The New Orleans Saints pre-season starts August 25 when they take on the Houston Texans. But for football fanatics who just can’t wait that long, don’t fret — there is another team in town.
It is two minutes to game time. The players are amped up, suited up and huddled around their coach for one last pep talk before heading to the field. But this team probably isn’t what usually comes to mind when people think of professional football.
The New Orleans MOJO, which is in the midst of its very first season, is part of the Women’s Football Alliance, a full-contact women's football league formed in 2009 with over 40 teams in football hubs across the country, including Boston, St. Louis, Seattle and Pittsburgh. That’s where Christine Urrata first saw women’s professional football while on vacation last year.
“Being a huge football fan I wanted to see Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers,” says Urrata. “When I got there they were actually hosting the 2012 National Women’s Football Championship game. So I bought tickets, went in and I was just blown away. First of all, I had no idea they had organized women’s football, much less a championship game on that kind of stage.”
Urrata had also never heard of The Blaze, New Orleans’ former women’s football team, which disbanded in 2011. She wanted to give it another show. So she named the new team MOJO and set about building a team that would suit New Orleans.
From selecting team colors — black and gold — to designing a new team emblem, a modified fleur-de-lys, Urrata considers MOJO an extension of New Orleans football culture.
“As a football fan I love the time between August and February,” she says. “As the MOJO, we would like to compliment the Saints. When people are off from the NFL season, they can come out and support the MOJO, the women athletes.”
MOJO absorbed some former members of the Blaze and held open tryouts earlier this year, drawing a diverse group of athletes including a kindergarten teacher, a single mother of seven, an employee of the USDA and a wounded warrior advocate. All have one thing in common: a deep love of football.
Even with Title IX, full tackle football remains the final frontier of female sports. Aside from a few flag football leagues, and the rogue female player here and there, girls don’t play football in junior high and high school. Because they don’t learn as girls, it makes the learning curve for women steep.
“A few women you have to teach from ground zero, because they really don’t know,” says Head Coach Darien Chestnut.
But lacking formal training also has its advantages.
“The women, they want to know every little detail,” observes Defensive Coordinator Dwanye Thomas. “Like ‘How you do it, why you do it, why did you go that way, how should you go that way?’ It ain’t like a man, we react. When it’s called ‘go through that hole’, you gonna go through that hole.”“That’s the one thing,” adds Offensive Coordinator Lawrence Dorsey. “When women are passionate, there’s no telling them no.”“When I started I was determined. There was no stopping,” says Diedra Andrews. She is a single mother of seven, who says she discovered MOJO while attending one of her daughter’s track meets. Andrews loved sports growing up, but this is her first organized team. She initially joined MOJO seeking a social outlet, but once she started, it grew into something else.
“The excitement, the hits, the passion of playing like the men,” she explains. “It’s two different things. Like playing hop scotch vs. Dancing with the Stars. When you’re playing your feet have to be positioned a certain way. With hop scotch, you’re just hopping.”
Andrews’s teammates echo her sentiment. There’s something about football that has drawn different qualities out of each of them.
“My mother has four girls, and all of us tend to have a reserved mannerism,” says Darlene White. “My dad used to say things like ‘act like a lady’ and ‘girls don’t do that’. When I get on the field, it’s a whole different personality. I’m on defense so I have to tackle and I have to make myself this aggressive person, and I’ve learned to make that transition.”
“They say, well you just don’t stop. I say no, I keep going,” says Melinda Arington. “It keeps me young.”
Owner Christina Urrata is already thinking a generation ahead.
“There’s no reason why there can’t be girl leagues, at a lower level,” Urrato says. “I’d like to get it to a point where women have the same opportunity to work hard for what they want and what they dream of. And I’d like to offer them that opportunity.”
New Orleans MOJO finishes its inaugural season Saturday, June 7 at Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park, where they’ll be taking on the Arkansas Wildcats.