Football a 'blast' for female Oak Parker

Pigskin game not just for men anymore

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By day she is a gentle, comforting, and soft-spoken supervisor for Hephzibah Children's Association in Oak Park. She likes to cook, paint murals, and read Harry Potter books. By night, clad in shoulder pads, helmet and cleats, she bowls over defenders as a bruising running back for the Chicago Force, a women's tackle football team.

Meet Melissa Smith, lifelong Oak Parker and an athlete in every sense of the word. Smith's not sheepish about telling you she's 5-foot-6 and 200 pounds. Her size comes in handy on Saturday nights when defenses are trying to keep her from the end zone at Holmgrem Athletic Complex in Chicago. The 28-year-old is currently in her fifth season as a member of the Force. She plays running back, and racked up 108 yards on 18 carries during the team's 14-7 season-opening victory over Wisconsin a few weeks ago. How does the OPRF High School grad (1997) like knocking people over?

"It's a blast," she says. "You men kept this a secret from us for a long time. It's a great stress-reliever, that's for sure."

Smith, who also plays recreational softball and is a part-time student at UIC studying sociology and psychology, has racked up some impressive accolades over her five-year career on the gridiron. Last year she earned a Game Day MVP honor and was selected an Independent Women's Football League (IWFL) All-Star. In 2006, Smith was named Player of the Year.

But the honors don't mean much to Smith, a former softball standout at OPRF who played under the venerable Mel Kolbusz.

"I play football because of the camaraderie that you get from being part of a team," she says. "That, and it's fun to knock people over.

"I was never really into the sport before I started playing. I thought it was boring when I'd see it on television. But now I have a new appreciation for it."

Since the team's inception in 2003, Smith has helped the Chicago Force to an impressive 36-13 overall record. The team is one of 41 in the IWFL that compete in the U.S. and Canada.

Smith is the oldest of four siblings, one of whom, Brittany, tore up the hardwood this year as a basketball player for OPRF. Another sister, Saith, is an assistant basketball coach at OPRF.

"Sports are a big part of our lives," says Smith. "But I took more to softball, and now football. I'll try anything new."

Her first taste of the pigskin game was a reality check. She said she was hit pretty hard and shocked at the intensity of the play.

"I was knocked on my butt, but I took it as a wake-up call," said Smith, who has endured two sprained ankles, a tear of her MCL in her knee, a sprained shoulder, and numerous jammed fingers thus far in her career. But the injuries have done nothing to send her into retirement.

"I'll keep playing for as long as the body holds up," she says matter-of-factly. "It's not everyday a woman gets to flatten a linebacker."

Or two.


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