New England Rebels prove football is about heart

If you’ve never heard of the New England Rebels, well, don’t worry; you’re not the only one. The semi-pro women’s football team, a member of the Independent Women’s Football League since 2004, has struggled to spread the word about the opportunity it presents: to feel the unique thrill that comes, rushing into the end zone; to bond with other women in a traditionally male-dominated sport; to develop one’s own health, acumen and devotion.

Hopefully that’s all about to change.

“From being a recruiter, the common theme is: ‘I didn’t know you were here. I didn’t know this was available,’ ” says veteran Rebel and spokeswoman Alicia Jeffords, 34. “My objective is getting our name out there, letting girls know this opportunity exists for them.”

The team, owned by Lakes Region resident Ruth Murphy, recently held its second tryout/assessment of the fall. We’re talking full pads, full-contact.

“I look forward to every football season, the competition,” says head coach Jeremiah Rohner, new to the team this year. “And women’s football plays in the springtime, keeps me going year-round.” Rohner, a former semi-pro player himself, and Jeffords coach youth football in Gorham together – they lead the team Jeffords’ kids play on.

Rohner, according to Jeffords, “jumped at the chance” to head up the Rebels, a volunteer position: the “pro” in “semi-pro” does not mean anybody’s getting paid to participate. Passion and camaraderie drive these players and their staff: the goal line, not the bottom line.

“Women’s football is not something that brings in the dough,” Jeffords says, laughing. “We pay for everything, from our equipment to our uniforms to our training fees. Most of our girls try to fund-raise, or get donations.” At present, the Rebels are running a 50/50 raffle, the drawing for which is Jan. 10.

The Rebels’ struggles for exposure have translated into further tribulations. Low numbers have plagued the team, leading to a lopsided record – more Ls by a longshot than Ws. So Jeffords, who at 34 knows she won’t be able to play forever the game she loves, took up the additional challenge of getting the team’s name out, of letting women in Maine and across New England know that the squad exists, that they play hard, that they expect dedication, and that they need personnel.

The IWFL is a sizable organization, international even; the Rebels compete not just against teams from the northeastern United States – the Connecticut Wreckers, for instance, and the Pittsburgh Passion – but also against the Montreal Blitz. There are teams in Texas and California, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Arizona and more. The outfits are divided into three tiers, based on numbers, though their schedules aren’t set according to tier, but rather proximity.

Which is how the Rebels come to play the Blitz, a much larger team from a much larger city, and how they come to secure far fewer wins than they suffer losses. Because without significantly higher numbers, they have a hard time developing specialists at individual positions or depth across the roster.

“Until we have a roster of 30 to 45 girls, there’s not going to be competition for position. And we need that,” says Jeffords. Such internal jostling, she adds, bolsters each player’s commitment to the team – especially important when the women sometimes live hours from the practice field.

On the upside, though her roster is only 20-25 names long at the moment, Jeffords says, “I have a lot of new recruits that are signing, so to add them up is hard – it’s so early in the year; we’re not even into preseason yet.” This success comes despite a failed attempt last year to move to Portsmouth, a location the team had hoped would attract players from across a wider range.

Though the move came to naught, the team has picked up players from abroad, hence they’ve changed their name from the “Maine Rebels” to the “New England Rebels.”

Eliz Colon, 25, traveled with her husband and children all the way from Newport, R.I., for Sunday’s tryout. Colon missed a tryout for a Connecticut team, and the Rebels were her next closest option. “I’m just coming out here, doing my best, seeing if I can get onto the team.”

The Rebels play an eight-game season in the spring: four bouts at home – typically played at either Fitzpatrick Stadium or Deering High School – and four on the road.

The team’s road battles can take them quite far afield, one of the numerous reasons why joining requires a good deal of mental, emotional and physical investment.

“Last year we played a couple Connecticut teams; we played Harrisburg, Pa. – that was quite a haul,” Jeffords says, chuckling. “The year before we played Erie, Pa.”

In the past, there were other teams, closer by. But as it turns out, the IWFL isn’t the only women’s football league around, and squads can change their affiliation if it suits them. When that happens, it can increase the distance other teams may have to travel to compete. On top of that, the Rebels aren’t the only women’s team wrangling its share of existential threats; others have disbanded completely.

