The landscape of football in America is one of grit and passion that has advanced alongside 100 years of athletic and technological evolution.
In this last century, football has been an physical spectacle pitting man against man in a competitive turf war. While men’s-only leagues dominate public awareness, the Cleveland Fusion are a part of the next step in that evolution: breaking down social constructs through women’s football.
“This is a sports town, women are as passionate as the men and football is the dominant sport,” Fusion General Manager Tom Monachino says. “Cleveland women know football.”
This isn’t some kind of feminist manifesto; it’s a glimpse into the next frontier in this sport. The Cleveland Fusion are part of the Women’s Football Association (WFA), which was established in 2007. The WFA facilitates 63 teams across the country broken up into three divisions, with Cleveland as one of 10 teams in the top group. After the regular season, there are two playoff rounds followed by the W Bowl, which will be in Atlanta July 28.
Though the Fusion have been involved in competitive play since 2001, the WFA provided the Fusion with benefits that other leagues couldn’t. As an operating non-profit, the WFA charges franchised teams 70 percent less than other women’s football leagues and gives 75 percent of money raised back into its teams. This is a winning formula that ensures the teams can count on players sticking around with their teams and help build a culture of women’s football.
For many locals, the Fusion might be their introduction to women’s football in general, but Cleveland has a fairly rich history in this arena.
“Cleveland had a successful team that enjoyed a very successful nine-year run between 1971 and 1979, then came back into existence as the Fusion in 2001,” Monachino explains. In addition, the Cleveland Brewers won a National Women’s Football League championship in 1983 before the league exchanged tackling for flag football in the mid ‘80s.
Right now, the timing couldn’t be better for women’s football in Cleveland and across the country. In 2017, 43 of 45 spots on the U.S. National Women’s Football Team were filled by WFA players. In addition, two players from the Cleveland Fusion, Elizabeth Dillow, offensive line, and Maria Jackson, alternate wide receiver, were selected for the six-team IFAF Women’s World Championship, which culls players from around the world. Incredibly, not a single WFA player was named to the U.S. National Team in 2011. By 2013, 96 percent of the roster was made up of WFA players, proving that the WFA is at the pinnacle of women’s football.
For those imagining women’s football as a watered-down version of the game, think again. This is real hard-hitting tackle football fielding all-female rosters and coached by real football personnel. However, if you haven’t heard tale of the league you’re not alone. Most of the players had to hear about it from players they ran into or a friend of a friend. “Right now, we are competing with the Cavs, Monsters, Indians, and Browns,” Monachino says. “We believe we have a great story to tell.”
The Fusion battle it out at Mustang Stadium at Maple Heights High School, where they practice and play their home games. Again, this is real tackle football. How real? The athletes on these squads play old school “Ironman” football, a concept that would have made John Madden blush. Ironman football is a format men’s leagues from middle school to the NFL have pretty much abandoned since the 1960s. American football requires mental and physical toughness, a strong fortitude of mind and body most people regardless of gender don’t possess. However, it’s just a part of the game in the WFA and the Fusion’s players have proven they have what it takes.
With four playoff appearances in the last five years, the Fusion are a formidable bunch. In 2018, the only thing on this team’s mind is the W Bowl championship trophy which still eludes them. While the Fusion battle for the title, the WFA itself pushes towards it’s major goal: increased media coverage.
The W Bowl championship is aired on ESPN3, but coverage of women’s football is still limited. The fight for media exposure should eventually get a bit easier with the increased interest in women’s sports. Women’s football is coming along at a time when women’s UFC is getting international recognition, and women’s college and Olympic hockey both receive ample coverage. It stands to reason we will see women’s football infiltrate the NCAA in the near future.
Yes, every athlete on any team overcame the odds and fought through adversity. Women in football had to first break down the door and then fight to partake in a sport they were told growing up they weren’t supposed to play. Players like Shanolen Kendall, who plays on the offensive and defensive line and goes by the nickname BigDawg, know they’re as good as the boys because they played them everyday.
