-Written by Kyle Newman
DENVER, COLORADO – JUNE 30: Mile High Blaze offensive line huddle together to receive a play during practice Thursday, June 30, 2022 at Parkfield Lake Park near Montbello Recreation Center. The Blaze play in the WFA national championship game on July 9. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to The Denver Post)
As a young girl, Leilani Caamal longed to trade her pom-poms for a helmet, shoulder pads and a football.
She got that chance at age 9 and hasn’t looked back. Over the past two seasons she’s emerged as an All-American linebacker for the Mile High Blaze, a local women’s semi-pro tackle team that plays in the Woman’s Football Alliance.
Caamal, 17, represents the future of women’s tackle football, which has steadily grown over the past decade. The Blaze has been a local catalyst in that growth. Now in its 10th season, the Blaze morphed from a recreational team into a bonafide contender, with Caamal and Mile High set to play in the WFA Division II national championship July 9 in Canton, Ohio.
“I hated cheerleading,” Caamal recalled with a laugh. “I would run away from my cheer practice and go watch my younger brother’s flag football practice. I started learning by watching him practice, then I started drawing up some basic plays of my own.
“Initially I was pushed to do cheerleading by my family and everybody else. Everyone kept telling me that girls can’t and don’t play football, but I always knew I wanted to play. I was determined.”
Caamal, the Blaze and the WFA are looking to buck that stereotype while establishing women’s tackle football on a national stage. And in Caamal — who already has her own line of Fatheads — the Blaze possesses the city’s most promising young female tackle football player.
The Blaze feature players ranging from Caamal’s age to the mid-50s. Each player pays $400 in annual fees to be on the team. Plus, players have to pay for their own equipment and travel, which can add up to thousands of dollars. But to the Blaze players, the financial cost and high probability of injury is worth the opportunity that the WFA presents.
Mile High’s players have an eclectic mix of professions and backgrounds. The Blaze feature nurses, bankers, teachers, blue-collar workers, active military, first responders and stay-at-home moms. The one thing they all have in common is they are “actual, beast football players,” Blaze owner/WFA director of operations Wyn Flato-Dominy explained.
“We’re not flag football or lingerie football or any other sort (of football adaptation) like powderpuff,” Flato-Dominy said. “It’s the same physicality as the men’s game, and we’re playing college rules with college refs. We have some players who have come from horrible backgrounds, who have gotten out of the gang life, and this team is their savior. We’ve got all walks of life on this team, which is really cool.”
The Blaze play home games at Aurora Public Schools Stadium, where they beat the Houston Energy 12-6 on June 25 to advance to the title game. It marked Mile High’s fourth consecutive appearance in the conference title game. A victory over the Derby City Dynamite on July 9 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium would promote the Blaze to the WFA’s Pro division for 2023.
This year’s title game appearance underscores a quick ascension for the Blaze, which began in 2013 as the Mile High Cowgirls. When Flato-Dominy took over as owner, she rebranded the team, changed the colors to orange and blue to match the Broncos, and made it her goal to “take the Blaze from a nobody team to the No. 1-ranked team in the nation (in Division II).”
Growing each year
DENVER, COLORADO – JUNE 30: Mile High Blaze Kimberly Santistevan (27) tightens her shoulder pads during practice Thursday, June 30, 2022 at Parkfield Lake Park near Montbello Recreation Center. The Blaze play in the WFA national championship game on July 9. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to The Denver Post)
The Blaze had 17 rostered players in year one. This year, they have about 55, and the team’s tryout numbers have grown each year.
“Just because girls are told all through elementary, junior high and high school that because they’re a girl they can’t play football, well guess what? You really can, and you can be great at it,” Flato-Dominy said. “That’s the message we’ve spread around through current players and ex-players, because we’ve got some women on our team and in our league who would blow your mind.”
Beyond Caamal (who also plays varsity football and wrestles for Vista Peak), the Blaze are highlighted by 38-year-old quarterback/safety Kimberly Santistevan, 39-year-old wideout/quarterback/defensive back Smooth Lowery-Jones, 40-year-old linebacker/fullback Yolanda Searcy, and 32-year-old linebacker/wideout Stephanie Skinner.
Santistevan is a Pre-K teacher who coaches freshman football at Douglas County. Lowery-Jones was a star basketball player at DU and now works as a security analyst. Searcy, nicknamed “Yo-Yo,” is a 15-year tackle football veteran who played her first eight years in Minnesota. The Comcast employee captains the Blaze defense. And Skinner, a Starbucks barista by day, is a pro MMA fighter.
