While the men are away, the women will play – on the gridiron that is.
Although the Vixen are relatively unknown to many Minnesotans, they are the longest continuously-running women’s tackle football team in the country. The Vixen – and the Michigan Mynx – were formed 13 years ago in a nation-wide barnstorming tour showcasing women’s tackle football, while exploring the viability of a league in the United States. The next year, the Vixen joined 10 other teams to form the Independent Women’s Football League, and have been playing ever since.
In 13 years, women’s football has grown from those two teams to more than 130 that play in three leagues across the country.
“Teams are popping up everywhere. The interest is growing and every year we get more players come out for tryouts,” Vixen Head Coach Adam Griffith said. “Football is the last sport out there that is dominated by men, so even if women have played sports their whole life, they are intrigued by football and want to give it a try.”
In fact, playing football is an opportunity the Vixen’s veteran center and co-captain Michele Braun thought she’d never have. But she answered an ad seeking players for a women’s tackle football league in 1999 and “it’s been a dream come true ever since.”
“I have loved football since I was 5 years old, so the opportunity to play has been a Godsend,” Braun said. “I have had more joy playing football than I have had my entire life. It’s a sense of family and a sense of dedication, but it is also the opportunity to play a sport I thought I would never have the opportunity to play – and that means a lot, because women can play football just as good as men.”
And that’s no exaggeration, Griffith said.
“I’ve coached all levels of football from seventh-graders to men’s semi-pro teams and this is competitive, smash-mouth football,” he said. “If people don’t believe what I’m saying, they should come see it for themselves.”
Given the historic roots of the Vixen, the team is currently in the midst of a rebuilding period – hoping to improve from a winless season while building the core of a competitive team for years to come.
The Vixen enter this season with a lot of rookies on the roster, who are familiar with the game and its terms, but learning the fundamentals for the first time.
“As coaches we really break the game down and start from square one, because they have never had the opportunity to play before,” Griffith said. “But these women are competitive and athletic. They have passion and are dedicated to learning the game.”
The Vixen also have a growing core of veteran players who have been in the league for a couple of years now.
A couple of years ago, the team’s core consisted of three or four players, Griffith said. Now there are about 15 members of the team that are leaders on and off the field, he said. The team also has a new coaching staff this season, who are building a game plan from the team’s strengths, not a specific, pre-conceived game plan.
The game plan, Griffith said, is to build off of those fundamentals and the team’s strengths.
“If it comes to game day and we only have two offensive plays and one defensive play we have perfected, then we are going to use those plays,” Griffith said. “When it comes down to it, football is football. It’s hitting. It’s working as a team and it’s building on the basics of our athleticism. If we do these things we will have the chance to win.”
“We have high expectations,” said Kasie Heimer, a rookie quarterback, running back and co-captain. “We have a good team. We click together and I don’t see a missing piece to the puzzle.”
“We’re rebuilding,” veteran linebacker Nikki Beyer said. “But we have a lot of speed and talent.”
The Vixen also boast a veteran offensive line that is coming along well, Braun said. “We will be really strong and well-conditioned,” she said. “So I’m excited to see what we can do with our backs.”
That backfield features a few different running backs and quarterbacks who all bring different elements to the table, Heimer said. That, along with a diversified playbook, will make the offense tough to defend against, she said.
The Vixens also have some “incredible” receivers with great speed and hands when the Vixen choose to air the ball out, veteran tight end Maria Bartoletti said. “We always have a smaller team,” she said. “But we’ll make it work.”
“We’ll take it game by game,” Griffith said, “but the sky is the limit.”
If you plan on checking out a Vixen game this season, you will see a competitive game featuring some great athletes, Griffith said. The only difference between this league and men’s semi-pro teams and Division 1 is these women have to be 18 before they can start playing and the men have been playing since they were kids, he said.
“This is smash-mouth football,” Griffith said. “It’s pounding the ball and stopping the run. That’s what I love about the game – the sound of plastic and the sight of a good block springing a running back for a touchdown.”
The Vixen open the regular season at home against their rivals, the Iowa Crush.
“It’s a great rivalry,” Griffith said. “The players have a lot of friends on the other side of the ball, but when the get between the white lines, everyone is hitting each other.”
“I love those women,” Braun said. “But there’s no love when it’s game time. When the whistle sounds, it’s time to beat the hell out of each other.”
“Every Saturday we come out with full pads from the start of the whistle to the end of the game,” Braun added. “We give it 100 percent with a lot of passion and intensity. If you want to see some good football, come on out and see us.”