Written by Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
For some people, football is the epitome of toughness and masculinity. But women in the Kansas City Glory are working to change how people perceive the game.
When she’s not at her job with the Kansas City Chiefs, Sheila Sickau is wide receiver and kicker for Kansas City Glory, a women’s tackle football team.
Football isn’t new for Sickau like it is for a lot of her teammates. She started playing in high school, when she was the only girl on the team. Sickau didn’t play with boys because she wanted to — she played with them because it was the only option she had and she loved the game.
In the future, Sickau said, there should be all-girl football teams for high schoolers.
“A lot of girls don’t necessarily want to play on the men’s team,” said Sickau. “It’s just the only thing that’s offered for them. If you can get a high school team of all girls playing, it’s going to start with flag first, gain that interest and then it’ll just start evolving.”
After high school, Sickau thought her football days were over. She went to college and ran track, but football was still her passion. In 2014, Sickau was working as a special education teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee. The principal told her about women’s football teams, and she was excited to hear that such a thing existed. She tried out for the Knoxville Lightning and made it. Since then, she hasn’t looked back.
Sheila Sickau watches some of the girls on the field.
Football was life-changing for Sickau, who went on to get a master’s degree in sports administration and then took an internship with the Chiefs, which led her to Kansas City and the Glory, which she now refers to as family. Sickau works full time for the Chiefs as a business administration representative, and has connected the Chiefs and the Glory.
Sickau said girls are starting to be introduced to the sport and take interest in it earlier, which she thinks will lead to more girls pursuing football as a career.
“Girls need to know that they’re capable of anything and they have the same opportunities,” said Sickau.“It’s finally starting to steamroll with flag and getting the ball in their hands, getting them running drills, just the IQ and knowledge, the language of football. It’s becoming more common with young girls and they want to do it. They’re starting to see it on TV with the amazing women in the NFL and positions. And if they see it, they can be it.”
Sickau says that the game teaches good values and sportspersonship no matter the player’s gender.
“Flag is the basis to really any other sport, like compare it to basketball. You’re still working together as a team, it’s still agility,” said Sickau. “You’re still on offense and defense learning that concept of working together as a unit. It’s the basis of a sport. It’s just a different ball in their hands. You shouldn’t be afraid of that.”
Tackle football, on the other hand, allows a lot more body diversity among players, Sickau said, adding that girls should have the chance to play tackle, too.
“The beauty of football is there’s a role position for everyone — every body type is needed. The wide receivers, quarterbacks, running backs cannot do anything without your o-line. And that o-line, usually those types of girls find it hard in other sports to be as productive as they are in football,” she said. “So everybody has a spot. Everybody has a role. You are just as meaningful as the person next to you. And girls can’t find that in a lot of other sports.”
Women 18 and older (or younger, if they have a waiver from their parents) have a chance to participate in tackle football during team tryouts for the Kansas City Glory on Nov. 6.
KeKe Blackmon, the team’s head coach, said no prior experience is needed for tryouts. Several women on the team had never played football before joining, she said.
“We’ll bring their football IQ up a notch and they’ll learn a lot from us,” Blackmon said of people who tryout. “As far as tackling, it’s a very safe sport because we make it that way.”
KeKe Blackmon at flag football boot camp for girls on Oct. 17, 2021.
Blackmon is immensely proud of the women she coaches, but humble about her own accomplishments in the game. She’s played competitive football for 11 seasons, and in addition to coaching for the Glory, Blackmon coaches freshmen boys at Olathe East High School.
She started playing tackle football in 2008 with the Kansas City Tribe and became team captain the next year. Among multiple other awards and distinctions, Blackmon became a USA gold medalist when, as team captain, she led the Dallas Diamonds to victory in the 2013 IFAF Women’s World Championship. During those years, Blackmon met Jen Welter, the first female coach in the NFL.
Earlier this month, Blackmon, Welter and players on the Kansas City Glory hosted a flag football camp at Legends Field for girls ages 6-18. It was an extension of Welter’s Grrridiron Girls nationwide tour of flag boot camps for girls.
KeKe Blackmon coaches participants in flag football boot camp for girls at Legends Park on Oct. 17, 2021.
Like Sickau, Blackmon also lacked football opportunities as a young girl, which is one of the reasons those boot camps and coaching mean so much to her.
“It means everything to see what we’ve done manifest itself into little humans and young women that really want to play this game and to enhance it the way that we have,” said Blackmon. “It makes me feel so good.”
Blackmon said she would love to see flag football offered for high school girls because at this point, they generally only get to play competitive football if they join the boys’ team like Sickau did.
“We’re not trying to get on the field with them,” Blackmon said of men’s teams. “At least I’m not. I’m not coaching for (Kansas City Glory) to get on the field with men, I’m coaching them to get on the field with each other and show that we have just as much brightness and just as much fortitude as men do in this game.”
Syreeta Gapelu, who will be playing defense when the Glory’s next season begins in the spring, said her teammates have made her feel empowered and helped her to be a better role model for her children.
“We’re like a family,” said Gapelu. “I love the game. I am a single mom and I’m really busy with my kids, with them playing sports. So for me to be active outside of being involved with my kids, it’s like therapy for me.”
Rocky Ray, defensive back for the Kansas City Glory, was crowned Rookie of the Year last season. Prior to joining the Glory, Ray had never played football, but she watched her brothers play and had always wanted to.
Rocky Ray smiles as she watches kids learn to play flag football.
“Sports are meant for everyone,” said Ray. “For all the people who grew up in these times where this game isn’t for girls or what have you, just give them a chance. See what they’re like, because things aren’t the same as they used to be. Girls are a lot tougher than people think. I think we’re tougher than boys.”