By Sloane Martin, WCCO Radio

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A slow, but persistent trickle of women have made inroads in the sport of football recently.

Last Friday night in Florida a 16-year-old girl became the first to ever start a high school football game in the state — and at quarterback, no less. The San Francisco 49ers hired the second female full-time assistant in National Football League history, and the Vikings’ College Scouting Coordinator and Director of Football Administration are both women.

But for one local team, women in football is a natural fit.

Saturday, several dozen were on the grass at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington with the Minnesota Vixen, a women’s tackle football team in its 20th season.

Their backgrounds are diverse. Kiersten Hansen, the quarterback, is an executive administrator. Defensive tackle Cynthia Bryant is a high school dean and grandmother of four. Head coach and owner Laura Brown is a pharmacist. Some are former or active members of the military, students, engineers and more.

At the second tryout ahead of the spring season, the hopefuls took part in agility drills regularly seen at the NFL combine, caught passes on a go-route, ran 40-yard sprints, pushed a 250-pound football sled 20 yards and hit the weight room for recorded leg and bench press. The coaching staff of seven is not just looking at skill — that development comes in the months ahead when the pads and helmets finally come on — but also athleticism and footwork.

Some don’t have any football experience or even own cleats, but they’re here because they want to be on a team and they want to compete. Almost all are former athletes who grew up playing team sports and some continued in college with intramurals. Tackle football becomes a new, fun challenge that was previously closed off.

Brown, a former Vixen player, and her husband James acquired the team in 2014. She said being able to play with a helmet and pads made her see the game differently.

“I fell in love with the team,” she said. “The opportunity, I thought, was such a great and unique opportunity for women to be able to participate in the sport. As someone who’s a long-term football fan, it was something that I was super excited to actually get out on the field because it would allow me to learn the sport from that aspect of it.”

Bryant has been on the Vixen since the very beginning. Other Vixen veterans called her a “pioneer” who started back when professional women’s tackle football in 1999 consisted of the Vixen and the Lake Michigan Minx competing against each other in a barnstorming tour.

“We hit hard,” she said. “We’re serious. Just take us serious. We’re not asking to be better than men. We’re asking just to take us seriously. And women need to come out and — I see so many women at the NFL games and all that — women need to start supporting women and coming out.”

The Vixen compete in the 60-team Women’s Football Alliance, a league that’s been a springboard for women to the NFL. During the eight-week regular season from April to June they played in Kansas City, Chicago and Madison, traveling by bus, finished 7-3 and advanced to the playoffs. They play their home games at Simley High School in Inver Grover Heights. Hansen said it’s common to get a couple hundred fans per game and they’ve nearly reached 1,000.

The Vixen use a youth-size football, but everything else is exactly what you’d see in the NCAA. Like other sports teams’ season tickets and merchandise sales create revenue to support travel, but they also depend on fundraising. The players pay training fees but can garner sponsorships, like a tennis or golf player. Sometimes a win-win relationship provides a boost. For instance the Vixen get to use the fields at Northwestern to practice; in return Northwestern students have access to the athletes as part of their education.

Hansen credits the leadership of Brown and longtime veterans like Bryant for keeping the team going, even through some “lean years.” They believed in the sport and the importance of the product they put out — and of course, in women. They’re also constantly in recruit mode, as I learned. Bryant said my height and long wing span would make me a good fit at tight end.

Once the roughly 50-member team is chosen in November, they’ll train in the gym and open the playbook. For many players who are fans of the game, that means a deep-dive into complicated schemes and esoteric language. Returning players lauded the coaching staff’s annual back-to-basics education that equips players with a deep knowledge of the sport.

During the season it’s often a four-night-a-week commitment, not including travel and film study. For Hansen, it’s all worth it.

“Yes, we want to play football and yes we want to be competitive and yes we want to hit people and all that, but at the end of the day, this is about an incredible opportunity for all women,” Hansen, who is entering her third year with the Vixen, said. “An incredible opportunity for women to play a sport that’s been typically male dominated. And to be a part of something like that that’s growing, that’s giving women an opportunity to set examples, not only for young girls, but for young boys as well to see that, yes indeed women can play a sport like this and do it well.”

Women of many ages, shapes and experience levels were out Saturday, hoping to latch on to a team with longevity and leadership that’s seen the franchise — and sport — come a long way.

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