Part of a national movement
The growth of women’s football, and women’s sports in general, is exciting and reassuring to Inferno players. When Sarah Fuller started her first game as Vanderbilt’s placekicker, members of the Inferno jumped at every chance to like and share anything Fuller did that day on social media. Hope ran out onto that field wearing No. 32 with the words “Play like a girl” on the back of her helmet.
“We were tagging each other in it, sending it in our personal GroupMe, like, ‘Hey, yeah, make sure you watch this game,’” Marshall said. “Her following probably grew tremendously just from women football players once we found out that she was going big time.”
When team owner Moody was a girl, football was something she played with the boys in the neighborhood — not on an official roster. Growing up in Pittsburgh immersed in stories of Steelers lore endeared her to the sport. Without a female role model, a young Moody pretended to be Hall of Famer Franco Harris while zipping around her backyard with a pigskin.
After playing basketball at Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania, Moody discovered the Alliance’s Pittsburgh Passion in 2002. She played wide receiver with the team for seven years and won a national championship before relocating to Tampa for a social worker job with Hillsborough County. There, a group of women looking for leadership approached her. In 2011, Moody founded the Tampa Bay Inferno. Previous iterations of the team, dating to 2000, included the Tempest, Terminators and Pirates.
When Marshall, 29, was growing up, she had national team softball players to look up to like Cat Osterman and Stacey Nuveman. But she never saw anyone who looked like her playing football on a comparable stage. That’s why the Inferno’s community service is so important to her. Whether coaching a youth flag football team or helping out at the Tampa YMCA, they hope their presence and visibility can draw out the next generation of female players.
More children seem to be sitting in the Inferno stands every Saturday, Marshall said. Among them is a young girl named Jade who met the team through the YMCA. Inspired by the Inferno, she’s finding ways to play football in her wheelchair.
“Being the role model for these kids, these kids seeing that it is possible to play a sport that (people) never thought women would be in, it keeps us motivated,” said Marshall, who drives two hours from her home in Ocala to play. “We all have to retire. We all know what’s going to happen. But what’s coming in behind us is what’s important to us. How do we keep not just the Inferno going, but the entire women’s sports going?”
Don’t doubt their abilities
For head coach Johnny Green, also the vice president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, the Inferno’s community service lets people know the team exists. The more eyes on the sport, he hopes, the more people feel compelled to respect women football players.
“I’ve been a part of this team for — what? — five, six years, and we’ve gone to two national championships (2017, 2018). Two national championships,” Green said. “We’ve traveled around the country playing 11-on-11 football, NCAA rules, and I think that some (people) just don’t think they’re for real. … Some think, you know, these women cannot compete. But they do. They compete, and they enjoy competing.
“I would just like for women’s sports to get more respect.”
Respect looks like more media attention and more effort on behalf of the league itself, Green said. The Alliance is not a lingerie league. It’s women playing tackle ball.
The NFL runs from September to February, and the Alliance’s season typically kicks off in April (May in 2021 because of COVID-19). Green’s question: Why isn’t women’s tackle football marketed as summer football for the super fans?
“I think the whole marketing plan needs to be better to make sure that they are supporting these teams in each region,” Green said.
Quarterback Kim Shaw has been with the Inferno since before they were even called the Inferno. She sat under center for the Tampa Tempest, Tampa Bay Terminators, Tampa Bay Pirates and now starts for the Inferno at 55 years old. She also runs a lawn service company and has five classes left to earn her bachelor’s degree in software development from Western Governors University.
The 2021 second-team All-American has seen the quality of female football players improve as more gain exposure to the sport at younger ages. Older brothers taught her generation how to play the game. Now, women get their foundation from flag football coaches in high school and youth leagues.
The Inferno will travel to Washington D.C. on Saturday for the first round of the Division I playoffs The winner of the matchup against the D.C. Divas will play the Boston Renegades on their home turf for a spot in the national championship game, which will be held in Canton, Ohio. To help cover costs, Inferno players rely on sponsor donations, raffle ticket sales and, this week, bidding on an autographed football from Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett.
Should the Inferno win both playoff games, they would reach their third national championship appearance and first in the league’s top division (the team’s 2017 and 2018 title game appearances were for the Division II title).
If Shaw can lead her team to a title, she’ll finally hang up her cleats at the end of the season.
“We win this, man, you can’t tell me nothing,” Shaw said with a light laugh. “That’d mean the world to me. I would definitely have to retire. … Don’t ask me to come back. I’m done! ...
“I say that now, but if Coach Green asks, I can’t tell him no.”
But now is their time, Green said. Time to join the rest of Tampa Bay’s championship ranks. Time for the women who do it all to win it all.
Women’s Football Alliance conference semifinal
Tampa Bay Inferno at D.C. Divas, 6 p.m. Saturday