Maine women take to the gridiron

Full Contact
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  April 8, 2010

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GIRDED FOR BATTLE The women of the Maine Rebels.

Saturday will be a different kind of ladies’ night at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland. At 8 pm, the Maine Rebels — Maine’s only semi-professional football team, a member of the International Women’s Football League — will face the New Jersey Justice, in their first home game of the season.

The team’s motto is: “Real Women . . . Playing Real Football . . . It’s the Real Deal” — and yes, that means that there’s full-contact tackling involved.

“You feel like you’ve been in a car accident at the end of every game,” admits quarterback Brooke Harris, 37, who used to play for the state’s other female football team, the Maine Freeze. (The Maine Rebels roster is the result of merging the Southern Maine Rebels with the Freeze, a development that happened last year.) But while Harris, a Portland resident, admits that she has “absolutely no idea” how she got so deeply involved with women’s football, she’s discovered an affinity for it. “I remember the first time I hit someone well,” she says, “and that it felt amazing.”

With 24 players, many of whom boast previous playing experience, Rebels co-owner Gloria Verrill hopes to have a successful season. She points to the team camaraderie as one of the Rebels’ biggest strengths, one that helps new players get acclimated.

“Watching it on TV, it looks so easy,” says Verrill, who works during the day as a math teacher at Lake Region High School. But once a player takes to the field, “it’s physically and intellectually challenging. A lot of rookies are overwhelmed at first.”

Diana Duff, a mom from Cumberland, is in her first year as a Rebel. “I was really nervous the first time I was going to get hit. But I think when your adrenaline’s pumping, it hurts less,” she says (by phone from a physical therapist’s office, where she was having work done on a pulled muscle in her calf). “I’m bruised all over. But it’s been great.”

Players pay $1000 to be on the Rebels (a fundraising program is available to help those who can’t pay out of pocket); they get a free gym membership and other small perks in addition to the oft-cited empowering intangibles. They’ve been practicing together since January at the Expo Center, the University of New England, and on the field, under the supervision of coach Monty Ellison and a few assistant coaches (also male). They lost their first game of the season, against the highly ranked New England Intensity, last week (28-0).

Over the course of their eight-game season, the team is hoping to capitalize not only on the novelty of women tackling women, but on a more generalized sports fever that seems to be spreading through the state.

Last week, executives from state government, minor-league sports teams, and local businesses met to discuss “the business of sports” — including the possible creation of a Maine Sports Commission that would coordinate statewide sports marketing, solicit sponsorship for sports events, and bid to bring big-name tournaments to Maine. Department of Economic and Community Development commissioner Thaxter Trafton says such a commission would “without question help the state of Maine in more than one way,” namely by bringing tourism dollars to the state (Pat Eltman of the state’s Department of Tourism also supports the idea).

The real momentum, though, is coming not from the government but from the private side, says University of Southern Maine sports management professor Jo Williams. She says a commission would “drive economic development through sports, and bring in people from all over the country.” She, Barbara Whitten of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Portland, Brian Corcoran of the Shamrock Sports Group, and several others plan to meet next week to draw up a more specific plan.

Tickets to Rebels games are $8; kids 12 and under get in free. Season passes are $20 (there are four home games). Learn more at southernmainerebels.com.

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