EVERETT — Over the past year the “Me Too” movement has swept across the United States and beyond, highlighting women’s issues, particularly regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.
There’s another type of “Me Too” movement also happening in Everett, and this one involves women playing a sport that’s traditionally been reserved for men.
The Everett Reign women’s tackle football team is in the midst of its sixth season, and the Reign are showing that women and girls can enjoy the rough and tumble of the gridiron just as much as their male counterparts.
“Football has become part of my DNA,” said LeAnn Layman, an accounting specialist from Marysville and the team’s All-American center. “It consumes me. It’s the one place I get to just be me. I’m not mom, I’m not co-worker, I’m not boss, trainer, sister, mother, whatever. I get to be just me. I get to put my helmet and gear on and nobody knows me as anything but an athlete.”
The Reign, founded by Lakewood High School alum Billy Russo, play in the second of three tiers of the Women’s Football Alliance, a league that includes 64 teams across the nation. Everett, which plays its home games at Goddard Stadium and Everett Memorial Stadium and has its home games streamed live online by STSPN, is 3-1 heading into Saturday’s home game against the Tacoma Trauma and well on its way to qualifying for the playoffs for a third straight season.
“I think this might be the most talented team I’ve ever played on,” said running back/linebacker Nikki Pelham, a daycare owner from Everett who spent three years playing for the Seattle Majestics before moving to the Reign the past four seasons. “You can feel there’s a little bit of a buzz that’s different from years past, where we know we’re good.”
The Reign’s roster consists of 34 players primarily from Snohomish and Skagit counties, with a handful from beyond. The players, who come from all walks of life, gather three times during the week for practices and film sessions, with games taking place on Saturdays.
Now in their sixth season, the Reign have been around long enough where they have experienced veterans to lead them. Among those are the team’s four returning All-Americans: Layman (a five-time All-American), quarterback Michele Walsh, receiver Noor Shankman and linebacker Kayc Cornist. All four were second-team American Conference selections last year.
Layman and fullback/defensive tackle Brandy Wride have been with the team from the beginning, and they’ve seen the team grow by leaps and bounds over that time. The players have gained experience, and the team has attracted younger players and better athletes.
“It’s changed a lot,” Wride, a medical assistant from Marysville, said. “Our first year it was like a bunch of older, out-of-shape women struggling to play, and there were a lot of injuries. Now we have a great range of ages and athletic ability, so it’s really improved a lot.”
Russo said Everett is something of an anomaly in the WFA. Most teams rely primarily on rushing offenses, but behind Walsh the Reign pass the ball as often as they run it.
“Running seems to be the way a lot of teams go, they put a lot of big girls back there and just let them try to truck people over,” said Everett resident Walsh, who’s an analyst at Boeing. “But we like to pass and kind of spread it out. Our line has gotten a lot better and we actually have veteran receivers now, so I’m really excited about that.”
The Reign are part of a movement that’s seen female involvement in football increase. Jen Welter became the NFL’s first female assistant coach when she spent time as a linebackers coach for the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, while former WFA player Katie Sowers is a current offensive assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers. Women have become more involved at the executive level of the NFL as well, with Sam Rapoport being hired as director of football development to help address gender inclusion in the sport at all levels.
Evidence of the changing attitudes towards women and girls playing football can be seen through the younger players on Everett’s roster. Defensive end/tight end Shania Holland of Marysville started playing on boys youth teams when she was 11 years old and continued for five years before joining the Reign. And linebacker/fullback Chanel Siva of Mount Vernon, who’s 16, turned down playing on her high school’s JV team to play for Everett.
And Everett’s players recognize they’re doing their part to blaze the trail for women and girls in football.
“I think we’re breaking ground,” said Shankman, who’s a behavioral case manager in Bellingham. “There’s been some little girls at our games who come up and talk to us and they’re excited because they didn’t know this was an opportunity for them. Five years ago I didn’t know this was a thing. Now it is, and you’re seeing football for girls grow at a pretty drastic rate. There’s more and more girls playing high school football, there’s some middle school-aged girls teams popping up around the U.S., which wasn’t around when I was in middle school. That’s cool to see.”
But while the Reign may be blazing a trail for in women in football, they’re just like any other athletes in any other sport: They want to win. The WFA Championships take place July 26-29 in Atlanta, and after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs the past two years Everett has loftier ambitions this year.
“The goal is definitely Atlanta,” said Cornist, who lives in Lake Stevens and works for an auto dealership. “That’s the championship and that’s what we’re shooting for.”
If you have an idea for a community sports story, email Nick Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.