Linda Jefferson started a women's football revolution 50 years ago, and she wants it to keep growing

Linda Jefferson has always been competitive. She said she became an athlete at 11 years old, running up and down the street she grew up on in Toledo, Ohio.

While attending Libbey High School from 1968-72, Jefferson played basketball and ran track. She graduated just weeks before President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law, so she missed out on an athletic scholarship.

That didn’t stop her from becoming one of the most dominant women athletes of all time and a trailblazer in what seemed like the most unlikely of sports: football.

As the game continues to grow and women’s presence in the sport expands, Jefferson looks back fondly on her gridiron career.

She and the Toledo Troopers — the winningest football team of all time — paved the way for women’s football as it’s played today across more than 60 cities in the United States.

Title IX’s 50th anniversary provided a reason to look back at Jefferson’s story. “I’m proud to be a pioneer,” Jefferson said. “They stepped on my shoulders to get where they are.”

A passion for football An advertisement for a professional women’s football team appeared in a 1971 edition of the Toledo Blade during Jefferson’s junior year of high school. She took to the idea of a football career. Her mother Sally Jefferson did not.

Sally Jefferson worried about her daughter’s safety, having had to nurse Jefferson back to health after she threw out her arm in a Junior Olympics softball competition years earlier.

Football sounded too risky, and Sally would not stand by to watch her daughter get hurt. But after the first few games, she relented. She saw her daughter was too evasive to be tackled.

As her mother came around, the city of Toledo also rallied around Jefferson and the Troopers. Between 1971-1979, the Troopers amassed a winning percentage like no other in modern football history.

 While their overall record is up for debate (reports say Toledo went 61-4, 59-4 and 59-5), their dominance was not. Toledo won seven National Women’s Football League titles in a row from 1971-1977. And Jefferson played a key role in their championship culture.

“Oh my goodness, Toledo really supported the Troopers,” Linda said. “Everybody loves a winner.” As they began to flourish, the Troopers topped the International Hockey League’s Toledo Goaldiggers as the most popular team in town, Jefferson said. When both teams played on the same night, she said more fans opted to watch the Troopers.

Jefferson’s celebrity grew with every touchdown and 1,000-plus-yard rushing season, drawing comparisons to NFL greats like Walter Payton, O.J. Simpson and Jim Brown. She made appearances on “Good Morning America,” “The Phil Donahue Show” and the game show “Tell the Truth.”

“Not only me, but the whole team, our contribution was to make women’s football acceptable and not a sideshow,” Jefferson said. “To make it acceptable that people could come out and appreciate us playing just as well as they can appreciate any male football team.”

She graced the cover of womenSports magazine, created by Billie Jean King, in 1975 as its first “Woman Athlete of the Year.” With the help of Toledo’s citizens, including the mayor and entire city council, Jefferson amassed enough votes to claim the title over the likes of tennis star Chris Evert and gymnast Olga Korbut.

The next year, she was invited to compete in ABC’s “Women’s Superstars,” a show where elite female athletes were invited to compete in events for prize money. It was there she met and competed against her idol, tennis star Althea Gibson, who left Jefferson speechless.

“She was a trailblazer for women’s football” said Gloria Jimenez of Jefferson, who joined the Troopers in 1973 and kicked extra points for them. “We were the founding mothers of women’s football basically, the Toledo Troopers. And as huge as women’s football is right now, people look back at that, where it all started.”

Women's football on the rise today In the 40-plus years since Jefferson retired and the Troopers disbanded in 1979, women’s football finds itself in the middle of a renaissance. 

The NFL’s Rooney Rule expanded this year to include women coaching candidates; girls flag football has become a sanctioned sport in high school athletic associations across the country and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics;

more than 2,400 girls played tackle football in 2018; an estimated 4,000 women play organized tackle football in the United States. Women also take up space in NFL front offices and ownership groups,

like the newly anointed Las Vegas Raiders president Sandra Douglass Morgan and Denver Broncos co-owners ​​Condoleezza Rice and Mellody Hobson.

Jen Moody owns the Tampa Bay Inferno, a Women’s Football Alliance tackle football team. Moody met Jefferson when she and former Troopers quarterback Eunice White performed the coin toss in Tampa Bay’s April 23 matchup with the Boston Renegades.

“Certainly if you’re a part of women’s football over these years, then you know about the Toledo Troopers and just the incredible story and journey that they had beginning in the ’70s,” said Moody, who played wide receiver for the WFA’s Pittsburgh Passion and won a national championship there before moving to Florida.

“And certainly if you learn anything about the Toledo Troopers, you know that Linda Jefferson played a key role in the success of their team. And I think that translates, obviously, to some of the success that we have seen with women’s tackle football.”

Jefferson's legacy lives on Stephen Guinan, Troopers historian and the author of the book “We Are The Troopers,” calls Jefferson “the greatest athlete you have never heard of.”

Mitchi Collette played high school basketball against Jefferson and joined the Troopers in 1973 at her urging. Colette played offensive lineman and was Jefferson’s lead blocker on the right side. The woman was “magic,” Colette said.

Jefferson was inducted into the Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, becoming the first Black woman to receive such an honor. By the end of her career in 1979 she rushed for more than 8,000 yards and scored 140 touchdowns.

While the Troopers’ story came during a time of women’s liberation, laws like Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment were far from their minds. They just wanted to play football.

But Jefferson’s motivations for playing and encouraging young girls to get involved in sports seemed to embrace the spirit of the movement.

“It would show them respect, discipline and independence,” