Semi-pro football team gives female athletes a chance to dream of gridiroby: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Teammates Tamar Green (left) and Kristie Lamonica carry a banner during the recent St. Patricks Day parade in downtown Hillsboro, part of the teams efforts to gain new recruits.n glory

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Teammates Tamar Green (left) and Kristie Lamonica carry a banner during the recent St. Patricks Day parade in downtown Hillsboro, part of the teams efforts to gain new recruits.Forest Grove resident Tia Maitlen has an 11-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son and “is a stay-at-home mom” — except when she plays halfback and linebacker for the Hillsboro Hammerheads, the semi-professional Independent Women’s Football League’s newest member.

Like most of the women on the team, Maitlen — who manages before-school and after-school programs at Joseph Gale Elementary School in Forest Grove — said she had no prior experience with football.

“I was on the swimming and track teams in high school and played some soccer,” she said. “But never football until now.”

Same for Amanda Jo Graham, who said that growing up in football-crazy Arkansas it was natural that she wanted to play football. But there were no girls’ teams back then, and she didn’t want to try to join the boys’ team.

“I was too embarrassed to ask,” she recalled.

Times have changed, however. Tackle football, a sport almost exclusively dominated by male athletes until very recently, is no longer a “men only” club. And in Hillsboro, women gridders are helping to hammer through that barrier in an emphatic way.

Graham, who now lives in Oregon, goes by the name “A.J.” these days. She is 6 feet 2 inches tall and the director of player relations for the Hammerheads. The IWFL has squads all around the United States, from the Sacramento Sirens and Utah Jynx to the Baltimore Nighthawks and Maine Rebels.

Based on the response from many of the players, the chance to play for a women’s football team is a liberating experience.

“Football is the first place I’ve ever felt at home,” said Graham, who is working on getting her paramedic certification from Portland Community College.

“The team is enabling them to use their bodies in a physical way, with permission,” said Hammerheads head coach Beth Buglione, who lives in Fairview. “They start to get more confidence, and you see the light come on in their eyes.”

Buglione said the women on the team realize they are getting a rare chance to break barriers and do something previous generations of women could not.

“Boys get a chance to play when they’re young,” Buglione explained. “These women are in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and never played football before. Now they have the opportunity to live this dream, and have seized that. They’ve really dialed in on this. by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTOS: DOUG BURKHARDT - Ten of the 15 members of the Hillsboro Hammerheads enjoy a break from hitting during Sundays practice at Hillsboro High School.

“It’s not like with boys, who can take playing football for granted. And kids are seeing their moms on the field, and it changes how kids see women. It’s wonderful.”

Created last October, the Hammerheads so far have only 15 women on the team. What the team needs most at this point — in addition to sponsors willing to help with operating expenses — is more players. The Hammerheads, who range in age from 19 to 48, do not yet have enough players to practice or play 11-on-11 football.

“We need at least 25 players to function safely for an 11-on-11 league,” said Graham, who plays offensive tackle and defensive end. “Right now, everybody on the team plays offense and defense and special teams. We’re building and actively recruiting.”

“We need women of all shapes and sizes to be successful,” added Buglione.

Players on the Hammerheads’ current roster are from all over the region, including Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Aloha, Beaverton, Canby, Hubbard, Tigard, Carlton and Monmouth.

As was the case with many of the players, Buglione, who played football for the Corvallis Pride for three years before going into coaching, said she was talked into joining the team.

“They wined and dined me and asked me to take this back on,” she said during a break in Sunday’s practice at Hillsboro High School. “I’d kind of retired.”

It’s clear Buglione is glad to be back, and she had nothing but praise for her fledgling team.

“They’re amazing,” she said. “They work hard and are here every week.”

“She has coached for a couple decades,” said Graham. “We love her very much. She’s tough as nails, and you’ll want to give her everything you’ve got.”

The IWFL plays its games in the spring instead of in the fall, which has been the traditional season for football. Graham said there was a practical reason for playing in the spring.

