IT’S A GIRL THING: Women’s tackle football becoming big hit in Colorado, across the country

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AURORA | Kim Fornall stares at spreadsheets all day long, so it’s no wonder she likes to get out and hit people later.

As a cost controller who crunches numbers for an oil and gas company, the Aurora-born Fornall doesn’t exactly get many thrills on a day-to-day basis. At least until she punches out.

Then, the 28-year-old turns her attention to her new obsesssion: football. Fornall is in her second year on the Mile High Blaze women’s semipro football team and it’s taken over her life in a major way.

“When it hits 5 o’clock, it’s time to go play football,” Fornall said at a recent Blaze practice. “By nature, I’m not a physical, aggressive person, so football doesn’t really match my personality, but I love it.”

Tackle football has become a love for Fornall and an increasing number of women around Colorado and across the nation. The Blaze are part of the Women’s Football Alliance, an organization that has grown to more than 60 teams nationwide and supplied most of the players who just went and represented the USA in international competition.

The Blaze — which has a roster heavy with players either from Aurora or current residents — play in the WFA’s second-largest group, Division II. They finished their regular season undefeated, beat the Sin City Trojans out of Las Vegas 28-14 in the opening round of the DII playoffs and head to St. Louis for a July 8 semifinal game against the St. Louis Slam.

Tonii Triplett, right, runs with the football as Chantel Hernandez is about to hit her with a pad during a contact drill at a practice for the Mile High Blaze women’s semipro football team on June 24 at Barnum Park. (Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

‘IT’S FOOTBALL, NOT WOMEN’S FOOTBALL’

Lest anybody snicker, women’s tackle football — the way the Blaze play it — is just like the men’s game, though the ball is a bit smaller to accomodate women’s generally smaller hands.

Blaze coach Terry Lister, an Aurora resident, tells people to put their preconceived notions aside and come out to watch. He gives a virtual money-back guarantee for what they’ll see.

“I tell people, ‘if you come out to one of our games and you’re not impressed, I’ll give you your admission back,’” said Lister, who has been with the team for all four years of its existence.

“If you come out here and don’t know what to expect, you’ll see girls hitting, running and throwing like dudes,” he added. “It’s football, not women’s football. I treat them like football players and they like that mutual respect. They are legitimate athletes.”

Ty Lowery-Jones, a former Division I basketball player who is now a quarterback and wide receiver for the Blaze, said it doesn’t take long to open the eyes of people watching the team play for the first time.

“I think most people expect some powderpuff stuff, but it’s just like the men: full-padded, full-hitting,” Lowery-Jones said. “The coaches teach us tackling technique and we don’t go out there to hug.

“When guys come out to a game and see that first hit, they are like ‘Oh, OK!’ and they get excited. Women are competitive by nature and everybody is putting themselves in harm’s way to be out here. You better be competitive or you’re going to get hurt.”

Members of the Blaze emphasize they don’t play the brand of indoor, arena-style football seen in the Legends Football League — the “lingerie football league” — but one of their players does both. Sasha Cruz, who also lives in Aurora, is a linebacker for the Blaze and also suits up for the Loveland-based Denver Dream of the LFL.

Cruz had no football background at all, but she’s hit the ground running as a member of two teams. She attempted to play in the LFL while she lived in Minnesota, but found no LFL team when she moved to Colorado. Cruz joined the Blaze, then tried out for the Dream when the team was created.

The LFL is a faster-paced game played on a smaller field and is designed more for entertainment.

Mile High Blaze coach Terry Lister, right, gives instructions to his offensive players during a practice for the women’s semipro tackle football team June 24 at Barnum Park. Because of their inexperience with the game, Lister calls the women he works with ‘sponges,’ who soak up football basics. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

FOOTBALL ‘SPONGES’

Lister has coached men’s semipro football teams in the past and grew tired of battling egos and combating the frustrations of bad habits and selfishness many male players developed from playing the game since they were kids.

With the women he coaches — most of whom have no previous knowledge of the game’s fundamentals — Lister finds a refreshingly blank slate to work with.

“The great thing about women is they are teachable,” Lister said. “In men’s semipro football, you have a bunch of egos, guys who think they know it all and have been playing football their whole lives. Women haven’t. They are just sponges. They don’t have any bad habits, so you just develop good habits and hope they keep them.”