Skinner sees parallels between the rise of women’s MMA and women’s football, even if the latter is more than a decade behind the curve established by the former.
“I was in the MMA game really young, when women weren’t doing it and it wasn’t a cool thing, and I grew up along with (women’s professional MMA),” Skinner said. “So to see more people coming out for the Blaze each year, younger women on the field, more people finding out about us — that’s the most rewarding part. All it takes is for a couple influencers to get in the right people’s ears, and you see a situation like Ronda Rousey and how she changed the game in MMA… For the WFA, the Boston Renegades are going to help be that stepping stone to get everyone else noticed.”
The Renegades are the WFA’s best team and will play for their fourth title on July 10 in the Pro championship game. They have backing from the Patriots, as New England owner Robert Kraft loaned them his jet for the championship game last year and head coach Bill Belichick recently gave the team a $10,000 grant.
Boston features quarterback Allison Cahill, the MVP of last year’s championship game and the WFA’s most accomplished player — by a wide margin. She is the Tom Brady of women’s tackle football.
“(Cahill’s) a woman where, when you watch her play, you can tell someone’s been throwing a football around with her for a lot of years,” Skinner said. “She’s smart, intelligent, athletic, and when people think that women can’t play football, she’s the epitome of the reasons that they can. And we’re the epitome of it on this team, too.”
Finding the players
DENVER, COLORADO – JUNE 30: Mile High Blaze Stephanie Skinner (26) during practice Thursday, June 30, 2022 at Parkfield Lake Park near Montbello Recreation Center. The Blaze play in the WFA national championship game on July 9. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to The Denver Post)
Part of the Blaze’s improvement in the WFA has been their evolution in recruiting.
Though Flato-Dominy is still not beyond approaching a potential recruit in the grocery store, the team has developed a more efficient method of increasing its player pool. Over the past several years, Flato-Dominy and head coach Rob Sandlin have drawn from local flag football leagues, recruited ex-rugby players, called on power-lifters and rostered ex-basketball or soccer players.
“When we first got here, we’d put ads on CraigsList, we’d go to Pride Parades, and nightclubs were a big recruiting factor too,” Sandlin recalled with a laugh. “As we’ve evolved on that, we’re looking for serious ex-athletes. Because when we’re playing against (bona fide teams) like in St. Louis in the conference championship a couple years ago, they’ve got ex-LSU track stars on their team and about 12 (former) Division-I athletes. We go out there, we can’t have a bunch of soccer moms.”
As the Blaze has been finding its rhythm, the WFA has been busy building an identity.
The league signed a five-year deal to play its championship games in Canton through 2025, and growing sponsorships helped offset costs and soar the number of teams, with more than 3,000 players across three divisions. Plus, the WFA developed a relationship with the NFL Alumni Academy and a handful of its players and coaches have gone on to the NFL coaching ranks.
Still, Flato-Dominy, who will take on a larger role with the WFA next year, hasn’t seen one of her main goals come to fruition here in Denver.
“The original goal was modeling the Blaze after the Broncos and being a sister team to the Broncos,” Flato-Dominy said. “The ultimate goal is still to be able to get their support. We’ve tried to get their attention, but haven’t been able to. I’d love to be able to play a halftime game (at Empower Field), like a quick little exhibition so people can see what we’re all about and that we’re legitimate tackle football.”
While the Blaze chase their first championship and more local recognition for the franchise’s growth, Lowery-Jones hopes the future of women’s tackle football brings a more clearly defined landscape.
Currently, the WFA is in competition with the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC) and the X League (formerly known as Lingerie Football League and the Legends Football League) for players and markets, though the WFA dwarfs the other two in overall size. Colorado has a WNFC team, the Denver Bandits, and X League team, the Denver Rush.
“Teams and leagues are going to have to eventually condense, and there’s going to have to be some collaboration across (the board), because we can’t have over a hundred teams across the country if players are going to actually get paid,” Lowery-Jones said. “And that’s the end goal — to make this a legitimate professional sport.”
DENVER, COLORADO – JUNE 30: Mile High Blaze Kimberly Santistevan (27) hikes the ball during practice Thursday, June 30, 2022 at Parkfield Lake Park near Montbello Recreation Center. The Blaze play in the WFA national championship game on July 9. (Photo by Daniel Brenner/Special to The Denver Post)