COLUMBIA – Once a week for the past six years, Jacki Ray had traveled more than four hours to play football. Making the trip from her home in Jefferson City to either St. Louis or Kansas City had become a routine part of her weekend schedule.
But now, Ray has reduced the mileage she puts on her car from hundreds to about 50 a week. Columbia resident Garrett Falls, Sr., a retired veteran of the Marine Corps, and his wife, Tammy Falls, have started a women’s semi-professional football team, the Columbia Enforcers. Garrett Falls Sr., serves as the team's head coach and Tammy Falls, an administrative assistant away from the team, operates as general manager, keeping track of fundraising, equipment expenses and player registrations.
Wearing a black bandana over her hair, a black Pittsburgh Steelers’ jersey and black athletic shorts, Ray brought a tough attitude to the team’s last practice Sunday, but she softened when speaking about a women’s football team in mid-Missouri.
“It means a lot because the people that live in these surrounding towns either had to go to Kansas City or St. Louis," she said. "Now we are actually able to display the talent that we have here, and it’s awesome.”
The team held tryouts last weekend at Rock Quarry Park. They are preparing to enter the Women’s Spring Football League in May. These “tryouts” are misleading, though. The team has been practicing since March. The original group of three players that started with games in the snow back in March has now grown to 25.
With growth come challenges for both coach and players. A concern for Falls, Sr., has been low attendance at practices because of players' conflicts with work. The male coaches often have to participate in scrimmages to give the players the chance to experience game-like situations.
“These ladies work hard. They’re mothers. They’re teachers. They do other things,” Falls, Sr., said. “But then, they have a chance to come out and show the skills that they have.”
Ray, who works at a warehouse for Unilevar in Jefferson City, is happy to have an understanding coach, but that does not eliminate the sacrifices she makes.
“Time is priceless. It’s short. I sacrifice that away from family and friends," she said. "I have to use vacation days to do the traveling at times.”
But for Ray the rewards outweigh the sacrifice.
“It’s time-consuming all across the board, but it’s worth it because it’s what I’ve wanted to do for years,” Ray said. “You have to give a little to get a lot, so it’s well worth it.”
Falls, Sr., is still trying to recruit more women to the team. His goal is to have 35 players before they begin practicing with helmets and pads in early October. But he said he thinks there are women who are intimidated by football.
"A lot of them are afraid to take that step (to play) because this is an out-of-the-norm sport," Falls, Sr., said. "They are afraid somebody's going to say, 'Well, women don't play football.'"
Ray is quick to respond with a challenge to those who have doubts about women playing football.
"You're going to have that (stereotype) because that's just the society we live in, but just come out and watch us," Ray said. "Open yourself up to it, and nine times out of 10, you will not be disappointed."
The Enforcers season will go from May through July. Falls, Sr., said he sees an advantage to playing in the summer.
“Because our league falls in a time when football is not being played, people can say there’s a football game and go out and watch it,” Falls, Sr., said.