February 6, 2003
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Professional football player and Miami Township firefighter Laura Kerr with Fire Chief Colin Altman, Assistant Chief Hope Robbins and firefighter Sara Zimmerman-Crockett. Kerr plays middle linebacker for the Columbus Flames.

Firefighter tackles pro football

Clad in a parka and sipping a soda in a local coffeehouse, Laura Kerr appears to be just another Yellow Springs resident enjoying her Saturday morning in town. But as she settles in and discards the parka, Kerr reveals the physique of a professional athlete.

“Not just any athlete,” Kerr says. “I’m a professional football player.”

It’s not that Kerr has something against other sports — she played volleyball, soccer, basketball, track and soccer in high school and college — it’s just that for her, there’s something special about football.

“I love the hitting. There is something unique about the collisions that take place on the football field,” she said.

As the middle linebacker and captain of the defense for the Columbus Flames, an expansion team in the National Women’s Football Association, Kerr will be doing plenty of hitting when the season begins this April. Columbus was awarded the Flames franchise last April when the fledgling league, which was then called the NWFL, expanded from 22 to 31 teams.

The Flames started practicing last August, and to hear Kerr tell it, it has become almost unbearable waiting for the first game. “Everyone on the team has worked so hard, and we’re tired of beating each other up; we want to beat up on somebody else for a change,” she said.

Kerr said she first heard about the Flames when a friend told her about an advertisement for open tryouts. Two days later Kerr was one of one-hundred hopefuls running sprints and agility drills in front of Flames head coach, Hank Paterson. Kerr says that when she was asked to join the Flames she knew she would make the sacrifices necessary to be part of the team.

Time, sacrifices, duties

“Everybody there is giving up something big. Most of us have full-time jobs, so time, be it away from family, a career, school or other sports, is usually our biggest sacrifice,” she said.

Kerr must attend three practices and a “chalk talk session” each week, work as a full-time firefighter and paramedic in Fairborn and volunteer as a firefighter and paramedic for Miami Township Fire-Rescue.

According to Kerr, the players must also dedicate time to marketing the team and the league. “Money is really tight with the team. We don’t get a salary, just a percentage of ticket sales. We don’t have a season’s sales to start from so we have to seek out sponsors to cover the cost of the equipment,” Kerr said.

“During the season, we have to cover the costs of the busses and hotel rooms, too,” she said.

When asked how she manages to find time for everything, Kerr said, “I have scheduled this year’s vacation time around the games and practices during the season. I don’t think I’ll have to miss any practices.”

While Kerr admits that she is giving up a lot of time to play football, she points out that she is not alone. She also says her sacrifices seem minor when she thinks about the reward of being able to play professional football.

“I played football all the time growing up, but because I never had the chance to play on an organized team, I never really thought of myself as football player. The moment I made the team I knew I was a football player,” Kerr said.

Kerr, who sees herself as an ambassador for the game, says she hopes the Flames will be able to encourage younger female athletes to think about playing football. “I would be honored to open doors for young women, she said. “I am proud of the way I live my life and I would be proud to be a role model.”

Despite all of these concerns, Kerr still feels that her biggest commitment is to her teammates on the field.

“There is a unique camaraderie about football. That’s why we play. That camaraderie is based on everybody being able to count on everybody else to show up and play hard, so my first priority is being there for my teammates on the field,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see 11 players working together and executing.”

Playing the game

At first, Flames practices were slow-paced and focused on fundamentals. Of the 53 women on the team, only two had played organized football before, so despite their deep and varied backgrounds, nearly all the players had to learn the game. “It seems like we had to learn everything, what the positions are, what they do and how they work together,” Kerr said. “And that was just the beginning. Then we had to learn techniques, formations and a playbook.”

By the time Kerr sat for an interview last month, she was already talking like a savvy veteran who has been around the game for years. The Flames, she said, will be a “smashmouth team, especially on defense.”

Kerr seems more than physically prepared for the challenge of professional football. Kerr says she has always been physically fit, but firefighting has given her the stamina and strength to be prepared for the game’s intense physical training.

Kerr says that her firefighting experience will help in other areas of the game too. “There’s nothing like the adrenaline rush you get when you run into a burning building. Firefighting has helped me to learn how to manage that adrenaline,” she said. “Hopefully I will be able to use that skill to help me maintain my composure on the football field.”

As the defensive captain, Kerr will have to stay level-headed on the field. She will be responsible for calling out the defensive plays and formations to her teammates, which means she must make sure everybody will be in the right place at the right time.

The image of the sport

For Kerr, the pressures of football do not end with the on-the-field demands of executing assignments, managing teammates and knocking opposing running backs into next week.

For some reason, many people still do not think women can be capable football players, and many assume that all women who play physically demanding sports are lesbians.

“The league is trying hard to fight against the image of physical female athletes as lesbians. It’s a position I understand, but not necessarily one I agree with,” said Kerr.

“On the field there is no sexuality, no religion and no skin color. There are just players making plays; I would like to think the league could just focus on that,” said Kerr.

A future in football?

When asked about her future in football, Kerr thinks first of the league. “I am optimistic that the league will continue to develop slowly. There isn’t a lot of support for women’s sports right now, but we’re going to be on local TV this year, and cable next year,” she said. If we can put a good product on the field, maybe our support will grow more quickly.”

Kerr says she loves Yellow Springs and would eventually like to own a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. But she could be tempted to leave if she had a chance to support herself playing football.

“If something progressed to the point where I could make a living playing football, I would go there to play. I don’t really see that happening, but if it did I don’t know how I could turn it down,” Kerr said.

Even if it were just enough to scrape by, if someone offered Laura Kerr a job playing football, one could bet that she would take it. She loves the game too much not to.


—Brian Loudon