The first woman to play American football for Oxford

28 February 2017

 

By Rivers Gambrell

Rivers Gambrell is a History DPhil candidate. This article originally appeared in the Hilary Term 2017 Kellogg College News.

Rivers Gambrell       Rivers Gambrell
Rivers Gambrell. Thanks to the Oxford Lancers for the photos.

As an ardent fan of the National Football League, I was thrilled to come across the Oxford Lancers American Football booth at Fresher’s Fair in October 2015. It was with an uncharacteristically wide smile and palpably enthusiastic demeanour that I marched over to the large human being behind the booth and proclaimed, “Hi! I’m so excited to finally find you guys. This is really the only reason I came here today!”

My initial enthusiasm was greeted with naught but a blank stare and semi-opened jaw. Attempting to add kerosene to a fire that had clearly never been lit, I continued, “I’m writing my dissertation on American football and I’m super stoked that there’s a team here at Oxford.” At this point, the blob behind the box began to dart his eyes in various directions, as though desperately searching for someone or something that would give him permission to ignore me. Despite the lukewarm welcome, I pressed on. “So, um, these try outs are open to both men and women, right?” This garnered a nod. “Cool! I don’t know if I’ll really try out since I’ve never played, but I’m a huge Redskins fan so maybe I’ll just come down to the pub to watch some games,” I said, referring to the team’s recent Facebook post inviting fellow football enthusiasts to St Aldates Tavern. (Still, nothing more than a nod.) Exasperated by the lack of response, I finally said, “So I’ll just leave my name and email on the list here then. It was REALLY great to meet you!” (A final grunt.)

Walking away, I couldn’t help but feel like my heart had dropped into my stomach. I was a genuine American football enthusiast with an undying passion for the sport, but I’d been about as well-received as a Ravens fan at a Steelers game. What went wrong?

Despite repeatedly telling myself, “It’s just one guy, don’t worry about it,” I still couldn’t bring myself to show up at the team’s first try out. After all, as a 5’3 female weighing somewhere between 47 and 48 kilos with absolutely no playing experience, I wasn’t exactly a dream prospect for a sport that’s long been considered a quintessential bastion of hyper-masculine violence. Nevertheless, I eventually found the wherewithal to make my way down to St Aldates one weekend to watch the NFL games, where I met some Lancers players and coaches who were very un-blob-like. Once they realised I knew my stuff and genuinely loved the game, they encouraged me to come to practice. Still reluctant, I decided to attend the team’s training session before a friendly scrimmage.

Initially tagged as a potential receiver (an illogical placement considering my height, but who was I to argue?) I lined up behind guys who were much taller than me to catch passes. A diving catch made in the mud earned some unexpected applause from the other players – as well as a lasting injury. I’d fallen on the ball with my entire weight, essentially splitting my hand in two and tearing a ligament in the process. Emboldened and surprised by the vocal support, I chose to ignore the fact that my displaced left thumb was starting to turn green and purple.  At the time, I just assumed it was broken and didn’t tell anyone. I was there to play.

The encouragement the coaches and players demonstrated that day bolstered my confidence, and their acceptance ensured that I’d be a welcome member to the squad. Practising with the team and cheering alongside fellow players on the sideline was enough to offset the unbearable pain in my hand.  However, later that same week I developed severe tendonitis after completing the abhorred erg test for rowing, and my (good) arm swelled up to three times its normal size. A reluctant visit to the hospital resulted in an aircast on my right arm and a glove-shaped brace on my dilapidated left hand, which prompted my hilarious father to give me the temporary nickname ‘Michael Jackson’.

Although the injuries would signal the indefinite end of my Ch-chellogg rowing days, I was far more distressed by the fact that I wouldn’t be able to play football until after Christmas. Determined not to let the opportunity slip away, I accompanied the Lancers to all of their games, and by late November I was able to practise in a limited capacity. By that time I’d switched to the position of cornerback, which proved to be a much better fit given my small stature. On 30 January 2016, I finally made my debut as the first female to play American football for Oxford, resulting in one assisted tackle, one (barely) deflected pass, and a lot of bruises. We won that match 32-5, which put yet another notch in our team’s undefeated belt.

By the end of the season, the Lancers hadn’t lost a single game – an unprecedented record in the history of American football at Oxford. We carried on to beat Greenwich in the first round of the playoffs, and in May we dominated our arch-nemesis Cambridge in the Varsity Bowl, beating them 49-0. Thanks to these efforts, the Lancers now boast half-blues status, and have retained a number of talented players and coaches for the 2017 season.

Although this article has focused primarily on my experience as a player, it should really be centred on all of the incredibly talented coaches and players who made my brief yet exciting football career possible. This was an opportunity that would have been almost unfathomable in the United States, where the only chance for women to participate in tackle football is in the so-called ‘lingerie league’.

Ultimately, I cannot say enough for Oxford’s coaches, who were incredibly patient during my recovery process, and continued to believe in me as a player when I often had trouble believing in myself. I also can’t say enough for my fellow Lancers, who (post-Fresher’s Fair) were overwhelmingly supportive of my desire to play football with the boys – many of whom were nearly a decade younger than myself. Though there were certainly fleeting moments of despair (at one point I was forced to change in a broom closet, because there was no female locker room) the Lancers coaches and players stood beside me, with the captain at one point proclaiming that the team was a ‘brotherhood with a beloved sister’.

That said, I would encourage any and all of my fellow Kelloggians – male or female – to consider giving Britain’s fastest growing sport a shot. After all, as the legendary Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins Head Coach Vince Lombardi once noted, ‘A school without [American] football is in danger of deteriorating into a medieval study hall.’ And what type of self-respecting Oxfordian would want that?

Rivers Gambrell

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