It was a sunny day with a few high clouds at a sports complex south of Richmond, Va., last Saturday. Two Women’s Tackle Football League teams, the local black-blue clad River City Sting and visiting grey-red-black Connecticut-based Reapers Women’s Football, were warming up.
It was the season opener for the visiting team. For the most of the players, it was the beginning of yet another season.
For of one them, a writer who takes George Plimpton as a model of a “participatory journalist”, the game was an unexpected dream.
It was an unexpected dream — for me.
I haven’t stepped on a football field in full pads since being reserve fodder in high school some 35 years ago. Yet, there I was with a stomach full of butterflies and a band of sisters ready to play.
And I asked myself: “Well, how did I get here?”
It started at Pride
On a different sunny day last June, I was at a Pride festival in West Hartford, Conn. A swirl of happy noise, bumping music, bright colors, and people wearing anything and everything.
I was in a football jersey done in trans pride salmon-azure-cream with a matching skirt and socks in the trans flag pattern.
And, I was carrying a football.
I ran into an old friend who had played on one of the many women’s tackle football teams that have come and gone locally. She told me about a team that had a tent at this festival, and prodded me to check them out and maybe even consider playing.
I balked at first, because of a critical question that every trans person asks when it comes to sports: Will the league or organizers let me play? How will I be perceived by other players for us and them?
Will I be accepted?
I also thought in practical terms. I doubt any team is looking for a 51 year old at any position, but maybe they need a videographer.
The team was Reapers Women’s Football, a squad based in Western Connecticut. I walked up to their tent and met a group of proud, intimidating and serious players who looked like they would gear up at a moment’s notice and tee it up.
It was stark contrast to me looking like an anime-magical girl interpretation of American football.
We ended up talking and playing catch with my ball. One of the players noticed.
“She looks like she might be able to play”
The team’s administrator Sonya Fluskey asked, “You ever thought about playing football?”
I answered, “Could I?”
Her response planted the seed. “We’re a women’s football team — for all women.”
I ended up buying a team T-shirt and taking one of their flyers for their first tryout practices to start in August. I left that Pride festival thinking I’d forget all about it.
It grew through practice
I had decided the night before that I would go to that first tryout practice at a school in Danbury, Conn.
My plan was to just blend in, hustle and learn how they do things. I hoped to fly under the radar and subtly, slowly, show my skills.
That plan lasted maybe 10 seconds. I came into practice and immediately Fluskey recognized me from Pride, and so did a few of the other players.
The practice began with me feeling that new-kid-on-the-first-day-of-school nervousness. It ended with Reapers starting quarterback Sam Valentino, a league all star game MVP, throwing me a corner route.
I made a diving catch to haul it in.
I heard cheers from the entire team as I ran back to the huddle. Another team member, Ana Villafane, told me, “You better play for us!”
There were more practices through the fall. I went to a lot of them, and with each one my hunger to play grew. But I also had to pay for it. In much of the women’s game, you pay to play and that includes league fees and buying your own equipment.
Trust me, the protective trappings of football aren’t cheap.
The calendar leapt into 2023 and cold weather put us in an indoor practice field — every Saturday driving through darkness to make a 6:30 a.m. session.
Each practice and film session got more intense. By mid-February we got into pads and learned even more about who I’d ride onto the field with.
This teams most aggressive players were also aggressive about leading and teaching. Tyena “Bear” Smith and Brittney “Poodah” Edwards, both among the best interior players in the league, were upgrading my technique at the line of scrimmage. If they weren’t getting me used to being physical again, fellow vets Sandy Ortiz and Ashley Reed — our youngest Reaper — were.
Fluskey, who is our center when she’s not running the day-to-day operations, and Elizabeth “Els” Lanfear, who is pretty much a “lifer” in this game, double-teamed me more than once. Special shout-out to Els’ spouse/unofficial “team mom” Gretchen, who loaned me a modern-spec helmet and shoulder pads for the season.
I gotta mention Nicole Cruz, because she gave me my first “welcome to the Reapers” moment in pads when she planted me like carrot during a scrimmage, along with our starting quarterback’s spouse.