Fornall, the team’s starting left guard, admits it has been a whirlwind over the last two years as she’s learned the intricacies of the game — especially as a member of the offensive line — but she sees the results pay off on the field.

“I think the hardest thing for us is we have coaches who grew up playing football, know the basics and think we should know it like second nature,” she said. “The struggle for them is to remember to dumb it down for us and teach us the basics since we haven’t done it before. I’ve learned so much every year I’ve played. There are so many nuances to the game.”

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Football is about much more than winning for each and every woman on the Blaze roster, an eclectic mix that ranges from a fresh-faced 21-year-old to a 49-year-old grandmother.

Maddy Fauth, who went to Aurora’s Grandview High School, found a “complete atmosphere of camaraderie” when she came out to play for the Mile High Blaze and it helped her get through some trying times in her personal life. (Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

It’s pay to play, so there’s a monetary commitment that comes with it and there’s no shortage of time put in. To accommodate for all the personal commitments of its players, the Blaze often practices from 9-11 p.m., or until the lights get turned off at their regular practice field.

They watch game film two days a week, work fundraisers to earn money to pay for road trips and get together for barbecues.

Essentially, they become a family, which Maddy Fauth found out.

The 25-year-old, who grew up in Aurora and went to Grandview High School, lost her mother about two years ago and had been experiencing some inner turmoil.

Somebody handed Fauth a card for the Blaze as she was leaving a Denver Outlaws lacrosse game and she decided to give it a try. She’s been hooked ever since.

“I lost my mom about two years ago and it was really tough because I didn’t really know what I needed,” Fauth said.

“I loved my job, I had my wife and so I had the picturesque everything you were supposed to have, especially after that kind of traumatic experience, but there was still something missing. After getting out here on the field and meeting the girls, they just create this entire environment of camaraderie. You think you’re walking on to meet new friends, but you just got 45 more girls in your family, so it’s awesome.”

Playing football has revealed a toughness Fauth didn’t know she had and her commitment to her teammates is unwavering. She’s played through a broken thumb for most of the season.

Cruz has found any sacrifices she has to make to play worth it because of the camaraderie she’s found with two different teams.

“Being part of something bigger than you is huge,” Cruz said. “Feeling like you belong with a group of people like that is definitely an amazing feeling.”

ATHLETIC BASE

For an elite athlete like Lowery-Jones, playing football became a natural outlet for the athleticism she used to use on the basketball court.

A highly-touted prep prospect in Texas, Lowery-Jones got a full ride scholarship to the University of Denver and had a successful, though injury-riddled, career with the Pioneers in the mid-2000s. After college, “Smooth,” passed on a chance to play professional basketball in Puerto Rico in order to start her “real life” and avoid the limbo some athletes find themselves in after playing overseas.

Once she’d established herself in Colorado, Lowery-Jones found the Blaze through some friends and took to football immediately. She found that not only did a lot of her basketball footwork translate, but her point guard mentality channeled her perfectly into the role of quarterback.

Kim Fornall, right, has her hair put into a pony tail by teammate Aspen Verdos before the scrimmage portion of practice for the Mile High Blaze, a local women’s semipro tackle football team, June 24 at Barnum Park in Denver. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

“I watched a lot of football so I had a football IQ and it all clicks,” she said.

Though football is a rough sport, Lowery-Jones has found a way to keep herself healthier playing it than she did in basketball. The pounding of the hard courts on her knees led Lowery-Jones to three torn ACLs, two at DU and one in high school.

Fauth’s most recent athletic experience at Grandview consisted of girls lacrosse, which at the prep level is played without hitting. It’s virtually the polar opposite of what she’s found on the gridiron.

“It’s funny they call women’s lacrosse the same sport since you can’t touch each other,” Fauth said. “It’s still an interesting transition to a sport where you are allowed to beat the crap out of each other.”

Fornall spent more than a decade as a dancer and she also played basketball at Pomona High School, a sport she still coaches. She’s thankful for the opportunity to try something new athletically, even if it comes with a greater physical price.

“My body is in rough shape; I’ve got broken bones in both feet,” Fornall said. “We’re all beat up, but when you love it, you still want to go out there.”

Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel