Visuals produced by Aileen Imperial, KCTS9 and additional photography by Christine Unten and Eugene Fox.
On Aug. 22, 2013, Toakase Tukutau was about to hit the rugby field at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, where she was awaiting acceptance. She was plugged into her music and getting ready to play when her phone rang. That’s about the time her whole world came crashing down.
Her 19-year-old cousin had been shot and killed outside a convenience store in Utah.
“We had a pact that, no matter what, we were always going to be tight, always be in contact with each other, so it was a hard hit to our family,” says Tukutau, who goes by the nickname Kase (“kah-SAY”). “I had talked to him a month before and he was saying he was getting married, so it went from planning a wedding to planning a funeral.”
Tukutau immediately left Kansas, came back to her hometown of Tacoma, Washington, and lost control. She quit sports, started partying more, making bad choices and working dead-end jobs. She wasn’t happy.
Then she found the Majestics.
An all-women, full-tackle football team, the Seattle Majestics are part of a nonprofit league called the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), which has teams across the United States, from Seattle to Dallas to Pittsburgh. Each year, Seattle’s women go head-to-head with teams from Tacoma, Everett and Portland, Oregon, as well as more far-flung places such as Salt Lake City, Utah, and San Diego, California.
The women playing for the Seattle Majestics don’t hold back. They go full force, and they hit as hard as men. They’ve gone undefeated for two years in a row. So far this year, their record is 2-0.
On a deeper level, though, the team is a tight-knit community, an outlet for players’ energy and a source of self-identity and pride. In a time when headlines shout about the damage football does to players’ brains and bodies, team members say the Seattle Majestics saves lives.
“When I found this football team, my life was in a dark dark place,” Tukutau says. “Football got me out.”
For Tukutau, joining the Majestics wasn’t a huge leap. She played for Lincoln High School in Tacoma all four years she was there. She was a starting player on the freshman team, then moved to junior varsity and eventually varsity.
There was no girls’ team; Tukutau played defensive line with the boys. And with her football pads and helmet on, she was mistaken for a guy more times than she can count. She’s Tongan, 5-foot-8 and rock solid, with long, dark, curly hair that sticks out of her helmet. She says her tough-looking exterior makes other teams scared of her.
But when she talks football, there is a gentler tone to her voice.
“Playing football is kind of like my air,” she says. “It’s more than an adrenaline rush to me, more than love for the sport, it’s life, and I can’t really explain the happiness that fills my heart when I’m playing.”
In 2014, the Majestics named Tukutau Rookie of the Year, and she was selected for the Women’s Football Alliance All-American team for her work on the line. Last year, she was picked for the All-American team again.
Outside of football, she is also doing better. On March 25, she graduated from the training program Apprenticeship & Non-Traditional Employment for Women (ANEW), which she found through Majestics teammates. She will pursue a career in carpentry.
Tukutau isn’t the only one whose life has been transformed on the gridiron.
Rebecca Samuelson had just moved to Seattle when she left an abusive relationship and lost her grandmother. “Everything was terrible,” Samuelson says. “I went down this YouTube rabbit hole one night, when the Seattle Majestics popped up as a ‘video you might enjoy next.’”
She spent the entire night absorbing everything she could find about the team (which wasn’t much) and realized that the final training camp of the season was the next week. So Samuelson left her comfortable 10-block bubble and drove to Kent from downtown Seattle.
“It was horrible,” she says. “I showed up with my softball cleats, it was freezing cold and one of the veterans knocked me on my butt. I almost didn’t come back.”
Samuelson, with her blonde hair, blue eyes and bubbly personality, doesn’t look like your typical football player. But today, on top of 55- to 60-hour weeks as a technical marketing manager at Galvanize, she spends about 14 hours working and playing for the Majestics as a defensive end. “Despite the drive in rush hour, despite not getting home until 11 and feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck, it’s weirdly worth it,” she says.
The story repeats, with variations, among the Majestics’ 35 players.
Kiki Williams is a juggler — she works full-time at Boeing, attends school at Tacoma Community College, and somehow makes time for a relationship and a dog, a cat and two bearded dragons. On top of it all, she spends three days a week playing football.
Then there is Elisha Edlen, who lives on the Eastside, drives to Renton for her carpenter apprenticeship and then to practice with the Majestics in Kent. Edlen played sports through high school. When she graduated, she no longer had an outlet to release stress and be competitive. But on a camping trip with cousins she met a former Majestics player who told her about the team. Edlen has been with them for five seasons.
