Running around on fields in Green Bay, De Pere, Brookfield and Milwaukee, the women playing football would naturally attract a few curious passerby. The large man overseeing the practices would garner his fair share of attention, too – most Green Bay Packers who own a Super Bowl ring do.
But the one thing the travels of Gilbert Brown and his Green Bay Chill team have proven over the last year is how much they love the game.
The Chill begin the 2012 season of the Legends Football League on Saturday in Seattle after nearly a year off, following an extended offseason that allowed for the league to get away from the traditional fall football season and re-brand what was once called the Lingerie Football League.
The women of the Chill have been practicing wherever they could for the better part of a year, trying to get ready for a brief, four-game season that includes one game a month through June, a break in July, and then the regular season finale in August.
"We get approached a lot," Chill player and Australian transplant Anna Heasman said. "There’s always a lot of outside interest. I think our coach draws a lot of attention, too, so we get a lot of people hanging around the edges. There’s definitely a lot of interest and it’s all been very positive. You’re trying to explain that there’s a reason why they extended the offseason but everyone has been very keen to knowing what’s going on."
Founded in 2009, the LFL is a 7-on-7 women’s tackle football league played on a 50-yard field. The players wear hockey-style helmets and some padding, as well as volleyball-style shorts and sports bra-type tops. The uniforms will remain similar, but the "lingerie" has been removed.
"I think it’s a good thing that they’ve changed it, as far as marketing goes," said Jess Peyton, who is entering her second year with the Chill. "If you’ve got ‘lingerie’ in there people kind of put a negative connotation on it. But when you say ‘Legends Football’ or something that gets away from it, it does a little bit better because different sponsors may want to come in because it doesn’t have that word in there necessarily. It’s a good thing. I like it. It’s better, it’s just that not everyone knows what it (Legends) is yet. It’ll get there as we keep moving with it. It’s a good thing."
Chill quarterback Anne Erler agreed.
"The re-branding I feel is definitely in the best interest of the league," she said. "They knew they had to stray away from the perceptions that the word 'lingerie' brought. It is time to expand globally and the only way to do that is to get sponsors, investors, and peers interested in the actual football aspect. This is real full tackle, full contact football and we are ready to be recognized for that not the lingerie aspect. However, if you talk to any of our fans or anyone that has seen or been to a game there is no doubt that this is all out pure football."
The women feel moving around over the last year, which has also included many charitable appearances, has helped grow the team’s profile.
"It’s a huge part of who we are. We have to do that," Peyton said. "If we want people at our games we have to be out there promoting ourselves. We don’t have TV commercials to get our word out so we have to go out in the community in an old fashioned way. It’s a big part of the team."
It was widely reported that the last LFL season was canceled, but several women on the team bristled at that phrasing – the offseason was extended to create a spring and summer schedule, and the league expanded into Canada and Australia at that time.
"I think it’ll really help," Peyton said of the LFL’s new schedule. "It’ll be nice for someone to have more football to watch now that we’re out of the NFL and college football seasons."
More than anything, the women are excited for the season to actually begin. The LFL is considered an amateur league, so women incur most of the expense to play, including the travel all over the state to practice.
"I love the concept of competing," Shawn Burrow said. "I need an outlet to compete. As women, there are so few outlets out there to actually go and play a real sport that actually means something. I can go out there and race and bike ride but actually getting down to it and competing? This is a great forum to do that. It’s a lot of sacrifice, a lot of time, everything’s out of my pocket just about, it’s one of those things you just gotta do."
Added Peyton: It’s a very high level of competition in this league. It’s wonderful. I’ve had friends say I’m so jealous you get to be in an organized sport and then you get to travel and then you get to actually be competitive. I had always played flag football but not tackle. It’s a challenge, too, to get really good at that. It’s way different."
All the hard work, and patience, pays off Saturday in Seattle for the Chill, a game that can be seen on pay-per-view. The home opener at the Resch Center in Green Bay is May 11 against Minnesota.
"It’s exciting to get out there and do it for real because we’ve been practicing for a long time," Burrow said. "It’s fun in practice so I can imagine it’s going to get a lot of fun in the game as well."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.