July 12, 2019
Jay N. Miller | Patriot Ledger
Shannon Singletary of Brockton and Tyrra Cole of Weymouth will be playing for the Boston Renegades on Saturday night when they try to repeat as champions of the Women’s Football Alliance.
Boston is on the verge of securing another sports championship.
And no, I have not decided the Red Sox’ bullpen will suddenly start saving games again, nor have I totally anointed Kemba Walker as the next Celtics savior. We’re talking football, and NOT anything going on in Foxboro this month.
Your Boston Renegades are on their way to Golden, Colorado, where on Saturday night they will defend their Women’s Football Alliance championship against the Cali War. Saturday’s game, broadcast on ESPN3, will determine the championship of all-female, tackle football. The game is a rematch, since last year the Renegades won the national title by defeating the same team, then known as the Los Angeles Warriors, 42-18.
The Renegades, 9-0 this season, play their home games at Revere’s Harry Della Russo Stadium. The team was founded in 2015, with key players, coaches and front office people from previous women’s grid teams like the Boston Militia, New England Intensity, Bay State Warriors, Boston Rampage and Mass Mutiny. The main owners are former player Molly Goodwin and businesswoman Michelle McDonough, both of whom have successful careers in financial industries.
The Renegades are coached by John Johnson, who had been the defensive coordinator and then head coach of the NE Intensity, a team that had won the 2008 national title when he was the defensive coordinator. Before that, Johnson had been the offensive coordinator and a former player for the Boston Bandits, mens semipro team. The Renegades also have a notable offensive coordinator, in former Patriots linebacker Vernon Crawford, who is also currently the head coach at Seekonk High School.
Thus far, the Renegades have been led offensively by quarterback Allison Cahill, and running back Ruth Matta, and their running game has been a focal point. That attack has been very successful, as the Renegades have been averaging 61 points a game, while allowing an average of just 13. In their WFA semifinal, basically the eastern championship, they defeated the DC Divas, 66-20.
This year’s potent Renegades roster includes a pair of South Shore players, both rookies and both new to the sport. Both Weymouth’s Tyrra Cole and Brockton’s Shannon Singletary began the season as linebackers, but Cole has been shifted to offense where she now sees most of her time at right guard. Both women have serious full-time day jobs, so they’re not doing this in the hope of making a lot of money. Singletary works in an office by day, while Cole works in the MBTA’s Operations Control Center. Both women took up the sport from their lifelong love of sports and desire for new challenges, and, of course, both endured the questions, doubts and raised eyebrows of family, friends and co-workers.
But by now, both women also feel like they’ve converted those skeptical friends and family members, and made them Renegades fans.
Singletary played basketball and ran on the track team at Brockton High, and traces her sports career back to her days at West Junior High in the city. After graduation she went to UMass-Dartmouth, where she discovered a new sport to play – rugby. After graduation she was playing rugby with a club team in kind of a semi-pro league. A Renegades coach saw one of her rugby games, and encouraged Singletary to come and try out for the football team.
“This team requires a lot of weekend commitment, and the sport is definitely a lot different than rugby,” said Singletary. “In rugby I had gotten to where I knew what to do in most situations, but football involved learning all kinds of play calls, how to play with all new people, and a whole new mindset. I love to be in sports, but it was a lot to take in. I was also playing special teams, which are not in rugby, of course. There is also no blocking in rugby, so I had a lot to learn.”
“I thought I died during the preseason training camp,” Singletary joked. “I was in good shape, but not at all used to playing with all that equipment on. Practice is tough; once you get to know all the other girls, you don’t really want to beat them up. But once we started playing games, I really enjoyed it. Playing against other teams, that’s when you can release the beast. And I love the team spirit, the sense of us all pulling together.”
Cole was a bit more attuned to football when a Renegades scout found her, as she was playing flag football last year when Renegades general manager Ben Brown stopped by to watch. Brown liked what he saw and invited the young player to try her skills at tackle football.
“He said he saw potential, and I’m not sure how, but he was very encouraging,” said Cole. “I had played sports all my life, but never football. In high school I had played softball, ran track, and played soccer a little bit, too. I didn’t continue playing in college, but I liked to stay active. As far as football, I never even watched it much – I can tell you who Tom Brady is, and that’s about all I knew.”
“It’s been a lot of hard work,” said Cole of her transformation into a tackle football player. “It’s also been a great experience, with a lot of highs and lows. Our coaches don’t ease up on you if they see some potential – even if I didn’t see it in myself. Even if I didn’t come in totally loving the sport, I’ve come to love my teammates. You get caught up in the camaraderie and everybody working for the same goal, and that makes you want to give 120 percent, and so in that way, you do begin to love the sport.”
