TAMPA — When Kim Shaw was a little girl, she really wanted to play football.
She spent countless hours up at the middle and high school fields in Plant City watching her five older brothers run back and forth between the end zones. And, as little sisters tend to do, she hoped to follow in their footsteps. She wanted to lace up her cleats and make slightly smaller prints in the grass where her brothers’ had been.
“My dad was going to let me play, but my mom said no,” Shaw said. “So, she made me cheer. But I only cheered for one year, and I told her I wasn’t doing that again. I was either playing football or I was just watching it.”
Fast forward to 2021. Saturday, Shaw, 55, will start in the postseason; it’s her 20th season playing women’s tackle football in Tampa.
“People are always asking me, ‘When you gonna stop playing?’ When my body tells me to,” Shaw said. “And when my body says, ‘Okay, Kim. This is enough. I’ve had enough,’ then I’ll stop. But, right now, it’s not telling me that.”
She rediscovered football as an adult when a youth baseball coaching opportunity turned into a chance to coach youth football in Sarasota. One of Shaw’s players asked why she didn’t play tackle football with his mom. Surprised, she asked him where his mom played, so she could check it out herself. That was in 2000.
Tampa Bay Inferno owner Jen Moody compared Shaw’s age-defying performances to that of another, slightly younger quarterback in the area: Tom Brady. This made Shaw laugh. She wants an interview with the future Hall of Famer, who turns 44 in August, to tell him he’s got at least 10 years left in the NFL. If she can do it, while also running a lawn service and pursuing her bachelor’s degree in software development, why can’t the GOAT?
Unlike Brady, the 5-foot-5, 173-pound Shaw doesn’t have professional trainers or dieticians. To keep up with her 28- to 30-year-old teammates, she simply abstains from soda, avoids fast food and tries her best to stay away from sweets (although she candidly admitted the latter has been increasingly difficult). Instead of a stringent workout regimen, she makes sure to walk 5 or 10 miles every day.
Like many of her Inferno teammates, the two-time Women’s Football Alliance All-American has played sports her entire life. As a girl, Shaw tried her hand at softball (which she played in college) and baseball with the boys. She played all over both diamonds: on the mound, at shortstop, in centerfield and behind the plate. Pitching, though, is where she said her arm comes from.
“I pitched against boys,” Shaw said. “So I could throw a curveball. I could throw a slider, a fastball.”
When she was in her 30s, she said she could throw a football 50, 65 yards. She’s still good for a solid 35 or 40.
But what is it that keeps pulling her back to the game? Twenty years is a long time to be doing any one thing, especially something as physically grueling as football.
One of her older brothers inspired her. Anthony “Tony” Shaw, a year her senior, was a rare athletic talent, Shaw said. Youth league teams fought over which roster the safety/running back would play on. But when he was 12, he ran into their dad’s trailer, busting his head open and developing epilepsy. That meant no more sports.
“I’m pretty sure he would’ve been on somebody’s professional team because that’s how good he was,” Shaw said. “My whole life, I always wanted to be like him.”
The love of football her brother instilled has been nurtured by the women she has played alongside and the men who have coached her.
“I love interacting with them and giving them knowledge,” Shaw said. “I’ve got people I feel like I can depend on.”
Inferno linebacker and occasional backup quarterback Jen Marshall said she’s learned a lot from Shaw.
“She can run any position that you need,” Marshall said. “She knows one day the game is done for her, but what can she continue to pass on to us to keep growing the game?”
Off the field, Shaw is just as forthcoming. Marshall called her “an open book” who would do anything for her teammates. Every morning, she texts their group chat about embracing their “lion mentality” — the team’s 2021 catchphrase meaning to conquer whatever’s thrown their way — for the day ahead.
Perhaps one of Shaw’s most touching team relationships is the one she has with head coach Johnny Green. She said Green is like a little brother, which isn’t something most quarterbacks can say of their head coach. He enjoys reminding her — often — that she’s the older of the two.
“I ask her all the time if she has an AARP card,” Green said in between laughs.
The relationship between a coach and quarterback is a pivotal one. But the friendship Shaw and Green have transcends the sport.
“We will always be there for each other no matter what,” Green said.
Aside from Saturday’s playoff matchup against the D.C. Divas, Shaw and Green have traveled to every away game with each other during his six-year tenure with the team. Photos from their trip to North Carolina for a playoff game against the Phoenix a couple of years ago popped up in Green’s Facebook memories this week. They always book their flights at the same time and try to wake up early enough to explore cities together.
Sometimes Green’s 12- and 16-year-old sons make the trips, too. Shaw asks about them regularly, and he, in turn, inquires about her dad. They go out for lunch or dinner together even in the offseason. Occasionally, they bring each other candy. And you might find them fighting over apple Laffy Taffy.
How much longer Shaw will sit under center remains to be seen, but Green emphasized the importance of taking the playoffs one game at a time. The Inferno will have to win two against teams in the league’s top division to make the national championship game and give Shaw a third chance at her first Women’s Football Alliance title.
She came in this season and did exactly what she needed to do, Green said. Throwing, leading, teaching, motivating. He doesn’t know where this undefeated Inferno squad would be without her. He doesn’t know where the league would be either.
“As this league moves forward and even this team moves forward, there’s something (that) needs to symbolize what she has meant to this team and what she has meant to this league at her age,” Green said. “Whether there’s something that’s being named after her, just to pay homage to what she has done and will continue to do for women’s football.”
That young girl who lived on the sidelines in Plant City would be proud.
Women’s Football Alliance conference semifinal
Tampa Bay Inferno at D.C. Divas, 6 p.m. Saturday