by Elaine Ezekiel ’13
When Liz Okey ’07 learned she had qualified for the U.S. Women’s National (American Rules) Football Team, she was sitting at her desk at work.
“I had been waiting on pins and needles for three weeks,” she said. “I read over the list three times to make sure it was my name, and then I jumped up and ran across the office to tell my co-workers. Before I even got to the door; I had to stop to put my hands on my knees, so they knew without my even telling them.”
Okey credits her time at Kalamazoo College for building the foundation of her love for American football.
“I didn’t just stumble on this passion; I had experiences at K that shaped it,” she said.
The human development and social relations major served as captain of the women’s volleyball team, coached by Jeanne Hess. Though the volleyball team struggled to win games, Okey found a supportive mentor and a lifelong role model in her coach.
“It’s unusual to find coaches that focus on long term growth and delayed gratification. Coach Hess recognizes there’s a lot that can be gained from any loss,” said Okey.
During Okey’s four years on campus, K’s football coach, the late Terrance Brooks, designed an off-season three-days-a-week bootcamp-style conditioning class, 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. It was open to any athlete, and Hess encouraged Okey and her teammates to participate alongside the male football players.
Okey recalls that about ten women attended the workouts with about 70 men, but Coach Brooks made sure that it was a safe and professional space for all participants.
“He held everyone accountable for an environment supportive for all,” she said.
After graduating from K, Okey moved to Chicago where her experience coaching volleyball clinics and serving on the Athletic Leadership Council at K helped her secure a job at Girls in the Game, a non-profit organization that supports girls’ health and wellness. She soon learned about the Chicago Force, a women’s tackle football team. Okey looked into the team and league and thought, “I can do this.”
In 2008, Okey tried out and made the team’s offensive line. She says the discipline she developed at K pushed her through some strenuous workouts.
“In fact, compared to some of our College workouts in Anderson, the Force work seemed easy,’” she said.
During Okey’s third season, a defensive player attempting to tackle a running back landed on Okey’s leg.
She knew instantly that the injury was serious but nevertheless tried to continue. Two days later she learned her leg was broken. She underwent surgery that included the insertion of 17 metal pins in her leg, and she endured a long absence from the sport she loved.
“My world fell apart around me,” she said. “I had invested so much time into our season, and it hurt to not be there for my teammates, especially as we went to a national championship, and I had to watch from the sidelines in a reserve uniform. It was horrible.”
The injury gave Okey time to think about her football future, and she mentally reviewed a pro-con checklist on whether to continue playing.
“I’m getting older, and I’m just tearing my body apart, and breaking a leg is an extremely expensive surgery. Could I afford to get injured ever again?” she asked.
Okey assessed the importance of her goals and thought about the delayed gratification she had learned from Hess and Brooks. She decided to try to play again.
“There were definitely a lot of moments of doubt, but I loved the sport, and I loved the team,” she said.
Nine months later, Okey resumed play and headed to try-outs for the United States Women’s National Team in Austin, Texas. At stake: a chance to represent her country in the second ever International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship.
“It was a crazy awesome experience of everyone wearing matching red, white and blue,” she said. “Everyone knew that only 20 percent of the people there would make the team.”
When she found out she’d made the team’s offensive line, Okey realized a dream.
“I remember being in Trowbridge in 2004 watching
"It's unusual to find coaches that focus on long term growth and delayed gratification."the Summer Olympics during preseason,” she said. “I loved the notion of the Olympics and people that sacrifice to represent their country playing a sport. To think that a kid from K could get the chance to represent the United States is kind of mind blowing.”
This summer, Okey and her 44 teammates competed against five other teams from North America and Europe in the 2013 Women’s World Championship in Vantaa, Finland. Okey’s Team USA jersey featured the number 67, honoring Coach Brooks, who wore that number as a college player at Towson (Md.) University. And, in the finals, Team USA beat Canada for the gold medal!
Okey works as hard to tackle misconceptions about her sport as she does to block for running backs.
“There’s definitely stigma and confusion,” said Okey. “My current coach always says it’s the last frontier--the last sport where women are still denied access. The number of times that I have to explain that we wear clothes and equipment and not lingerie is ridiculous.”
She says the best way to overcome the stereotypes surrounding women playing football is to invite people to a game. Okey plays for the love of the game rather than any perks of professional stardom.
“No one’s getting paid to do it, and we actually all spent a lot of money and resources to have the chance to play,” she said. “The delayed gratification is that one day girls will grow up thinking they can do anything and play any sport they want, and one day women can actually make a living playing American football.”
Okey still maintains contact with Hess, the mentor who taught her about perseverance. And Hess attends Okey’s games when she can.
“It’s definitely been a really strong supportive foundation, and you don’t often see that,” Okey said. “I can’t name another teammate who had her college coach and athletic director come out to a game.”
Photo 1 - Chicago Force center Liz Okey '07 over the ball in a game against the Pittsburgh Passion.
Photo 2 - Liz in her Chicago Force uniform.
Photo 3 - Liz made Team USA, which won the Women’s World Championship gold medal.