Yes, 33-year-old Amy Jo Gladfelter is ready for some football, and she has traded her mascara for eye black on a weekly basis.
By her count, Gladfelter’s gridiron days are about 15 years overdue. She was not allowed to play football at East Leyden High School, but the Forest Park resident is finally getting her shot as a rookie cornerback on the Chicago Force, the only women’s tackle football team in Illinois.
Like Gladfelter, about 70 other women on the Force spend some 10 hours a week in shoulder pads trying to knock their opponents into oblivion. For these women though, playing football doesn’t revolve around shedding stereotypes like a running back sheds would-be tacklers. They don’t mind being a football hero to aspiring young women on the weekends, but playing the sport is secondary to forming friendships with teammates.
“The Force is like a big family,” Gladfelter said. “Regardless of whether you’re on the first string, third string or practice squad everybody supports each other. My family has also been overwhelmingly supportive.”
After hearing about the Force at a street festival in the city last year, Gladfelter decided to try out for the team. Four months and countless hours of practice later, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee – a week before the Force’s season opener.
The injury erased her season as a player, but has not deterred her from participating in other ways. Gladfelter still attends games and enjoys the sport.
“I grew up as a Bears fan watching the games with my dad,” Gladfelter said. “I’ve always loved the game. Even though I have always followed football as a fan, I had no idea how much is involved in football until I started playing the game.”
A nurse by day, she’s in the midst of what is expected to be four to six months of rehabilitation.
“I was told that the injury occurred even before I started playing football,” she said. “My knee was unstable, but we really didn’t know the full extent of the injury until a week before the season started. I won’t be able to play this season, but my teammates have been very welcoming. I was able to get in a lot of good practice time.”
Despite not being out there in the trenches with her fellow Force players, Gladfelter’s enthusiasm has been contagious and appreciated.
“Amy Jo has been very supportive,” Force running back Melissa Smith said. “She has a great attitude. Injured or not, that’s always a great attribute for a player to bring to a team.”
Gladfelter’s fellow cornerback and close friend, Shannon Ten Broeck, also praised Gladfelter’s intangible contributions.
“Amy Jo has great heart as a player and a person,” Ten Broeck said. “When I broke my ankle, she was there for me. Now that she’s injured, I’m trying to be there for her.”
Off to a perfect 3-0 start this season, the red-hot Force have already earned a landmark win this season by knocking off the five-time national champion Detroit Demolition 18-7 on April 19. Smith, an Oak Park resident and former high school softball star, sparked the Force to victory by rushing 22 times for 122 yards.
In six previous meetings over the last three seasons, the Demolition won all their battles with the Force.
“Watching our veteran players beat Detroit, the emotion was palpable,” Gladfelter said. “The team has wanted to beat [the Demolition] so bad for so long. To be able to finally do it was gratifying for the entire organization.”
In their sixth season, the Force has a loyal fan base and aspirations of expanding its popularity throughout Chicagoland. With home games at the Holmgren Athletic Complex at North Park University in Chicago, the Force average approximately 1,000 fans a game. Tickets are $10 a game and $3 for kids, students and seniors.
The Force is a member of the Women’s Independent Football League, which is comprised of 43 squads nationwide.
“Anyone who is a fan of football will be pleasantly surprised to see how well we play the game,” General Manager and Owner Linda Bache said. “After every game I am approached, often by men, who are astounded at the quality of play. They’re surprised at how hard we hit, how well we throw the ball and at the quality of our athletes.”
Football may be her current athletic enthusiasm, but Gladfelter also enjoys soccer, basketball and golf. Unlike football, she played golf in high school on the boys’ team courtesy of a no-cut policy. She has even logged time in the air as a competitive skydiver.
“Younger athletes and young women in particular may have run into some of the barriers [Force players] have had as athletes,” Gladfelter said. “It’s always good to pursue your passion, whatever it is. Playing for the Force shows that not only is pursuing your dream available but it’s also attainable.”