KUSA - It often makes the news when there's just one woman on a tackle football team, but in Denver, a group of dozens of women pay to put on pads and practice hours of week to do just that.
And yes, they hit as hard as the men.
The Mile High Blaze were first established in 2013, and are a full contact semi-pro women’s football team. As it stands, the players pay to practice hours per week in conditions that range from snow to blistering heat.
“These girls walk off the field every weekend with bruises head to toe,” said Wyndy Flato-Dominy, who has owned the Blaze for four seasons. “It’s what they love. It’s hard watching the men get the sponsorship, the marketing, and the looks, if you will, and the women are just overlooked.”
This means that the women of the Blaze play for the love of the game. Among them is wide receiver Jamie Fornal. It’s her first year with the Blaze, and she’s been playing for nine years total.
“Playing on the Blaze has been so reinvigorating,” she said. “It’s been rejuvenating in a sense that everyone here is a professional, they take things seriously, but they still have fun doing their jobs.”
Chantel Hernandez, also known as the “Alaskan Assassin,” has been playing defensive end for the Mile High Blaze for five years. She says she trains two to three hours a day, and her ultimate goal is to win a national championship.
She’s an all-American and has been inducted into the first Women’s Football Hall of Fame.
“I guess I don’t know what it means to be a Hall of Famer yet,” she said. “It definitely is a new sense of responsibility, to be there for your people that you never thought you were going to be there for, or live somebody’s dream that they have yet to wake up to yet.”
The Blaze play in full pads. Flato-Dominy said they hit just as hard as men. Her goal is for the team to secure more sponsorships to lessen some of the expenses and in the long-term, get recognition from the Denver Broncos as their female counterpart in the Mile High City.
And then there’s the biggest goal of all: a national championship. The Blaze are currently part of the 66-team Women’s Football Alliance. The National Championship is happening July 13 at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, and the women want to defend their own turf.
“Nobody wants to be in their backyard watching their ring go to someone else,” Hernandez said.
“What I care about is my team winning a trophy at the end of the season, and winning a national championship,” Flato-Dominy said.
The 2019 season begins for the Mile High Blaze on April 6 against the Colorado Springs-based Rocky Mountain Thunderkatz. For more information and to buy tickets, head to: https://bit.ly/2CKqfVw
“We’ve got moms, grandmas, we’ve got nurses, we’ve got police officers, we’ve got USA Rugby national players, we’ve got every type of person you can imagine [on the Blaze],” Flato-Dominy said.
The next generation
Leilani Caamal knew she wanted to be on the football field, not the sidelines.
“I actually started cheerleading first, and I didn’t like it all,” she said. “I didn’t like standing on the sidelines and I didn’t like cheering when I knew the game and I understood it and wanted to be in it.”
The 14-year-old who now plays defensive end said she was first inspired to play football by her brother. Her interest in the game escalated.
“She just kinda snuck in there, and got her equipment and signed herself up basically and wanted to play,” her dad Victor Caamal said.
Leilani Caamal has gone on to play for the Cougar Youth Sports league and the Montbello Futures.
“It’s a rough sport, but I feel like it’s something that I really love to do, like I really love it,” Leilani Caamel said. “It’s something I’m really passionate about and I can be my best self in.”
She said it took convincing to get the boys to hit her as hard as they would opponents who aren’t girls, but her coaches persuaded them to let her play.
“Leilani loves what she does, she loves football and from a technical standpoint, she’s probably better than most of the boys we coach,” Rob Sandlin, the coach of the Cougars, said.
This is high praise: Sandlin is also a coach for the Mile High Blaze.
“Leilani’s passion for the game would be one that we would like to see her be a little bit more of a trailblazer now, with everything going on nationally, there’s great opportunity for her and teams like the Blaze,” Sandlin said. “Her main goal is to make it on a collegiate level.”
Leilani Caamal wouldn’t be the first. In February, Toni Harris became the first female football player at a skill position to sign a letter of intent. After two years at a California community college, she’s headed to Central Methodist University in Missouri to play on scholarship.
“I just need the support from the coaches, not to be treated differently from the guys,” Leilani Caamal said. “To be pushed just as hard and to know my mistakes and how to fix them, how to better my techniques, and sometimes I do need doubt because it helps push me further.”
Her mom Samantha Caamal said her daughter has the drive to make that dream happen.
“I’ve never seen her as passionate about something as she is in her life about football,” she said. “All her other priorities surrounded that goal. I think it’s like the center of her.”
The women on the sidelines
When Beth Buglione moved to Colorado, she became the first female head coach for a high school team in Colorado. At the time, it made a lot of noise in the 1,500-person mountain town of Nederland. She’s now a coach at Cherry Creek High School after Nederland High School canceled its football program.
Buglione is also the offensive line coach for the Mile High Blaze. Before she started coaching, she was a player and referee.
“The first game I played I could have been in shorts and a T-shirt,” Buglione said. “My O-line blocked for me, I didn’t get touched, but that’s because we were all just green and didn’t know what we were doing.”
When the physical stress of football took its toll, Buglione said she decided to start coaching.
“I spent many days just showing up and coaching and driving and not getting a dime just because I love the sport, and I knew there were other women that did too, and now it’s just starting to happen and it’s amazing,” Buglione said.
Women coaching football are becoming less of an anomaly. Katie Sowers became the second full-time female assistant coach in NFL history back in 2018, when she took a job with the San Francisco 49ers.
“It’s just exciting, I actually saw when they were doing the Senior Bowl, Katie Sowers out there holding a notebook with pass routes for the kids,” Buglione said. “And I’m like, she’s on the NFL Network, on the field, on ESPN, and it’s because she knows what she’s doing. It has nothing to do with her gender. She’s just a hell of an athlete, she’s a wonderful coach.”
RELATED: Nederland's Beth Buglione becomes first female coach in Colorado high school football history
The Alliance of American Football says more women have been hired than ever before, and there are now lots of women in operations.
“It’s up to us to go and take it, it’s up to us to make it happen, and if we can put on pads and run around and hit each other, I’m pretty sure we can do that too,” Buglione said.
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