Tina Valentino is a fullback who wears John Riggins’ jersey number and runs like him. Don’t tackle her high. I learned that one the hard way.
I was also running hard to keep up with our fastest players, led by Aniyah Booker. She’s our speed receiver/speed halfback/speed quarterback. Sprinting to chase her during wind sprints at those early morning practices was a shock to the system.
Not to be outdone was her defensive counterpart, Jessica “Sky” Schuyler. She’s an incredible safety, and plays alongside a twin dynamic diminutive duo at cornerback: Mi-Shae and Mo-Nae Dula.
As we got closer to our first game, I noticed I was picking up the fundamentals and the playbook, and getting a lot of support. I wasn’t just a running back-linebacker-defensive end. The vibe from my teammates, our head coach-offensive coordinator Gary Maigis and our intense defensive coordinator Laurence Pierce said a clear unspoken message: Karleigh, you are one of us now.
That extended off the field, too. I was in a production of the “Vagina Monologues” in February. Some of my teammates came to see me perform. A group of us did the same when fellow rookie Lauren Todd was in a theatrical production this month.
They opened up to me, and made it easy for me to do same. That’s special for anyone coming into a new team. But for a transgender person, especially a transgender woman pursuing sports in this climate we’re living in right now?
Support from an entire squad of cisgender women is priceless.
By March, we were practicing outside. With two weeks left to the opening kickoff, I received my jerseys. One home and one road with “REAPERS” on the front, “Webb” on the back, and “46” as my chosen number.
I took “46” as a homage to a favorite player from my youth, former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback and long-time head coach Herman Edwards. The number is also a tribute to the age when I came out to myself and moved forward in my transition.
I tried on my jerseys through a lot of happy tears. I would feel a lot of emotions all the way to a car trip south, and a Saturday kickoff.
20 seconds left to halftime.
We were up on the Sting 20-0. A lot of offense came from Tina Valentino crashing tackle to tackle. Booker scored three touchdowns in the first half, and four in total.
My own game was a mix of enthusiasm and more than 30 years of rust, including a whiff on a tackle where only a penalty flag saved me from six points of embarrassment.
I was having fun! I was blocking and tackling. I ran the ball twice for solid gains. I felt like I was 10 years old again, flying around in full pads.
As time ticked down in the first half, the Sting needed to score some points, so they spread the field. Our defensive backs were in man coverage. I was the roving middle linebacker with a responsibility to shadow their quarterback.
On the snap the quarterback half-rolled to her right. The slot receiver was on that side working a seam route. Sky was playing off of her, while I was floating back, slightly reading the quarterback. If she tried to scramble again, I’d have to chase her down.
She threw the ball toward that receiver.
I broke on the ball and I snagged it with both hands.
From there, it was one move past their tackle. When I looked up, I saw daylight and I accelerated. Bear and Poodah screened the quarterback as I raced downfield.
Don’t get caught from behind!
Everything was a blur as I ran and, as I heard the PA announcer say, “there’s no flags!” I felt myself smile.
I zoomed past the goal line to complete a 60-yard interception return, the first pick-six in Reapers history. I was in shock and happy as my teammates mobbed me in the end zone.
It was my first touchdown since I was in ninth grade. Ronald Reagan was president back then.
We ended up winning by a score of 42-6, with a lot of smiles amid soreness all around.
I was tired, sore, and bawling out of pure joy to get to play a sport I love, and to bring all of me to the field of play.
The happy tears gushed when Coach Gary had me lead the “breakdown” cheer. My voice was high-pitched. I had little-kid energy mixed with a lot of gratitude for my chosen football family. There’s a lot to be said for being included, especially on a playing field.
“Thank you,” I exclaimed through my tears with all hands in the huddle. “Thank you for letting me be a part of this team! I love this team! Great win today! Reapers on me! Reapers on three! 1-2-3 REAPERS!”
The emotions have stayed with me since then, even as we gear up for the home opener Saturday. The scouting report on the visiting Virginia Lady Devils says they are fast and formidable.
I look forward to hitting the field alongside my teammates. I know they have my back, and I have theirs.
There is strength in inclusion.
(Would you like to see the full game I just wrote about? Click this link.)