Weekend Warriors: The Women's Football Star Who Helps Keeps Heart Patients Alive
For nearly a decade, Sharon Vasquez has tackled everything that's come her way. Sometimes, it's a wide receiver or running back. Just as often, it's a project at work. Daily, it's trying to get her arms around a life as a do-everything football player, mother of three active kids and working professional in the medical insurance field.
"I juggle so many things," she says. "But it all works out."
Vasquez, 35, has played nine seasons for the Pittsburgh Passion of the Independent Women's Football League, primarily as a cornerback or safety. This season, she rarely came off the field, playing wide receiver, special teams, outside linebacker and strong safety as the Passion won their second straight IWFL championship.
Pittsburgh wrapped up an undefeated season with a 41-37 championship-game victory over the Utah Falconz in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on July 25. It marked the Passion's 22nd consecutive win.
It also capped a terrific season for Vasquez, who was named to the league's Eastern Conference All-Star team as both a receiver and defensive back -- the first time she's been honored on offense. Over 11 games, she caught 29 passes for 419 yards and seven touchdowns.
For Vasquez, discovering football was a blessing. The former track and basketball athlete was in her mid-20s, a graduate of Allegheny College and a mom when she tried out for the Passion at a friend's urging. Though it took time to get used to wearing pads and a helmet, the sport was a perfect fit with her speed, size (5-foot-9, 160 pounds) and competitive nature.
The best part: "Being able to hit somebody -- and it's legal," she says, laughing.
She's received league All-Star honors in eight of her nine seasons. And she takes special pride in the athletic skill -- and fearlessness -- it takes to play corner.
"One of the things I really enjoy about being a defensive back is, it's a position where you're all by yourself," says Vasquez, who has 12 career interceptions and a team-record three returned for TDs. "For me, the thrill of knowing that there's no one to help me ... it's all about me on that island. If I stop them, great. If I don't, everyone can see it."
Even getting through the football season itself can be a huge challenge. Vasquez works as a senior intake specialist for the medical equipment company Zoll, acting as a liaison between patients and insurance companies. She works to ensure heart patients are covered for the cost of using Zoll's products, particularly a wearable defibrillator called the LifeVest.
"The LifeVest will continue to keep your heart beating if it stops while [you're] away from the hospital," she says. "What we do is pretty important. We save lives daily, so my job is very rewarding."
But that juggling is nonstop: Often, her work extends into the evening, which makes her late for her 7-to-11 p.m. Passion practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights. She also uses vacation time to take days off for Saturday away games, and to compete for the U.S. in the Women's World Championship of American football.
She won gold medals as part of undefeated teams in both 2010 and 2013, in Sweden and Finland. In 2010 -- playing on a team that included Jen Welter, now an assistant coaching intern with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals -- Vasquez was selected defensive MVP.
"It was just overwhelming," she says of the travel and experience. "I could just never imagine."
Another benefit: In football-loving Pittsburgh (where the Passion wears Steelers colors and the team is co-owned by former Steelers great Franco Harris), she says she gets "cool points" from her kids.
Every morning during football season, she packs practice gear for herself alongside the lunches and gear her kids -- ages 15, 13 and 9 -- will need for the day. If she won't be home for dinner, she'll often cook food in the morning for her family to eat later.
Is all the effort worth it? Yes, she says. Football doesn't pay -- in fact, she and other players seek sponsors to help defray their costs -- but it has taught her how to deal with pressure and be more competitive, and she attributes her success on the job to football. "I wouldn't be a top employee if I didn't have football," she says.
And when the season does end, she finds she misses all the craziness. "I almost don't know what to do without it. I feel like I should be on the run. I should be doing something. That's when I find myself picking up little things to keep me busy, just because I have that athlete mind that I have to be competing or doing something. I truly do miss it."