“It’s boosted my confidence,” she says. “I’m pretty soft-spoken and playing has gotten me to come out of my shell a lot more.”
The transformative power comes, in part, from the sport itself, and the structure and focus its given these women in their often erratic lives. “I think it’s the level of intensity, and how immersive it is,” Samuelson says. “When I walk onto the football field, no one can get ahold of me. Not a single person. Unless you’re on that football field with me, you can’t reach me. It’s my time to focus on me.”
As players work together day in, day out, the team has also become a family. “You can’t get away from the team if you want to,” Samuelson says. “We play together. We travel together. We go out to eat together after practices and games. We go out for birthdays. We are in constant communication.”
Whatever it is, players say they can’t imagine life without it.
Although these players say they’ve found a place they belong, it comes at a steep price. It costs $70,000 to run the team for a year. That money goes toward uniforms, equipment, referees and a field to play on. To cover those costs, the team relies on fundraising, sponsorships and ticket sales, but it’s not enough. So each team member puts down $900 to play for the season, and they still have to pay for travel out of their own pockets.
They’re trying new things — more social media, player profiles, upping ticket sales, crowdfunding, bake sales, pancake breakfasts at IHOP, raffles and working the concession booths at Seahawks games. They’ve revamped their sponsorship package to make it more appealing. Coaches and players use themselves as walking billboards, wearing Majestics gear everywhere they go — from the grocery store and gym to airports and new cities. They’ve tried radio spots and print ads.
Still, few sponsors or advertisers are willing to take a chance on the team, and the media doesn’t pay attention.
“We win a lot and we do a good job. We have a fan base that really loves us,” Samuelson says. “But there are challenges, like we play in Kent, and its women’s athletics, so it’s hard to get press. People don’t quite get it.”
That’s the big thing: People just don’t quite get it.
“We’ve tried contacting local ESPN radio and they don’t care,” says Cyndi Butz Houghton, the team’s CEO and one of seven volunteer coaches for the Majestics. “They’d rather interview the lingerie league players than the real tough women football players.”
That’s something else they’re up against: The Majestics always seem to be in the shadow of the Seattle Mist, a team that plays in the Legends Football League, which changed its name from the Lingerie Football League, although the women still play in bikinis with inadequate padding.
Most Majestics players say it’s usually the first question they’re asked when they tell people they play women’s football. “You get asked, ‘Oh the lingerie league?’ and we are like, no, we play 11-on-11, full-contact football with real pads, real helmets — we hit,” Edlen says.
Samuelson says people don’t really understand until they see it, so she often shows them pictures. One of her favorites shows seven players on the Fremont bridge, flexing after a Seattle Pride Parade.
“When I’m talking to a guy, I’m like, look, this is who I play with, they could whup your ass,” she says. “Once they get past the lingerie thing, they generally think it’s cool.”
In fact, the team has had more luck getting respect on the national level than here at home. While the Majestics changed their team colors a few years ago to match the Seahawks, they don’t get any help from the other football team in town. “The Seahawks have not expressed interest in us,” Butz says.
But in early March, the New Orleans Saints became the the first NFL team to host the USA Football’s Women’s World Football Games III. There were 224 women from 17 different countries, including seven Majestics players and Butz.
The Saints opened their practice facility to teams, provided lunch, had a personal nutritionist on site. Former wide receiver and Saints Hall of Famer Michael Lewis and Dr. Jen Welter, the first female coach in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, spent time with the teams.
“The New Orleans Saints treated us like royalty,” Butz says.
When they’re not trying to pay the bills, members of the Majestics have found another crusade: building a pipeline for young women to play football.
Samuelson grew up in middle-of-nowhere Michigan, where football was a ritual every Friday night during fall. In middle school, they introduced light-weight and heavy-weight football teams. She was desperate to play for the light-weight team, but the coach refused.
“He wouldn’t let me try out or even put on pads,” Samuelson says. “I can remember the feeling as a seventh-grade girl, knowing I could have handled it, and being more excited than any of the guys, but not being allowed to. I hate that there are other seventh graders out there feeling the same way.”
Just last year, the country’s first known tackle football league for fifth- and sixth-grade girls made its debut in Utah, and it was a hit. The league filled all 50 spots in three days and former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning even showed up to one of the practices.
Still, nationwide, only 1,565 high school girls played tackle football last season, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. It’s a number that has steadily grown since 2008, when 759 girls played, but it is still small. (The Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association doesn’t keep statistics on how many boys or girls play football in our state, like it does for basketball and soccer. Spokesperson Conor Laffey says the association is going to start next year.)
