“The difference between the old ballplayer and the new ballplayer is the jersey. The old ballplayer cared about the name on the front. The new ballplayer cares about the name on the back.” – Steve Garvey
There is no greater moment in sports than to watch a team win a championship. At that moment when the pitcher records the final out, the quarterback takes the final kneel or the point guard launches the ball in the air in celebration, you can see it. You see the joy that the players have. The type of joy and passion that made them fall in love with their sport as a kid.
For much of the season, that feeling goes away. With holdouts and lockouts occurring all too regularly, we are reminded that this is a business and it’s about the money. What happened to the love of the game? What happened to playing the sport because it’s what you always dreamed of doing?
In the professional sports world, you don’t find that too much anymore. In Pittsburgh however, there is one organization that plays because they love the game and their name says it all.
The Pittsburgh Passion.
The Passion is a professional women’s football team and a member of the Women’s Football Alliance league. Since their inaugural season in 2002, the Passion have posted three undefeated seasons and even won the league championship in 2007. With that title, it just gives the “City of Champions” another title to add to its impressive resume.
The Passion are owned by Teresa Conn and Franco Harris- a name very familiar to those around the Pittsburgh area.
Despite a busy couple of years, Harris still finds time to make his presence seen with the Passion.
“Franco has been so busy last couple of years. When he first came to the team, it was pretty cool. We all got cards for him giving him a welcome to the team. Like it’s us Passion players giving Franco Harris cards welcoming him. It was great,” tailback Ciara Chic said. “We see him at games, but with everything going on with JoePa, just being out for that and other obligations like Immaculate Reception anniversary, it was a busy year for him. He’s always at our first meeting and usually at the first couple of games.”
But it’s different for the Passion compared to say the Steelers, Penguins or Pirates. The Passion represent the city and proudly wear the black and gold. Unlike their male counterparts, the Passion don’t get paid to play a game that they love.
So why play the game if you aren’t getting paid? Are the injuries worth it?
“I can only speak for myself, but I love the sport. I wanted to play when I first heard about it in 2002, but I got pregnant in high school,” offensive tackle turned tight end Jackie “Snoopy” Eaton said. “I found out a couple years ago that they had tryouts. I’ve been playing ever since. I love the game and my down to earth teammates. It’s another family. My family is pretty small so I like hanging out with them and getting to know them.”
Eaton’s teammate, safety Casey “Sunshine” Waha, plays for the love of the game, but also for a deeper reason.
“I’ve played sports my whole life. After college, I didn’t know what I was going to do without them. I watched [the Passion] when I was 16. I told my parents, ‘One day you’ll watch me play.’ I went to one of the tryouts, fell in love with the team and everything about it,” Waha said. “I get to hit people and not get in trouble for it.”
Without the pay, the Passion rely on getting sponsorships so that they can travel and play the teams in the their league. The sponsorships make it possible for players like Eaton to travel to places that she normally wouldn’t go.
“I like going different places. I usually don’t get to travel, but I do with them,” Eaton said. “We get to go to New York and Boston this year. Going to Chicago and Washington D.C. before was a great time.”
Being in a women’s football league can be confusing. As Waha put it, there are so many leagues out there that people get them confused. According to all of the players, there’s one league that they get confused with all of the time.
“We get the lingerie football question all the time,” Chic said. “They’re great athletes also, but there’s a huge difference between the two.”
Waha echoes Chic’s comments and says she prefers their brand of football over the Lingerie League.
“That’s pretty much the main one that we get confused by. Not so much the fact that the league that we’re associated with, it’s the type of football we’re associated with. They assume we play lingerie football,” Waha said. “They don’t think it’s full contact. If you want to play for them, go ahead. I’d rather play in full gear.”
“Sports creates a bond between contemporaries that lasts a lifetime. It also gives your life structure, discipline and a genuine, sincere, pure fulfillment that few other areas of endeavor provide.” – Bob Cousy
Along with the practices, games and day jobs that the players have, they have to get their name out to the public. A lot of that is done throughout the community. Eaton said the team has appeared at over 100 events in order to raise awareness of their team. Despite all of the efforts, Eaton said the team doesn’t get the recognition they deserve, but they do feel it’s getting close.
“Some of the local businesses, if they have an event, we will attend. Each player has to get as many sponsors that we can get,” Eaton said. “If they have an event, we will go there to help out also. We do the Polar Bear Plunge, Steelers training camp, garbage bag gala; We do a couple 100 small things.”
Waha said there is a big difference between the recognition the team had four years ago compared to today.
“Four years ago, I couldn’t tell you who played on the team. I guess that was a problem then. We’re getting better about getting our name out there and getting into things,” Waha said. “It’s like now they’re [the Passion] going to be here or there. Come meet the Passion. It really wasn’t out there like it was before unless you’ve been to games or know somebody. We have a Twitter account, Facebook account and have appeared on ESPN. We just had the championship game on ESPN for the whole world to see.”
While the Passion may not be known by everyone in the city (they pack half of their stadium on the Southside usually), Chic said the supporters they do have are great.
“The supporters we do have are awesome and rooting no matter what,” said Chic.
With the injury risk (Waha has had multiple concussions, broken bones and various other injuries), how do their families feel about them going out there each week?
“My mom doesn’t want me to get hurt, but is supportive,” Eaton said. “My first year jerseys, I gave to my family. They’ll take the kids when we go on a roadtrip to help out.”
Waha said her family is supportive, but the first time her mom watched her play changed her feelings on her daughter playing.
“My dad is all for it. He’s 100 percent at every game. My mom is probably sitting in the stands knitting and not paying attention. I got a concussion my first game and since then, she really doesn’t want to watch,” Waha said. “She understands I’m an athlete and I’m going to get hurt. I knew it going into it. I’ve had my fair share of injuries that affect my personal life and work life. You know it’s either for you or it’s not.”
“Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play.” – Mike Singletary
Aside from the confusion with lingerie football, the women all agree that there’s one other stereotype that follows them around. Despite being the first women’s football team to appear on national television, ESPN and Sports Illustrated, many people think women just can’t play football.
“Girls can’t play football. It’s been said a lot to us all the time,” Eaton said. “That is until they come and see a game. We try to get our name out there because of that. We can play better than some men can.”
Waha says with the Passion playing football, it opens up the doors for other women to follow and even girls at the high school level.
“I can give other females the chance to play something that they’re aren’t allowed to play in high school. I don’t think there should be someone sitting there telling me you can’t do something when it’s obvious that I can,” said Waha. “Someone shouldn’t be denied an opportunity if they can play. Let them try out. Doesn’t matter female or male. There’s gender bias in a lot of schools.”
Chic said that her looks, along with being a woman, gives people the wrong impression.
“I’m very much a girlie girl. I get ‘You’re too pretty to play football’ and ‘Are you gay because you do?’ It doesn’t matter,” Chic said. “You can look however you look. Be whatever sexuality that you are. A lot of people seem to think you have to look a certain way to play football. I like to dress up at events sometime to show I play football, but this is what I look like.”
So why check out the Passion? When their season begins, hockey is in full-swing, baseball is in its first week and the Pittsburgh Power are kicking off at the Consol Energy Center.
“It’s an extended season. Everyone loves football. Once you start watching the game, gender goes out the window,” Chic said. “It’s good for girls because we can do anything. It may not be like men’s, but we are more than capable of doing it.”
With the times of multi-million dollar contracts and lucrative endorsement deals, no one represents the true love and passion that Pittsburgh has for sports quite like the Pittsburgh Passion.
Photo Credits: Getty Images