In a locker room in Somerville, Massachusetts, the Boston Renegades are getting ready for a late-season game against the Chicago Force, one of their biggest rivals. The players intensely focus on their last-minute rituals -- one takes sips of juice from a jar of pickles. A coach draws a play on the whiteboard for the team to look at one last time.
Coach Molly Goodwin, who works with the linebackers, tells her players to take a knee. "Games like today are why we play football," she says to the room full of athletes in pads and helmets. "We do this for all the people who don't get to do what we do."
Then the Renegades stand up, shout some pump-up chants and rush out to the field to the sounds of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and raucous cheers from the crowd.
Boston has been a stalwart in women's tackle football, winning a title with the Independent Women's Football League in 2010, then switching to the Women's Football Alliance the next year and winning that league's championship (a feat they celebrated at the White House and would repeat in 2014). The Renegades, who draw a few hundred loyal fans to many games, are 5-2 this season, second in their division with one of the better records in the 45-team WFA.
Adrienne Smith, a wide receiver who is in her sixth season with Boston, feels so strongly about the team that she commutes from New York City -- about five hours away -- once or twice each week for practices and games. "As a female football player," she says, "I really wanted to be exposed to the best I could in terms of coaching, in terms of management, in terms of how the organization operates."
John Johnson is in his first season as the team's coach, and says he's continually impressed by the dedication and "mental toughness" of his players. "They know so much about the sport, and their relentless passion for the game is infectious," he says. "The energy they bring every single day is phenomenal."
But those players almost lost their team two years ago, when former owner Ernie Boch Jr. announced he would fold the team then known as the Boston Militia. A group of former players banded together to transfer ownership to the newly created Boston Women's Football LLC to ensure the team would go on. The 2015 season was the team's first as the Renegades.
The team raises most of its operating costs through ticket and merchandise sales, a few sponsorships and player's fees of $500 per season. "That's probably something everybody should know," says Brooke Goodman, a defensive end and one of the team captains, "we are paying to play football."
Forking over their own financing to play the sport they love can take its toll. "We work full-time jobs. We're mothers, we're doctors, we're teachers, we're every single profession under the sun," says Amanda Alpert, a center and team captain playing her 12th season in Boston. "When you're a professional football player and you get injured, that's your job and someone's there to take care of you. When you get injured here, it's a lot different and a lot of people's jobs are on the line."
It's a risk these players, and many like them, take each week for the opportunity to play.
Smith has wanted to play football since she was a little girl. She'd set her stuffed animals up in front of the TV during NFL games and tackle them. "Getting to play football is a dream come true," she says.
Goodman grew up playing other sports. "I wanted to play football since I knew what football was," she says, "but back in the day girls weren't playing football." Which is why, when she found out about the Renegades as an adult, she says she immediately knew, "Yeah, I've gotta do that."
The game against Chicago is rough. Boston scores first, but two players leave the field with injuries -- one limps off with team trainers and another raises her hand in a fist as she's wheeled off on a stretcher. Then Allison Cahill -- who recently became the first quarterback to win 100 games in women's tackle football -- is injured on a sack just before halftime, and Boston's offense continues to fall apart under pressure from Chicago. The Force score 52 unanswered points and win 58-14, breaking the Renegades' three-game winning streak.
There is one more regular-season game to be played this weekend -- away Saturday against the one-loss, division-leading D.C. Divas, who handed the Renegades their other loss earlier this year. The game has huge implications for the playoffs, which begin the following week and would present another financial challenge: The Renegades' fundraising sets them up only for the regular season; postseason expenses have to be paid out of players' pockets.
But it's an opportunity to keep playing, for those loyal fans, for their teammates and for themselves.
"I don't care if anybody ever knows my name or if anybody ever knows my stats," Goodman says. "I just want us to get to play and for women's football to be appreciated and get the recognition it deserves."