Fighting for the Flag
Billings women get rough and tumble with flag football
What would possess a group of women to gather on a sweltering hot Sunday afternoon to fine-tune football passing routes? Sure, they might love the game but there’s more to it than that. Here, amid the yard lines and first downs, is a stress reliever, a way to lend a hand to a good cause and, even more, a way to foster friendships shared simply by being on the team together.
The Lady Montana Fierce is a women’s flag football team in Billings that’s been in existence only since last fall. Practicing twice a week, the women have been molded into a fiercely competitive team that’s getting ready for their second game of the season against the Miles City Mayhem.
At their first game last fall, the women were still getting used to one another —learning their positions and, in many cases, the fundamentals of the game. It may be flag football, a non-tackle sport, but as they found out quickly, it’s still an aggressive game. They lost their last game, in June, by a touchdown.
“After we lost the first game, we went to the second less afraid of playing them,” says Jessica Brown, the team’s center, who also plays defensive tackle. “We’ll be really prepared in September.”
Jessica was recruited to play by her husband’s best friend, Cody Yerger, who happens to be the coach.
Cody coaches youth football and heard from the Miles City team that they were looking for more teams to compete against. He started recruiting, beginning with his girlfriend, Shaydean Saye, who plays wide receiver and linebacker, and together they started to field a team.
Before long, they had a full roster of women ranging in age from 20 to 50 coming from all types of backgrounds and bringing all kinds of experience to the table.
“I grew up with brothers who played the game,” says Miranda Gilbert, the team’s left guard and defensive tackle. “Now this is my chance to play.” For Miranda, it’s been an outlet from her daily work. She spends most of her day in front of a computer screen “doing nerdy stuff.” She found the group on their Facebook Page and decided to check them out at one of their practices. She hadn’t even watched the entire practice before she was out on the field.
“A spark goes off in my head when I’m out there,” she says, and adds with a laugh, “It’s so fun. You don’t have to be in shape to play with us. In fact, we like all shapes, and round is definitely a shape!” She also says she sports the number 42 so that EMTs will know her age “when they scrape me off the field.”
In all seriousness, Miranda says all body types are welcome because in football, all builds are necessary. Flag football is played much like regulation football, with 11 players and the same positions.
“We need the tall, athletic fast ones and we need ones that are bigger and stronger. There’s a place on our team for everybody. Don’t let your shape or age be a detriment,” she says.
There’s a good deal of laughter among the women too, and they know when to get down to business and when to take themselves less seriously.
“Oh, they’re competitive,” Cody says, “But they also like to have fun.” He reminded the women of the mimosas that they brought to practice on Mother’s Day.
“We were celebrating moms,” one of the women in the group shouts. “There’s nothing wrong with that!”
For Jessica, it’s been an opportunity to bond with her kids. Her son plays for Billings Central Catholic High School, which uses Rocky Mountain College’s football field for games.
“The first time I walked out on that field, it made me think about how it feels for my son when he walks out to play,” she says. “I feel like I can relate to him better.”
It might be flag football, but there’s a lot of physical contact at both practice and games. The women get roughed up. In fact, their shirts and shorts have been torn and they all have their share of battle cuts and bruises. It doesn’t seem to bother them. Even in practice, they’re not afraid of pushing their bodies to the limit.
“I look forward to Wednesdays,” Miranda says. “I call it ‘Walk Again Wednesday,’ because it takes until Wednesday before I can finally walk after Sunday’s practice.”
“What?” Cody says. “We’re not that hard on you!” Cody often brings his youth team to practice scrimmages with the women to give both teams an opportunity to play against another team.
“We encourage our teammates to bring their husbands and kids for that reason,” Shaydean says.
“But they better be prepared to be alert and know that the man that gets the lowest wins!” Jessica jokes, referring to lining up against their opponents. “My knees feel 40, but I’m getting good at getting lower than anyone else.”
Right now, the team is gearing up for their third matchup on Sept. 16 against the Miles City Mayhem.
“We’d love to have more teams to play against,” Cody says. “We’re talking to other towns trying to get them to put a team together.”
There are more than 30 women on the team’s roster, and they are always looking for more players. They practice twice a week at the soccer field at Rocky.
On a hot July afternoon, the women hit the field, warming up with sprints, lunges, high kicks and stretches before the coaches called them together to go over plays.
As coach Cody called out pass plays — “Speed out, Slant, Hitch” — the women took turns running the routes.
Toni Moody, one of the new recruits, runs a daycare during the week and says that this is a great way to get out of the house and be with adults. Her natural athleticism showed on the field as she confidently caught passes, and the team was excited to have this former roller derby player on board.
Kathy Birkle, whose position is offensive tackle, plays because football is her boys’ life. With three of them in grades six, eight and nine, you’ll find her on the sidelines of a lot of their practices and games.
“This gives me a connection with my boys,” she says. “They don’t hold back,” Kathy laughed. “But then, neither do we!”
MONTANA FIERCE VS. MILES CITY MAYHEM
When the two teams suit up for their next game, all the money raised will go to benefit breast cancer and domestic violence awareness. To learn more about the team, either email Cody Yerger at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out their Facebook page, Montana Fierce Sports.