Her father, Mike, coaches the Howard University football team and her brother Brandon has a Super Bowl ring, but neither man inspired Kristen London to start playing football. Instead, it was her mother who signed up the then-eight-year-old for Pop Warner.
"If you ask my mother why," says London, now 30 and representing the U.S. in the Women's World Championship tackle football tournament, "she'll say, 'Because I refused to let her grow up to be a weak woman.'"
Strong women like London from across the country have congregated in Langley, British Columbia, this week to defend Team USA's international title in a sport most people don't realize exists: full-throttle American football, played by teams of all women in full gear, not lingerie. Roughly every four years, international teams (six countries are represented in this edition) gather to crown the world's best women's football team. Naturally, two world championships in, the U.S. is undefeated.
In fact, it's allowed just one touchdown—ever.
"I played D-I basketball and was around a lot of great athletes then, but this group truly includes some of the best athletes in the country," says wide receiver Jeanette Gray, 36, who was a star forward at Valparaiso University. The team made its first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament when she was a senior.
Jim Farrell, Team USA's head coach, says he was shocked by the high level of play the first time he assisted with team tryouts in 2013. "I was immediately taken aback—it's way more athletic than people probably imagine," adds Farrell, who also coaches at Palatine, Illinois' Fremd High School. "I've been coaching high school football for 18 years, and I get the chance to coach more D-I athletes coaching women's football than I've ever been able to do coaching boys."
Most of the team's 45-person roster are women who play for one of more than 60 local teams operated by the semipro Women's Football Alliance; Gray has been on the Chicago Force for eight years, and London has been with the Atlanta Phoenix for seven. Tryouts were in Orlando, Florida, earlier this year concurrent with the Women's World Football Games, an annual event sponsored by USA Football and founded by Sam Rapoport, who now serves as the NFL's director of football development.
It's London's first time on Team USA (Gray already has one title)—she tried out four years ago and got cut. Now, she's on the team as a defensive back/wide receiver and ultimately wants to play quarterback.
"This is the highest level of football there is for women, so there was no way I could take no for an answer," London says of deciding to try out a second time. Like Gray, she played D-I basketball (she was a guard at the University of Virginia) and briefly competed in England after college. As she puts it, "I've never taken no for an answer."
That sort of tenacity is a prerequisite when you're playing a sport in which women's participation has so consistently been diminished. There's evidence of women playing football as early as 1896, but it's still widely viewed as taboo and/or physically impossible outside of the infamous Legends (formerly Lingerie) Football League.
"I was once a football player for Halloween, but I never really asked to play because in my head it was like, 'Girls don't play football,'" says Gray, whose father coached for over 30 years. "It's one of the last frontiers in athletics that people have said forever women can't do and shouldn't do, and we're trying to break down that barrier. It's always an uphill battle for women—this isn't any different."
Even though Gray and London both grew up in football-loving families, they still faced some skepticism when they decided to hit the gridiron. Neither of their families was able to make the trip to watch them play in Canada.
"When he first found out that I was playing football [as an adult], he was proud, but kind of from a distance," says London of her father, Mike. "My brother had to show him some of my highlights." He was wary partially because since women's football has so few resources, players have to supply their own health insurance and, in most cases, pay to play for the possibility of some prize money.
Getting on the national team helped London prove herself to her father.
"I've had his support, but when I made the team he was like, 'OK, dang. My girl can play,'" she says.
His concerns, given the sport's high-risk, low-compensation setup, aren't unwarranted. The sacrifices required just to play women's football—much less play on the highest level—are immense. "What their male counterparts don't understand is that everyone in women's football puts themselves in bad situations in life to put themselves in a great situation for football," says Farrell, referencing the lack of paid opportunities for women players. "As a man, I never had that struggle—never had to put my life or my business or societal expectations on hold to be good at football. They're used to always overcoming obstacles to do something they love, and they are willing to fight to play. They're warriors that way."
At her day job as a math teacher at Lake Central High School in St. John, Indiana, Gray's taken her fight to the sidelines as the school's—and very possibly the state's—first female football coach. Last year saw her first season as a wide receivers coach, and she says it couldn't have gone smoother. The head coach told her: "You're not a female coach—you're just one of my coaches. We'll address it to the team once and that will be it."
"There is a different type of pressure, because if you screw up people will look at it as a woman screwing up and not as a coach screwing up," says Gray. "But I'm trying to thrive on that rather than let it hold me back."
There's rarely been a more optimistic moment for women in football than 2017: Kicker Becca Longo recently made headlines by becoming the first woman to receive a Division II football scholarship, and the NFL appointed an unprecedented three women coaching interns to this summer's training camps. Still, when the women of Team USA say they play football, they usually get asked if they're wearing clothes—not lingerie like the women of the Legends League.
"Can't take away from their talent at all, but sometimes I really just wish that sex didn't sell," says London of the league in its eighth year despite controversies around both its treatment of players and its founding philosophy. "It's like: That's all that women represent to you? We're so much more than that!"
London, Gray and Farrell are all working to increase opportunities for women in football—ways for players to acquire skills earlier and become better overall athletes. "The sky's the limit for the growth of women's football," says Farrell. "The women have been toiling in the dark for a while now, but it's about time people understand how much time, effort and energy they're putting into advancing the quality of the product of their football. It's getting way better every day."
"What we hope happens," adds Gray, "is that if you didn't know we were women—you couldn't see the ponytails coming out of the helmets—that you could watch the game and not know the difference between women and men playing." London has a more straightforward request: for Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan to personally sponsor the Atlanta Phoenix, so that the team can afford health insurance. "He can redeem himself," she says, making a joke about the Falcons QB's Super Bowl loss. "Let us show him what football is all about."
But first, the team has to defend its title after defeating Mexico 29-0 in the first game of the tournament. The two remaining games on June 27 and 30 will be live-streamed. It's the homestretch for the players, who've already played 10-week seasons with their local teams before coming to Team USA training camp for two-a-days to prepare to play three games in seven days. "This is not powderpuff. This is legit as it comes," says Farrell. "Physically, mentally, emotionally, they are 100 percent football players."
Perhaps even better than the W, though, is the camaraderie the team finds as it comes together—at least for a couple of weeks—to defy just about every expectation anyone's ever had.
"I'm doing something with these other women that people told us we couldn't do, or that we're not supposed to do; a lot of people still think it's a man's game," says Gray. "When I run into people who say women can't play football, I just say, 'Well, I've been doing this for years with women who can.'"