By Todd Jones
Carrie Wigton was leading a double life. And it hurt like hell. She wore long sleeves to hide the bruises. Many days it pained her just to move. She would disappear for hours in the evening and on weekends. Her coworkers began asking questions. Was she the victim of spousal abuse? Was she involved in some sort of nefarious underworld activity? What terrible secret was this UPS grad concealing?
Finally, Wigton had to confess. By day, she had been playing the part of Ms. Wigton, mild-mannered 8th-grade health teacher in Tukwila. But by night, Ms. Wigton became (insert dramatic music here) Warbird Wigton—professional football player.
Quietly, almost shyly, the 27-year-old became a part of history last fall, when she signed on as a defensive back for the Seattle Warbirds, a brand-new team in the fledgling Women’s American Football League (WAFL).
One of three women’s professional leagues in the U.S. and the only one running during traditional football season, the WAFL was the Pacific Northwest’s first stab at women’s professional football.
It was also the first time many of the players had ever tackled, hit, and slammed into other human beings on a regular basis.
“Learning to tackle was, well, interesting,” says Wigton. “Full-contact was definitely a different experience. Unlike guys, who have been playing in pony leagues and in high school and college, women haven’t been taught the game since childhood, so we were learning as we played. At first we were totally beat up. I was literally black and blue.”
An instructor with a master’s in teaching and a bachelor’s in exercise science, Wigton joined up for the Warbirds’ inaugural season after reading an article about the formation of the franchise.
“I used to play pickup games in the street,” says Wigton, who grew up in California. “And my mom grew up in the Bay Area, so she was a big 49ers fan. But there were no actual leagues for girls in high school, so my main sport was soccer. Then I heard about the Seattle Warbirds. I liked the game and so I got hooked.”
A year ago she donned the gold pants, cardinal jersey top, and gold helmet emblazoned with a hawk-like bird taking a bite out of the Space Needle, and trotted out onto the field for the inaugural game in Juanita High School’s football stadium.
For that first game, the stadium drew an estimated 1,200 fans—the biggest crowd of the season—family, friends, and curious onlookers who wanted to see women playing full-out tackle football with NFL rules.
Installed on the team as a defensive back, the 5-foot, 140-pound Wigton was part of a team comprising accountants, firefighters, a criminal defense attorney and mother of two, a nanny, a forklift driver, a school principal, and an FBI agent, just to name a few of the more than 80 who signed on. Many, like her, had played team sports such as soccer and rugby. None of them had ever played tackle football.
And they kicked some serious professional-women’s-football butt. The team had a perfect 9-0 record in the regular season. Twice they won by shutouts of 41-0. In each of the games they played, the defense limited its opponents to fewer than 100 yards total offense.
It wasn’t until the playoffs that the Warbirds finally showed any weakness, losing to Arizona on a last-minute play.
“It was the injuries,” says Wigton of their final loss. “We lost our starting middle linebacker to an ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] tear, the other middle linebacker broke her hand, another had a deep bone bruise, and then there were broken fingers, sprained ankles, and concussions.”
Their loss certainly couldn’t be ascribed to a lack of commitment or intensity. The training was brutal, requiring hours on nights and weekends on top of the full-time jobs the women already had.
“The time commitment was very demanding,” says Wigton, whose first year as a teacher was especially grueling, requiring at least 50 to 60 hours a week. Football practice three days a week, plus weekends, added another 30 to 40 hours. Away games required day-long driving trips.
“I didn’t see any of my friends. My family couldn’t get ahold of me. The first semester was a foggy haze,” she says.
Fan attendance, after that first game, was sparse. Under the tutelage of Michael Stuart, a semi-pro men’s football coach, they played in the freezing, wet, and windy weather, often to near-empty stadiums.
“At that first game the stands were full,” Wigton says. “But as the season went on, we were playing in the winter on Saturday nights, competing with other sports [NFL, college ball] so the middle was kind of spotty. We had to recognize that women playing football isn’t a well-known or popular thing. If we hadn’t had such a successful season, I don’t know if anybody would have shown up.”
And here’s the really amazing thing: They did it all for free. “We were told that if we made a profit at the end of the year, the owner would take so much for herself, and the rest would be split among the team,” says Wigton. “But none of us expected to get paid. We played for the experience.”
That experience, Wigton says, made it all worthwhile.
“The camaraderie and bonding was awesome,” she says. “Meeting the women, the bonds that we formed, what we learned about the game. The small moments, the feeling in the locker room before we went out to play, the trips in the vans, the stories, the pranks we played on each other in hotels. When I look back, I remember the winning and the season—the feeling at the end of the first game when we won was awesome—but mostly it was the girls, the team aspect.
“A lot of us realized that we were going to be a part of history,” she continues. “We realized that we were opening doors for other girls. It made the impact of what we were doing a lot more significant.”
The fate of the WAFL is in question at this point, but that won’t diminish the experience for Wigton. “I made so many good friends and have so many memories. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”