Women’s tackle and flag football leagues are on the rise, and Boston Renegades receiver Adrienne Smith is helping lead the charge.
The word “renegade” doesn’t just grace the front of Adrienne Smith’s jersey. It personifies the Boston Renegades wide receiver so fundamentally you’d think she was destined to wear it.
Smith’s been a big play-breaking, barrier-busting force of nature for 14 professional seasons in women’s tackle football: a two-time gold medalist with the U.S. Women’s Football National Team and nine-time All-Star in the Women’s Football Alliance, with 100 wins in professional tackle football and six championship rings to her name.
Even after all this time, she still relentlessly studies the game, including NFL receivers like DeAndre Hopkins and Cooper Kupp (who also wear her No. 10), and scoffs at the idea that anyone can check her.
“‘I’m an ‘X’ receiver. I’m the go-to. I’m the deep threat.’ That’s my mentality every time I step on the field,” said Smith, who basically compares her game-day alter-ego to an all-engulfing fire. “If you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know,’ sit down. Take off your helmet. You’re not helping the team.”
Arguably the only thing that stopped her and the Boston Renegades from winning four straight Women’s Football Alliance National Championships was the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. They’ll have a chance to earn that fourth consecutive title (and seventh overall) when the WFA season kicks off in April.
But when sports in the New England area come to mind, the region’s currently most dominant professional football team isn’t the first team that registers — something that Smith says comes with the territory of being a woman athlete.
“You always have to be executing or operating at a level of excellence that is above and beyond your competitors, then throw on 10 years, then finally you get some exposure and some recognition,” she said.
At long last, though, the profile of Smith and the Renegades is beginning to rise, and the status of women’s football across the country is coming up with them.
“We’re on the cusp of a revolution of women in football,” said Smith.
Naturally, she’s one of the driving forces behind that, too.
Growing the game
The history of the women’s game will bear Smith’s name in indelible ink for a litany of accomplishments, including scoring the first-ever touchdowns both in women’s international tackle football history as a member of the U.S. National Women’s team in 2010, and for the Boston Renegades franchise.
All that in a sport that she had little to no prospects of playing as a kid.
“There really just weren’t opportunities for girls to play tackle period [growing up], and I had just started playing flag in high school [in PE],” she said.
Women have played football since the sport was founded more than 200 years ago. In fact, the Toledo Troopers of the National Women’s Football League (NWFL) may well have been the winningest team in professional football history, men or women’s. But the women’s game has traditionally been viewed as a sideshow to men’s leagues like the NFL, which comprises a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Smith has fought for years to raise the profile of women’s football, founding Gridiron Queendom as a resource for women and girls interested in the sport and championing the expansion of flag football leagues.
In recent years, though, stars like youth tackle football legend Sam Gordon, who made it into the NFL’s “The 100-Year Game” Super Bowl commercial in 2019, and Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller, the first woman ever to score points in a Power 5 college football game, have opened national eyes to female excellence in football. Gordon and her family even helped start the independent Utah Girls Football League in 2015 and have fought to make girls’ football a sanctioned sport in Utah high schools.
— Super Bowl LVI on NBC (@SNFonNBC) February 4, 2018
Finally, major sponsors like Nike and the NFL have taken notice, committing millions of dollars to fund high school flag football programs for girls. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) just had its inaugural women’s flag football season at the college level in 2021.
“Some of the girls I’ve coached at clinics are now getting offers — scholarship offers — to play flag football at the collegiate level. It’s insane!” she said. “We’re going to have an amazing group of talented young players, young women, coming into the tackle scene in the next 5-10 years.”
Smith, who frequently plays flag football herself and helped launch the American Flag Football League’s Women’s Division founded last year, said women’s and girls’ flag football is gaining steam internationally because of the ease with which it can be played compared to the tackle version.
But tackle will always hold a special appeal for Smith: not just because of its popularity in the United States but also due to its inclusivity.
“It really encompasses all body types, and this is something that’s particularly important for women and girls,” she said. “Flag football is more of a skilled player sport for smaller, faster women. But in tackle football, you need every type of body to be successful.”
Teaming up with “Team Milk”
As more groups invest in the pipeline to professional women’s football, the pro game itself is still pushing for recognition and resources in the crowded landscape of American sports.
The Renegades themselves pay $750 a year to play professionally. Players work day jobs and have to pay for many expenses, including their equipment and travel costs, out of pocket. They couldn’t afford a team bus and never traveled together while pursuing their latest title in 2021 until Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft offered to fly them on the NFL team’s private plane to their championship game in Canton, Ohio.
But the momentum is starting to shift their way as new opportunities arise.
Smith, along with fellow flag football stars Joann Overstreet and Jona Xiao and D.C. Divas receiver Lois Cook (tackle), headlines the all-women’s “Team Milk” squad, a Got Milk? campaign that places the women’s footballers front-and-center, not in the background, with huge NFL names like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Derrick Henry, Terry McLaurin, and Justin Herbert. Team Milk will also feature its women’s team prominently on billboards outside of SoFi Stadium, the site of this year’s Super Bowl, and dole out scholarships to top women student-athletes playing flag football.
Smith calls the high-visibility partnership “groundbreaking” because, as she points out, “representation matters.”
“I have gotten so many text messages, Facebook, however people can reach out to me, from fathers, mothers, teen girls, adult women just how this campaign has meant to them,” she said. “How it is validating them, how it is encouraging them to continue to move forward in a sport that they love, but they’re receiving all kinds of backlash simply because they’re female.
“We’ve been winning. But if no one sees it — if the tree falls in the forest but no one’s around, did it make noise? We’re out here making noise, and Team Milk is giving us the platform from which we can be heard.”
Even as she works to build up the country’s flag football ranks among women and girls, her role as an ambassador with Team Milk has led her to focus her playing time on the tackle game for now.
The stakes are higher in that arena as well: the WFA reached a broadcast agreement with ESPN to have this summer’s Pro Division’s National Championship aired on ESPN2.
Smith says the potential for that national profile has driven up tryouts and numbers in WFA divisions, which could make the competition hotter than its ever been.
“It’s going to bring out the best of the best,” she said.
But by now, you already know Smith believes she’s going to be the one scoring a touchdown when that game hits television screens a few months from now: “Iron sharpens iron, and I’m ready to slice through anything.”