“I’ve been an athlete all my life, thought it was cool to get out there and play with the guys,” Kendall says, explaining that she played football and basketball starting in elementary school. “I tried out for the high school team with the same guys I’d play with in the streets. The coach said they couldn’t let a woman play football even though I played raw street football with the guys going hard everyday. So this sport has always been in my blood.”
Other players like Tiffany Johnson, who’s seen duty as a center and tight end, gravitate toward football as a means to exercise the competitive spirit they developed in a life of team sports.
“I heard about the team from a friend,” Johnson says. “I tried out and made it, which was big for me because I missed being involved in team sports and I missed the competition.”
Each player has her own story of how she came to suit up for the Fusion, but they all have lives away from the game. Women of all ages participate, from a 17-year-old running back to a 50-year-old grandmother who helps anchor the offensive and defensive line. They all come from a variety of backgrounds and occupations. One coach is a Cleveland police officer. Another is an engineer. The team brings videographers, military personnel, and other types of Clevelanders together, some of whom drive longer than an hour for practices and games. Women’s football doesn’t exactly pay the bills, but these players have dedicated a part of their busy lives to partaking in and advancing the sport.
“Outside of playing football, I work with adults with disabilities and am also a mother of an 8-year old, which is a job in itself,” says Janell Clements, who plays on both lines and at running back. “Fitting football into my life, being an active mom, and working was also hard, but now it’s just a part of life.”
With that mindset, the Fusion are ready to compete, but the WFA is not solely about winning championships. The league also acts as a talent pool for the NFL. Yes, the WFA is on the NFL’s radar as the league can prepare women for NFL careers. The San Francisco 49ers brought on former Kansas City Titan Katie Sowers as an full-time assistant coach in 2017 after her experience as a player and an internship with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, a season that would see the Falcons reach the Super Bowl. Former Pittsburgh Passion player Stephanie Balochko has been a part of the Pittsburgh Steelers intern coaching staff for over a year and is regarded as the frontrunner to be the first female head coach in NFL history. The WFA is providing itself the real deal in giving women’s football some serious recognition.
The Fusion are in an uphill battle for recognition in a city saturated with live sports offerings. While that’s part of being in a league that’s simultaneously fighting public perceptions and gender normality, the women of the Fusion are playing a role in changing what people think when they see a football. In the end, perhaps the women grinding it out on the field today will be part of the fabled names that inspire the football dreams of tomorrow’s daughters and granddaughters.
The Fusion in the Community
As a member of the Greater Cleveland area, the Fusion are no strangers to community-building initiatives. Since the team’s inaugural season, the importance of spreading goodwill off the field has proven to be a major component to the team’s culture.
Some of the team’s community efforts are designed to get girls interested in football at a young age. One initiative involves working with Cleveland-area Girl Scouts to present the game of football to the next generation as a legitimate option for young women. The team is also involved in numerous flag football clinics put together in partnership with the NFL. These activities not only promote the team but also deliver the message to the young women of tomorrow looking for a future in football.
“We work actively with as many groups as possible in Cleveland to make a Fusion game an affordable, family-friendly event,” General Manager Tom Monachino says, laying out what we can expect in future community outreach contributions from the team. “At our home games this year, we are showcasing youth sports teams from across Northeast Ohio, and we are doing a fundraiser for the Cuyahoga County Animal Shelter. We are also beginning to work with businesses to promote diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace, using the Fusion as an example. You’ll find Fusion players volunteering across the area, helping to promote local 501c3’s and the work that they do.”
In what will be regarded as the biggest acquisition for the 2018 season, the Fusion landed a major partnership with MetroHealth. This deal will make MetroHealth the primary healthcare provider for members of the team and opens up a bevy of opportunities for building community awareness. This partnership lends major league legitimacy to women’s football in Cleveland and an opportunity to promote health and wellness under the Fusion banner.