The Boston Renegades are good at football. Really good.
They just won their fourth straight national championship. They haven’t lost a single game since 2018. They average 25 first downs and 53 points per game. They have built a dynasty in the Women’s Football Alliance.
“We like winning,” said Erin Truex, an offensive lineman. “And we’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years.”
Regular readers know I’m no fan of football. But I’m a fan of the Renegades, the best team in a sport where, 50 years after Title IX, women are still barely acknowledged. And who love playing that sport so much that they’re willing to shoulder ridiculous burdens to get on the field each week.
Among the team’s 50 or so players — ages 18 to 49 — are personal trainers, police officers, workers in business and finance and restaurants; there are students in law and medicine, and an electrician who goes straight to her overnight shifts from practice at the Harry Dello Russo stadium in Revere.
They come from all over Massachusetts, and from Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. This season there were two players from Finland, and one from the UK, who moved in with teammates for five months.
Obviously, this game is not for the faint of heart: It is rough and physical and the team expects the same hours and commitment from players as it would if football was their only job. And the players are all too happy to make it happen, juggling impossible schedules and responsibilities. There’s nothing in it besides joy and glory among the small but growing sliver of football fans who know they exist. In fact, playing costs these athletes money. Their $750 annual dues cover some of the team’s expenses, and sponsors and ticket sales cover the rest. They pay for their own travel
Somehow, they manage it. Despite the expense and logistical hurdles, being on the road can be a relief when your players have lives full of responsibilities beyond the game.
Erin Truex, for example, is a fund-raiser for the Mabel Center, which represents asylum seekers pro bono. She’s on the board of a domestic violence shelter, and of a group that provides emergency relief for out-of-work restaurant employees. She also has a 4-year-old. On top of all that, she bartends to pay for travel with the team.
“On the road, we get to do everything a player on the professional level would get to do,” said Michelle McDonough, the team’s business development director. “We play best on the road.”
Still, nobody on this team believes it’s enough to play a grueling and brilliant season of football in addition to keeping the rest of their lives running: They also have to build a constituency for their sport. They have to explain themselves in a country where many, especially men, think football is not for girls or women.
Ideally, their game would speak for itself, but the world isn’t set up like that yet.
“A boy is born and it is assumed he is an athlete,” said McDonough. “A woman can’t just say, ‘I am a football player’ and the world says, ‘Yep, that’s what Erin does.’ She has to explain to you: She wears pads, there are hits, it’s really football.”
“And we wear clothes,” Truex joked.
Few girls play Pop Warner tackle football — maybe a thousand or two out of more than 200,000 kids nationally. For the 2018-19 season, the last for which stats are available from the National Federation of High School Associations, 79 of the 18,000 or so players on 11-player high school football teams in Massachusetts were girls. At the college level, women who join teams — kicker Sarah Fuller, who played in a couple of games at Vanderbilt, or Haley Van Voorhis, recruited as a free safety by Division III school Shenandoah University — make national news.
Truex wants her own daughter and everyone else’s to have more football players to look up to, starting with her teammates on the Renegades.
“I want everyone to know the names of these phenomenal athletes, to know who Chanté Bonds and Allison Cahill are,” she said.
Quarterback Cahill, a personal trainer, has played football for 18 years, and is a seven-time national champion and a five-time league MVP who has amassed over 20,000 passing yards and 300 touchdown passes.
When an ankle injury knocked her out of the lineup before this month’s championship game against the Minnesota Vixen in Canton, Ohio, math teacher and Brockton native Bonds stepped up, with 127 yards rushing, two touchdowns, an MVP award, and the title.
Half the team has wanted to play their whole lives, McDonough said, but couldn’t find a way to do it before now.
“We would love to get to a point where it’s not one girl who has to face it alone,” she said.
As a kid, linebacker Spring Gamble, 29, was that one girl on her team, the Oak Lane Wildcats, in Philadelphia. It wasn’t easy.
“You had a lot of dads, chauvinistic coaches who weren’t used to females being out there,” she said. “I fought through it, and earned the respect of my organization and players.” She’s a high school athletic coach now, and a football coach in her childhood league. There are a couple girls in the club, but none on her team.
Gamble’s commitment to the Renegades is herculean. She travels from Philadelphia every week for practices and games, and pays for a personal trainer in Delaware because she can’t find anybody closer to home who works her hard enough. She estimates being on the team costs her about $15,000 per season.
But she and her teammates toil less in obscurity than they used to. The Patriots organization has made a big fuss over the Renegades these last two seasons, hosting a championship sendoff at Gillette Stadium, and flying them to their title games on the team plane. And this year’s final was televised on ESPN2.
“I feel like the tide is finally turning,” Gamble said. “We’re getting something back from the sport, and people are starting to notice us.”
You don’t have to be a football fan to be glad about that.