Rotterdam resident Melissa Messemer proudly shows off her pink camouflage jersey.
She’ll wear it for the first time Saturday, when the women’s football team she owns and plays for has its home opener at Schenectady High School. The team will face off against the Maine Rebels at 6 p.m.
This is the team’s inaugural season.
Called the NY Knockout, the 28-member team plays in the Texas-based Independent Women’s Football League, created in 2000. Most team members are from the Capital Region, though a handful come from Connecticut. According to the IWFL website, the league has 51 teams throughout North America. The closest teams to the Capital Region are in New York City and New England.
No experience is required to play for the Knockout. It’s understood that most women did not play organized football growing up. The women who try out, however, are “usually athletes,” Messemer said. “They think football sounds like a great idea, but they have no experience other than flag football.”
Rexford resident Kim Mills is the Knockout’s quarterback. This is her first season playing organized football.
“I grew up with three brothers,” said Mills, a 36-year-old physician’s assistant. “I was a tomboy. I’ve played football in the backyard constantly my whole life.”
A “lifelong soccer player,” she said she had always “dreamed of playing tackle football.”
When she learned about the Knockout, she decided to try out.
“I’d never put a helmet on before,” she said. “But I was like, ‘I have to do it.’ ”
Mills said she loves playing football.
“It’s empowering,” she said. “It’s challenging, mentally and physically. The girls on the team are very athletic and very determined.”
They’re also very competitive, which Mills likes.
Messemer has been playing football for 11 years. She said she saw an advertisement for the now-defunct women’s football team the Albany Night-Mares and decided to try out.
Give it a try
“I love football,” she said. “My brother played, and my father played. I thought, ‘I might as well give it a try.’ ”
In the years since, Messemer has played for teams that have come and gone, including the Albany Ambush and NY Nemesis. Last season, she played with the Northeastern Nitro in Schenectady, but the team owners decided to return to Connecticut.
“We assumed their spot as team owners,” Messemer said.
Messemer, 37, played soccer, basketball and track growing up, and was an All-American soccer player at Alfred University. But she said playing football is different.
“The physicality of football makes it different from any other sport women can play, other than hockey or rugby,” she said. “There’s not as much space between you and everyone else.”
Messemer is an offensive lineman for the Knockout.
“I’ve played every position besides skill positions,” she said. “I haven’t played quarterback.”
“Not yet,” her husband, Rich, interjected.
Rich Messemer coaches the Knockout. He started coaching youth football after graduating from Tamarac High School in Rensselaer County, but switched to coaching women when his wife began playing.
“We’ve done this as a family from day one,” Melissa Messemer said, noting the couple’s children, ages 13, 11 and 10, attend all of the games except those in Canada.
Melissa Messemer works as a recess monitor a couple of hours a day, and Rich Messemer is a control operator at Momentive Performance Materials in Waterford. Rich Messemer, 48, said he enjoys coaching women.
“The most rewarding thing is having a player come to me who doesn’t know anything about the game, and seeing a light bulb go off in their head when they finally get it, when they see that their hard work has paid off,” he said.
The Messemers believe interest in women’s football is growing. If so, the increase comes at a time when scrutiny of the game and its impact on players’ bodies and minds, is greater than ever. In particular, more people are voicing concerns about brain injuries and damage associated with head injuries sustained on the field.
Rich Messemer said equipment advances are helping to provide better protection for players, and players who follow the rules and play right are less likely to suffer debilitating injuries. For instance, he said, players should avoid tackling with their head down.
“Injuries are a part of sport,” Messemer said. “Like anything else, there’s an inherent risk, but I think there’s a reward that outweighs that risk.”
Mills said her husband has been “dead set” against her playing football, largely because of the risk of injury.
“My argument has been that you only live once,” she said. “Playing football has been a dream of mine. It’s worth the risk to live a dream.”
She said her husband and children plan to attend the home opener, as do many of her relatives.
Mostly NCAA rules
The IWFL follows NCAA rules, but with one notable exception: In college football, a ball carrier who falls to the ground on their own is considered down, and the play is over, but in the IWFL, just like in the NFL, where a player needs to be touched by the opposing team to be considered down and can get up and continue running if they are not touched.
The IWFL also uses a youth football to accommodate female players’ smaller hands.
The IWFL season comprises eight games, and ends with its own Super Bowl the first weekend of August in Texas.
It’s not too late to join the Knockout.
Women interested in trying out for the team can email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the team’s website, www.nyknockoutfootball.com, for more information.