Both South Shore players have appreciated their coaches’ input, and both have found former Patriot Crawford to be a valuable asset for the team, both in helping linebackers – his old position – and in guiding an offensive lineman such as Cole to understand the whole offensive concept.
“Vernon Crawford is a great coach and very patient with us,” said Cole. “He explains things in a way that we can understand. For myself, there is a lot of football terminology I just do not know. My teammates have also been extremely helpful in that way, helping me grasp the plays and terminology. There is no room for failure, and everyone counts on everyone else. Our coaches are superb about teaching us, but my teammates continue after practice – they’ll be texting me to make sure I understand it all. We all truly work as a unit, and my teammates are constantly reaching out after practice to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
“I have to admit I didn’t know who Vernon Crawford was, when I started out,” said Singletary. “I was like, ‘whatever.’ But then he was telling me some stuff he had gone through in his own career as a linebacker, and I was impressed by what he’s done. He wants me to want to be a better player, and he has helped me a lot. All of our coaches help us, and there are a few girls like me who are just learning the game for the first time. We also have players who’ve been on other teams in this league, and they can help us by talking about what they’ve learned from being in other systems, and what some other teams’ tactics have been.”
“Defensively, we try to be a smash-mouth kind of a team,” Singletary noted. “If you have more of a running game that powers your offense, we try to take that away from you right away. We make you do what you don’t want to do, and once we deny you the best part of your game, then you have nothing and you start eating yourself up. We watch films of our upcoming opponents, and try to see what their biggest threats are, and how we can take those away right from the start.”
Cole had a different journey, being listed as a linebacker initially, before the team decided she was needed more on the offensive line. Still learning the game, she had to switch positions in mid-stream, sharpening the learning curve. She had adapted well, and was earning more playing time, before a concussion sidelined her towards the end of the season. But Cole has been cleared for the title game, and is anxious to get back into action.
“The toughest part for me was switching to offense, where now I play right guard,” said Cole. “Learning football was hard enough, but I then had to learn how to block, how to stay low, what’s involved in pass blocking so our quarterback is protected, and so on. I made myself flash-cards to help me study and remember all the plays at home. Our center is a veteran and she was hugely helpful to me through all of it. It was frustrating, being sidelined, once you see how hard your teammates work and how much they all sacrifice, you want to put in your time and sacrifice too.”
And over the course of the season, all the doubters and naysayers, who may have advised these two athletes they were nuts to embark on tackle football careers, have become Renegades fans.
“When I told my family and friends, they thought I was crazy,” Cole confirmed. “They said I’d probably break a leg. But I wanted a challenge. I wanted to try something new. Now, they’re caught up in the hype, too. They come to the games, they’re all over social media about it and they’re my biggest supporters. I couldn’t have done it without their support: it is so hard, and there are no shortcuts in tackle football.”
“My co-workers at the MBTA all advised me against doing it,” Cole added. “Then, for the first game, they watched it on Facebook live. The whole football lifestyle is infectious, and now they’re following our statistics, coming to the games, and even my personal trainer is a big fan. It’s great, and I enjoy putting the word out there about what we’re doing. We also recently had an alumni game, with players from past teams, and I loved seeing all those alumni. The traveling has been a lot of fun too – a whole season of new experiences. I’m just so proud to be part of something bigger than myself.”
“I work with a lot of bigger men,” noted Singletary. “They kept asking me, ‘Is it flag football?’ and so on, every time I came back from practice. They didn’t believe me that it was tackle, but now they are as excited as I am. I show them clips of our games, and now they have a different attitude. They tell me now, ‘Wow, you guys are legit.’ I feel very supported now and it makes it more fun.”
Naturally, the Cali War will be eager to avenge last year’s title game loss, and they have posted a remarkable record so far, going 8-0, with an average margin of 47-4. Cali QB Chantel Niino-Wiggins has thrown for 1,835 passing yards, while running back Destanie Yarbrough leads a formidable running attack. The game will be played on the field used by the Colorado School of Mines team.
“I have loved learning the history of our game, and the traveling part has been some of the most fun,” said Cole. “I can’t wait for Saturday.”
“I went to Denver in college for the nationals in rugby,” Singletary noted. “I remember that the altitude made it a lot different to play there – you just never get used to that thinner air. We had to adjust then, but I figure we are a very adaptable team and we can handle it. As much as we will enjoy the trip to Colorado, we also definitely want to come home as winners.”