“The teams in our area have either switched leagues or folded,” Jeffords says. “There used to be the Manchester Freedom and the New England Intensity, out of Medway, Mass. – traveling was a little easier, then. But some of the other leagues, and the larger teams in those leagues, have taken some of the players, and the teams have dissolved.”

Happily, one major hurdle Jeffords reports facing less of than might be expected is sexism. Jeffords herself has encountered a passing incredulity at worst – a bit of occasional surprise from men when they learn she’s a football player that evaporates as soon as her knowledge of the game becomes obvious.

“Sometimes I feel that way, but I find myself feeling that way falsely,” says Jeffords, whose suspicions when she began coaching with a bunch of guys were quickly dashed. “Once I opened my mouth and started speaking football, they completely respected me. It’s the same with anybody I run into.”

Rohner doesn’t expect to see many substantive contrasts between coaching men and coaching women.

“The only difference I’m anticipating is that a lot of girls haven’t had the opportunity to play, so their experience level might not be as high as you might expect with guys. But they’re all athletes, they’re all out there working hard to better themselves every week,” he said.

Rohner has worked closely with Jeffords to bring new bodies to the team, though he insists she’s done the majority of the legwork. The pair recruit from high schools and colleges – they scope other sports, of course, but focus and a general athleticism can certainly transfer from, say, field hockey to football.

Colon actively wanted a new sport.

“Something different,” she says. “I was always doing basketball in middle school, in high school. I thought, ‘You know, maybe football would be a little different. I like the whole tackle thing. Might as well go for it.”

Kristianna Springer, 24, of Oxford, also came from another background, having played softball, soccer and basketball in high school.

“I was always really into soccer because I could slide tackle. So it kind of made sense that I would love [football],” she said. “My first season here, I was the kicker, so I could tie soccer into it.”

2015 will be Springer’s third year associated with the Rebels, but just her second playing – she was pregnant this past spring.

Jeffords and Rohner are also using social media to positive effect. The Rebels are online at www.mainerebels.com; they’re @MaineRebels on Twitter and searchable on Facebook. Colon actually researched the Rebels on Youtube a bit; the website hosts a number of videos of the team, and watching them helped seal the deal for Colon.

Any woman 18 or older who’s interested in joining the team can reach Jeffords via email at iwanttoplay@mainerebels.com. Other inquiries should go to info@mainerebels.com. Jeffords is happy to highlight that there’s no upper age limit.

“We’ve had a 50-year-old,” she says. “Currently, we have a 45-year-old.”

And regardless of a recruit’s age, no experience is necessary. “We’re happy to teach everybody everything,” Jeffords says. “We have a good core group of veterans and great coaches that are going to lead the way. You need to want to play on a team, to be athletically competitive, and we will get you where you want to be.”

Colon is setting foot on the field for the first time, though she is longtime football fan. “I know some; but I’m still learning. Being here, I’m sure the girls will teach me.”

Jeffords adds that all body types are welcome. One of the great things about football is that practically every physique can be put to good use on the field.

“You’ve got skinny guys, tall guys, receivers, corners, and then you’ve got the linemen,” she said.

Springer was initially intrigued by the invitation to play football, but also skeptical.

“I was like, ‘OK, sure, I’ll try it; I probably won’t like it, but I’ll try it. And I loved it. So here I am, again, today, three years later,” she said.

“If you have what it takes,” Colon says, “go watch it, play it.”

The Rebels doff their helmets on the sideline.Sam Sargent directs the Rebels’ offense.The Rebels huddle up to talk strategy.Center Andrea Stone lines up to snap the ball for the Rebels on the attack.The Rebels’ Haylee Graves carries upfield.Alicia Jeffords strong-arms an opposition player on a carry for the Rebels.QB Nicole Spaulding drops back with the ball, looking for a pass option.Rebels head coach Jeremiah Rohner leads players and would-be players on a run during their practice/tryout session in Gorham on Sunday.Kristianna Springer stretches during a warmup.Rebels and soon-to-be Rebels worked out in Gorham on Sunday afternoon.

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