The first time Tami Engelman expressed an interest in playing organized football, she didn’t have a fully stocked support system behind her.
Her father was dead set against it. Her mother, meanwhile, welcomed the chance for her only daughter to branch out and be a little different. And when Engelman – then a 6-foot, 310-pound high school sophomore – walked into a meeting for interested players at Crystal Lake Central 14 years ago, the welcome she received wasn’t exactly warm.
Boys scoffed, insisting Engelman was in the wrong room. When she persisted, repeating she was prepared to earn a spot on the Tigers’ offensive line the following year, the head nods and eye rolls continued.
You’ll never show up, players told Engelman. But when she did – reporting for the first day of summer camp before her junior year – Central coach Dennis Koerner pulled her aside and questioned her commitment level.
“Are you really sure you want to try out?” he asked. “This is going to be tough.”
Engelman stood her ground. She wanted to play football.
Years later, Engelman hasn’t stopped. She’s now in her fourth season with the Chicago Force, who play in the Women’s Football Alliance, a nationwide professional women’s football league.
The Force (9-0) play the Atlanta Phoenix in the third round of the WFA playoffs Saturday in Evanston. The Force have won all of their games this season by at least 43 points.
Engelman, an offensive lineman, has made the league’s all-star team three of the past four seasons and returned from Finland this week after winning a gold medal while playing for Team USA at the women’s football world championships.
At times, she marvels that she’s even playing football, let alone at a level where women from all walks of life – from mothers to lawyers and deans of students – pay $700 a season – just for the right to say they play tackle football.
It’s a lifestyle many don’t understand.
“People will say, ‘So you play football in bras and underwear?’ ” Engelman said, explaining people’s confusion between the WFA and the Lingerie Football League. “And I tell them, ‘We wear full pads.
“People see this and say, ‘Oh my gosh, if you didn’t know this was women’s tackle football, you wouldn’t know this is women’s tackle football.’ But I’ll tell you. Women are vicious. Women are mean.”
In her own way, Engelman has found a way to fit right in.
The self-described former tomboy never envisioned playing tackle football after her two-year high school career ended. She went to Western Illinois on a track and field scholarship, and after coaching shot put and discus throwers at Streamwood High School, she wanted more.
She knew women’s tackle football existed but didn’t know how to pursue it. She Googled “Chicago Force” and showed up for a tryout in 2009. She didn’t know what to expect, but quickly proved she could play.
“We knew there was a player in there – we just had to find a spot for her to play,” Force coach John Konecki said. “She’s extremely powerful and she has a little bit of a nasty streak to her. She is one tough football player.”
Engelman, who runs a fitness center in Elmhurst, said the nastiness comes naturally, but that it isn’t part of her everyday makeup. As someone who must be pleasant and encouraging to the clients she deals with in her 9-to-5 life, her football persona quickly takes over once she steps onto the field.
She has transitioned into being a full-time offensive lineman this season after splitting time between the offensive and defensive lines earlier in her career with the Force. She has also managed to put together another all-star season after she ruptured her Achilles – an injury she came back from in 5 1/2 months in time to tryout for Team USA.
Although she still feels like she’s got a lot of room to grow as a player, Engelman sometimes has difficulty coming to grips with how much she has accomplished in a sport many believed she had no place playing. She maintains contact with many of her former high school teammates – some of whom contributed to the $3,000 she had to pay to travel overseas with Team USA.
She talks to her father before every game now, and the two often spend Sundays watching football. His initial reservations about his baby girl getting hurt playing high school football have long been forgotten. Paying attention to those who didn’t support her efforts has never been Engelman’s way.
“That has to do with me being more independent and being my own person and sticking up for myself,” she said. “My parents had me young and so I was free to do what I want within the restraints. I always had this, ‘I’m going to do what I want attitude.’
“It was like, I’m either going to do something with my life or I’m not. And football was it. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to play football.”