“The fields are easier to get,” Graham said.

Kerri Lendgren, who works for Hillsboro Rehabilitation at Avamere as a nurse, said another player convinced her to give football a shot.

“One of the girls talked me into it,” said Lendgren, who lives in Hillsboro. “I told her I’ll go to one practice, and that’s it. I was just going to come out for one day.”

But as it turned out, a single practice was enough to hook her. She said she enjoyed the game on a level she hadn’t anticipated.

“I do like hitting people a little bit,” Lendgren said. “I’ve never been in a fight my entire life, but I like hitting. My job is stressful, and I like coming out here and taking it out on the field.”

Lendgren, who went to Vernonia High School, where she played volleyball and ran cross country, handles a variety of positions — guard, defensive tackle and linebacker.

“Whatever they make me do,” she laughed.

She recently suffered a broken bone in practice, but didn’t miss a day.

“I broke a finger,” she said. “People at work give me a lot of crap, but I like the team.”

Linebacker Tamar Green said she enjoys the team because it feels like family.

“We’ve all come together for love of football,” said Green, a Hillsboro resident who joined the team in January. “Women can be catty, but it’s not like that with this team. They all want you to do your best, and everybody is excited to do what we have to do to keep the team going strong.”

Maitlen pointed out that she has supported her kids and paid all the fees for them to participate in various sports over the years, and so she feels no guilt about taking time away from her family a few times a week to be with the Hammerheads.

“Now, it’s finally my turn,” she said, adding that her kids are supportive.

“They see that Mom’s happy and active,” she said. “I’m 36, and this is my first time playing tackle football. Showing off my bruises is the best part!”

In another sign of changing attitudes, Maitlen added that her daughter has also been involved in football, participating in Forest Grove’s Little Guy Football program in 2013 — an opportunity that probably would not have been available a decade ago.

“It just goes to show that women have come a long way in having been provided with the same opportunities for participation in what was once an all-male sport,” said cornerback and backup quarterback Shirelle Nuuanu.

Nuuanu, who works as an Intel technician, knows about toughness not only from playing football but also from her service in the U.S. Army, another institution where barriers are falling fast. Nuuanu served in Iraq in 2003-2004, and serves now as a sergeant first class in the Army Reserves.

Her Army unit was a close-knit team, but she said nothing has matched the bonding she has felt with the Hammerheads.

“There is a level of sisterhood you cannot get anywhere else,” she said. “You share your life with them. You can’t replicate that level of trust.”

Even with eight children at home, Kristie Lamonica, who lives in Forest Grove, said she is driven to find time for football.

“It sounded like something fun, so I decided to give it a try and see if my body can do it,” Lamonica said.

Now she is playing wide receiver on offense and safety or cornerback on defense.

“She’s the fastest person on the team,” Graham said.

Many of the Hammerheads’ players are married, and, in an intriguing bit of role-reversal, husbands are watching their wives on the football field.

“It’s neat to be in the stands and watch the practices,” said Levi Janssen, who was watching his wife Maureen practicing her wide receiver skills Sunday afternoon. “I’m learning as much as she is.”

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Members of the Hammerheads take turns practicing the Oklahoma Drill, which calls for a runner to get through the defense with a single blocker leading the way. Head coach Beth Buglione says the drill is the closest to a live game I can give in practice.Janssen added that when friends hear for the first time that his wife plays football, they are skeptical and want to see a picture of her in pads. Once they do, their perspective changes.

“Then everybody is full of advice,” Janssen said. “A few people were kind of surprised. My wife played tennis in high school, but nothing like this.”

The Janssens have two children and full-time jobs — Maureen works as a technician at Solar World in Hillsboro — so finding time for football as well presents a challenge.

“We really have to budget our schedules well,” said Levi.

Although he is naturally concerned his wife could suffer a sprain or other sports-related malady, Janssen realizes injuries are just part of the game, so he keeps it in perspective.

“I worry a little bit,” he said, “but she’s pretty tough. And she sure is having fun.”

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