“We don’t have a talent pipeline for women’s football,” Samuelson says. “There is one youth program in one state, no high school program for girls, certainly no college program. Even if there are men out there who want women on the field playing, there is nowhere to get them.”
Instead, most women playing now got into the game in their 20s and 30s.
Majestics quarterback Rachel Woods grew up wanting to play football, but didn’t want to be the only girl on the team, putting on football gear after school in the locker room. She began to see it differently, though, when her little sister started playing with the boys at Whatcom Middle School in Bellingham.
Woods says early on in practices, the coaches told her sister she probably wouldn’t see a lot of playing time. That didn’t last long. “She destroyed the boys,” Woods says. “She killed it as a starter on all sides of the ball.”
Woods started thinking again about playing herself when she saw the Majestics walk in the Pride Parade. At first, she dismissed the thought, but in 2009, she spotted a flyer at a bar and decided it was time to give it a shot. Seven seasons later she is still playing with the team.
“Now, I play to keep exposure going and not let the sport die,” Woods says. “I want younger girls to grow up seeing other girls playing, and that it’s actually something they can aspire to and not just a dream.”
The recent revelations about head injuries in football creates another major barrier to getting more girls involved in the sport. “Until we learn more about concussions as a society, I think that is going to hold back younger girls from playing,” says Head Coach Scott McCarron.
Still, the attention has brought renewed focus on preventing head injuries, and the appeal of the sport, both for players and the masses, is undeniable. Perhaps, given time, women’s football will follow the path of women’s hockey, which last year saw the creation of the Professional Women’s Hockey League, the first of its kind in the country.
In the meantime, female football players aren’t going to see a paycheck. There probably isn’t a big Nike endorsement in their future. Instead, they’ll continue on, paying to get hit, tackle others and risk their health — all for the love of the game.
“Women who play football are a special breed,” says Butz. “They’ve embraced a sport they love and sacrifice every day to play this game. I think it makes them that much more special to watch, because you know what they’re giving up to play.”
A typical weekday for Mckenzie Tolliver looks like this: Head to downtown Seattle from Kent, work a full eight hours, back to Kent, football practice until 9 p.m. and then get home, hopefully in time tuck her kids into bed. She’s a Majestics safety, tight end, an asset manager and a mother of two.
She competed nationally as a swimmer in high school and eventually went to Washington State on a full ride scholarship. She played soccer and basketball, but was never able to pursue her real passion: football.
Tolliver contemplated a move to Texas just to play women’s football, but her dream was put on hold after having her kids. When she found the Majestics, she was all-in, despite the risks that come with a hard-hitting sport.
“You have one chance to be out here and play, and I’m not getting any younger,” says Tolliver, who has a fierce energy, and talks incredibly fast. “It’s a dream I’ve always had that has been presented and I have the opportunity so I have to capitalize. Otherwise, 10 years from now I’m going to be like, wow, I wish I had played.”
Now, it’s a balancing act between football and motherhood. “My issue with sports growing up was being too aggressive, but now it’s funny because I’m not aggressive enough, and I think it’s being a mom,” she says. “I can’t be an aggressive person and be a good mom.”
For three quarters of the season, she says, she couldn’t turn off that mothering instinct. On the field, she was “almost too nice,” she says. Then it clicked.
“We hit other women as hard as men hit other men. We play just as hard as they do,” Tolliver says. “I think they’d see that too. If they came out and watched us, they’d be impressed.”
The Majestics next game is Saturday, April 23 against the Tacoma Trauma at Lincoln High School in Tacoma. You can purchase tickets and find their entire game schedule on their website at theseattlemajestics.com.
This story was a collaboration between KCTS9 Digital Studios and Crosscut. Read the story, designed and developed by Joseph Liu, here on KCTS9.org.
Cambria Roth is Crosscut’s Editorial Assistant. She focuses on writing, reporting, editing, social media and audience engagement. After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in journalism, she moved to Portland and now Seattle. She’s written for Willamette Week, Forbes, Reno News & Review and more. Find her on twitter at @cambriaroth or email her at email@example.com.
Aileen Imperial is a visual producer at KCTS9 Digital Studios. She combines her experience in documentary film and dance videography to produce a unique mode of storytelling, with a commitment to the act of thoughtful observation and engagement. Her independent and freelance work has screened at several film festivals and galleries, and has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, PBS World’s Global Voices, and the PBS NewsHour’s arts and culture blog Art Beat. Most recently, she was a regular segment producer for the KCTS 9 arts and culture show PIE.