A few years back, Rachel Fischer found herself in Dick’s Sporting Goods, on the hunt for a good pair of shoulder pads.
“They asked, ‘How tall is your son?’” said the seven-season quarterback and now coach of the Keystone Assault. “I said, ‘No, these are for me.’”
The Keystone Assault is a charter member of the Women’s Football Alliance, a full-contact league formed in 2009. In Pennsylvania, the league, which spans the nation, includes teams in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, in addition to the Harrisburg-based Assault.
In the United States, women’s football actually dates all the way back to World War I, and, for most of its history, has had to work to break gender norms. More recently, they’ve had to battle the assumption that women’s football is not a serious sport.
“People ask, ‘Oh, you play football? Lingerie football?’” said Sheaffer. “No, no. Full pads.”
Over the years, the Assault has worked to build a team of athletic, dedicated women who are not afraid of a little turf burn. They’re now facing one of the toughest challenges in their history—player recruitment.
“We’re working to build the team bigger and get back to the numbers,” said Bill Green, director of operations and assistant general manager.
Compared to its more densely populated counterparts, the Keystone Assault is limited geographically in its search for new members.
“The Pittsburgh Passion has 60 or 70 players,” Green said. “Philly has a large number of players, as well, and we’re just stuck in the middle.”
The team’s numbers have fluctuated season to season, peaking during its 2015 winning streak. In that year, the Assault hit a roster high, ending the season 8-0 and earning the title of Women’s Spring Football League Champions.
“We had a lot of vets [in 2015],” said Fischer. “That’s why we had low numbers this year and last year, because everyone retired once they got their [championship] ring.”
It took many years of building up the team to reach that point.
“We played for seven seasons together and finally everything came together,” she said.
The Keystone Assault is now looking for new members before its official, eight-game season starts in April.
Beginning as young as 17 with parental consent, women of every age, walk of life and background can join. You’re then encouraged to play “until you stop running,” according to five-year member Emily Sheaffer.
To help with recruiting, the Assault has gotten the word out through marketing, social media, word of mouth and special events, such as working with bars in Harrisburg and Highspire. Fundraising, which helps offset the team’s expenses, is another constant challenge.
“We’re doing raffles, setting up a booth to get our name out there, sell T-shirts,” said Sheaffer.
The team is also talking with a few nonprofits to try to gain sponsorships.
“Coming up with sponsorships for our dues is one of the biggest challenges,” said Fischer.
“I played seven seasons and didn’t have to pay a dime out of pocket because of sponsorships. But they’re hard to find.”
Membership dues for each season are $350 per person. That’s no small change for the women who must pay to play.
“When you hear you have to pay $350, that’s a lot for some people just to come play football,” said Fischer. “That’s one of the biggest problems we have.”
Becoming a player, though, comes with rewards far greater than making a good block or tackle. The team also promotes a sense of camaraderie and even family to those who join.
“It’s definitely supportive,” said Sheaffer. “I’ve never had anyone, besides my parents who worry about me, disagree with my decision.”
With the season gearing up in the next few months, the Keystone Assault is looking for a fresh start with some new talent to kick off the year.
“We’re starting over from scratch and building on that,” said Green. “You don’t have to have football experience. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to train you.”
To learn more about the Keystone Assault, including how to join the team, visit www.keystoneassault.net.