By Patrick Luce | Community Contributor – Narragansett/South Kingstown, R.I.
As the New England Patriots begin their quest for a championship this weekend, another local professional football team — which includes a URI College of Health Sciences staff member — is already celebrating the latest national championship of its own.
The Boston Renegades have become a dynasty to rival the successes of the other New England football team, winning the 2021 national championship of the Women’s Football Alliance, a full-contact, all women professional football league. It was the Renegades’ third straight championship, and the sixth in franchise history.
And playing outside linebacker on those championship teams? URI’s own Lisa Vincent, exercise physiology laboratory manager for the College’s Department of Kinesiology.
“My first love was football. There are a few pictures from Christmas when I was 4 with the football helmet I got for Christmas, and my Patriots jersey. I was about the happiest kid there ever was,” said Vincent, who has been with URI since 2012, starting as a personal trainer in Mackal Fieldhouse before earning her master’s in kinesiology and becoming an adjunct professor and lab manager. “So I didn’t have the opportunity to play as a kid, but I started playing flag football in ’96, and somewhere along the way I found out one of my teammates was on the tackle league, which I didn’t know existed. So I tried out and from there, it was just total love.”
Vincent wasn’t alone in not knowing the league existed, but women’s professional tackle football has actually been around since the 1970s. The Women’s Football Alliance formed in 2009, and has become the largest women’s football league in the country, boasting 50 teams in three divisions spread throughout the country. The Renegades, based at Harry Della Russo Stadium in Revere, Mass., is the league’s most successful team, adding to Boston’s “Title Town” reputation.
The team plays an 8-game regional schedule, traveling to such cities as Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland. Their final trip of the season — to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio for the championship game — was taken in style. Patriots owner Robert Kraft loaned the team plane to fly the Renegades to Ohio, and even made a surprise appearance to send the players off on their quest to match his own team’s sixth championship.
“It was crazy. It’s definitely the largest plane I’ve ever been on,” Vincent said. “You go through this section that’s like a regular plane, and then you get to the players’ section. I think probably the strangest part of it all is that when I sat back in the seat, my feet didn’t touch the floor. It was one of those humbling experiences… Wow, this plane is made for gigantic men to go out there and play on Sundays.”
Unfortunately for Vincent, she suffered a grade 2 hamstring strain in the days leading up to the championship and was unable to play in the game. But despite the personal setback, she was there practicing with her teammates, helping push the team to its latest big win.
“One of the questions we were asked is what does it mean to be a Boston Renegade. And it’s really about commitment and perseverance and being part of something bigger than yourself,” Vincent said. “It was my job for the two weeks leading up to the championship to practice as hard as I could. We go out there each practice and game for months and just try to make each other better every day. That’s the goal.”
Vincent and her teammates are truly tackling issues bigger than themselves. They take seriously their commitment to the game, to each other, and especially to the next generation of girls and young women who may not have known they have female role models to emulate in a sport traditionally dominated by men. During championship week, the Hall of Fame also hosted a football skills weekend for girls. The Renegades had the chance to meet with some of the players and encourage them to continue their goals to play football.
“One of the things the Renegades are committed to is supporting young women and girls in sport,” Vincent said. “We have opportunities to meet young girls who are playing football. It’s actually the parents’ reaction that’s really amazing. They come up to us and have tears in their eyes because they didn’t know it existed, and they didn’t know their daughters had someone to look up to, or the opportunity to play as they got older.”
The players do occasionally encounter people who still believe women and girl shouldn’t play football, but Vincent said that is starting to change, and she hopes she and her teammates are making a positive impact not just on sports, but on society in general.
“One of the more meaningful part about being part of this team is the commitment the Renegades make to the community, as well as to diversity initiatives, equity, inclusion,” Vincent said. “Our team is from all different ethnic and racial backgrounds, different sexual orientations. And none of it matters because we come together as a family. We try to bring that out into the community as well. We want to know that inclusion is important and we want things to be equitable, not only in sport but in life.”
In order to continue making such important impacts on the community, the league needs support from its community. While the Women’s Football Alliance is a professional league, the fan following and financial backing is currently not enough for players to draw salaries. In fact, they even cover many of their own expenses to play. Vincent hopes the local team’s impressive success draws more attention to the team and the league, helping add fans to support a game every bit as fun and exciting as the version played by men.
“It’s a matter of having enough interest and backing,” Vincent said. “Would it be great if we didn’t have to pay? Absolutely. But I look at it as an investment to do something I love. We’re hoping the more exposure we get, the more interest grows, the more people will want to get involved, and at least know it exists. I can’t tell you how many people I tell I play football, and they say, ‘You mean soccer?’ No, I mean football, like helmets and shoulder pads. Football.”