When Yvette Schubert tells people she plays football, she says the first question they ask is if she plays in the Lingerie Football League.
"I ask them: 'Do I look like I play Lingerie Football?'" Schubert says, laughing.
Schubert, a defensive end on the New Orleans Mojo women's football team, has played sports all her life — but when she tells people she's been playing full-pads tackle football, nobody believes her. "Then I pull out my phone and show them pictures of me playing in full pads and they realize I'm not joking," she says.
Schubert is one of more 50 women that make up the New Orleans Mojo. The team plays its final game of its inaugural season Saturday night at Tad Gormley Stadium. Her story about pulling out her phone is one echoed by several of her teammates.
After people realize she's not joking, Schubert says, people sometimes become curious about women's football and take in a game. "People see that I'm serious, and they're like, 'That's awesome, I want to go see you play,'" she says.
That's the attitude Mojo founder and owner Christine Urrata is banking on to help grow the sport in New Orleans. Urrata left her job as a Kenner police officer to manage the team full time. "When people think about professional sports in this city, they think of the Saints, the Pelicans, the Zephyrs," Urrata says. "I want the Mojo to be in that conversation as well."
Urrata admits the Mojo has a long way to go. Most of the Mojo players had never played football before joining the team. Urrata herself didn't even know that women's professional football existed until she visited Pittsburgh last year on her way to see the New Orleans Saints play in the NFL Hall of Fame game. The day she went to see Heinz Field was the same day the Women's Football Alliance (WFA) was holding its championship.
"I was in awe," Urrata says. "I thought this is something that New Orleans needed to have."
New Orleans has had a women's football team before — the Blaze — but that player-owned team dissolved two years ago. While women's football has had trouble gaining a foothold in the New Orleans area, the sport has existed in the United States since the 1970s, with a dozen leagues forming and disbanding. There are three leagues currently operating in the United States, including the Women's Spring Football League and the Independent Women's Football League.
The WFA is the largest and most successful league, with 49 teams. It consolidated 36 teams from around the country into regional divisions during its first season in 2009. New Orleans hosted the WFA's inaugural championship game (played between teams from St. Louis and Kalamazoo, Mich.). Last year's championship game, which was played at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, was the first women's football game played in an NFL stadium and was covered by ESPN.
Mojo head coach Darian Chestnut says that, since most of his players had never played before, he's had to slowly teach his players the fundamentals of the game. Defensive coordinator Lee Kooken says that a lack of experience hasn't meant a lack of confidence. "Everyone was picking their favorite NFL player and said they wanted to be like them," he said of the team's first practice. "They all wanted to be stars."
Lee and Chestnut say the Mojo were quickly humbled. The team lost its first game 40-0 to the Acadiana Zydeco. Chestnut says that once he saw his players get through the first couple of plays, he began to have confidence in the team's potential. "The first game, I just wanted to see how they'd react to their first blow," he says. "Now they're talking about hitting gaps and zone blocking, and that puts a smile on my face." Just three weeks after its first loss, the Mojo played the Zydeco again and won 32-13.
- Photo by Cheryl Gerber
The Mojo roster consists of students, teachers, police officers, emergency medical service technicians, mothers and others. Though the Mojo is considered a professional team, players have to pay a fee to join and cover their travel expenses. Players practice four days a week at various locations, play games at Tad Gormley and Pan-American stadiums and attend film study at the team's Kenner office.
Injuries are a real issue. Though there are professional trainers and an ambulance at every game, women's football players don't receive free medical care like NFL players. For women, one major injury could end their career. Running back Keshawn Patterson — who was wearing a brace on her right wrist — says injuries don't scare her. "I say a prayer before every game, but it's not something I'm concerned with," she says. "People think I'm crazy but you can get hurt driving your car."
Tight end Liz Pax, who heard about the Mojo through Play NOLA's flag football league, loves bringing her pads and helmet to St. Louis King of France Catholic School, where she teaches kindergarten. Pax says her football-playing sideline is often met with disbelief. "Then all people say is, 'You're not allowed to get hurt,'" she says.
Center Staci Ortolano said she first heard of the Mojo through her softball team. Though she had never played football before, she took it as a challenge to learn and play the game. "It's an awesome feeling," she says. "You feel very, very powerful."
Defensive end Ashley Ernst — who brought her 19-month-old daughter Eva to a Mojo film study session — says one of her motivations is to show her daughter and other young women that it's possible for them to play football. "Like every little girl, I always wanted to play football but never had the opportunity," she says.
Though this Saturday's game will be the team's last of the season, Urrata says the Mojo is just getting underway. She plans to turn the office space that is the team's de facto headquarters into a pro shop that sells Mojo merchandise alongside Saints and Pelicans gear. She also is planning football workshops for women interested in learning more about the game, as well as training camps and team trips to local schools to show young girls that football is an option for them.
"We're like the 1967 Saints in their first year," she said. "They didn't win a lot but they had the community support. ... Now it's all about letting people know who we are."
— The Mojo's last game of the team's inaugural season, against the Arkansas Wildcats, will kick off at 7 p.m. Sat. June 8 at Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park. Tickets are $15 at the gate. For more information, visit www.neworleansmojofootball.com.