Women on the gridiron

Football fans are closer to experiencing the sport they love than they may realize, with next month’

Football fans are closer to experiencing the sport they love than they may realize, with next month’s season opener for Schenectady’s own New York Nemesis.

You’ll find the same rules and equipment as the NFL and a similar intensity. But you’ll notice a different gender under the helmet.

“It’s like any other game. If you close your eyes and don’t think that it’s a girl out there playing, then you’ll say, ‘Whoa! Did you just see that hit?’ ” said Sandra “Gumby” Nesbitt, 40. She plays three positions including wide receiver and safety.

Spectators won’t see timid or dainty gestures. The tackles are real.

“If you’re not on our team and you’re not supposed to be in our area, you better wish you were somewhere else because we’re going to bite you,” Nesbitt said.

While men’s sports have physical power, women’s sports bring finesse, she said. “Of course we’re not as strong as the men, but we’re smarter. We’re agile.”

Nesbitt added, “There’s no showboating out there because we win and lose as a team.”

Leaders behind the 3-year-old New York Nemesis are making a major push to triple attendance, grow community awareness of the Independent Women’s Football League and recruit the next generation of players. Nemesis is one of five tier-one teams in the Northeast Division of the IWFL, which features more than 40 teams overall.

The team originally played on Maritime’s field in downstate New York, but since players were spread across six different states, general manager Diane Wilkinson said it made sense to find a more central location. Last year, the team played at Union College. This season, the 35-member team will play on the new field at Schenectady High School.

Wilkinson, an employee of Schenectady High School, said the Electric City was a natural fit.

“We wanted to choose a place that could decrease the travel time for us all,” she said.

Nemesis is ready to show the community the excitement of women’s tackle football, players said on Saturday after a practice of scripted plays and exercises with coaches.

new opportunity

Because football has never been a woman’s sport in high school, in college or anything after that, Wilkinson said the athletes who join the league come from many backgrounds.

“Basketball players, soccer players, water polo — we have tennis players. We have all sorts of athletes who have played, but growing up played ball in the street with their brothers, played just in the neighborhood, flag football and two-hand touch and have sat on the couch rooting for the Giants with their Dad, and never had a chance to play,” Wilkinson said. “A lot of these women — why do they play? It’s because they’ve always dreamed of playing and here’s the opportunity to play the sport they love.”

Wilkinson didn’t start playing until she was in her 40s. Some people buy a fast car or jump out of an airplane once they reach a certain age, she said.

“Me, I played professional tackle football and it was a dream come true.”

Nesbitt is among five players from Buffalo who commute to Schenectady for games and practices. Ages on the team range from 18 to 47. Some are lawyers, EMTs, businesswomen, teachers and geologists.

It’s Nesbitt’s fifth year playing organized women’s football. She’s watched the game gain popularity but struggle. The Rochester team she once played for folded.

“There wasn’t enough sponsorships. We had issues because we had to support ourselves. So we go into our savings to break our piggy banks for our league fees and travel fees and if you don’t have anyone supporting you and you don’t have a decent job, the team can fold,” Nesbitt said. “The majority of our teams are run for our players.”

nickel and dime

The hunt for local sponsorships remains as Nesbitt cashes in cans collected by devoted fans — something she’s done since she started playing. Sometimes bars and pizza eateries either donate goods to raffle off or collect donations for teams directly.

“Every bit helps,” Nesbitt said

For the love of the game, players pay $500 to join a team, train and play in the women’s league.

“That helps us pay for the field. It helps us pay for six referees and helps us play league dues,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson is reaching out to community stakeholders to garner support and interest.

“We’re reaching out to nonprofits, we’re a chamber member and we’re talking to businesses — we’re trying to make it a real community effort to offer something,” Wilkinson said.

This year, Wilkinson wants people to start talking about women’s football. Weather problems for most of last season put attendance around 75 people per game. This year she hopes for 200 to 300.

“I would really love to see people here.”

Volunteer Heather Allard is an Albany resident and Albany Medical Center employee who is the team’s volunteer treasurer. Allard, who stopped playing in 2007, said it means a lot to her to continue being a part of the family atmosphere and seeing the talent on the team.

“Once you start it’s hard to walk away,” she said. “You’ll have all the memories.”

The first game for the New York Nemesis is April 3 at 7 p.m. at Schenectady High School. They will face the Boston Militia. A pregame tailgating event will be held at Bangkok Thai Bistro. Following the game, a social event will be held at Waterworks in downtown Albany.

Other home games include: April 17 with the Connecticut Crushers, May 1 with the Philly Firebirds and May 8, another match with the Boston Militia.

Tickets are $8 per game and season passes range from $24 to $50.

For more on the Independent Women’s Football League and the New York Nemesis, visit www.NyNemesis.org.

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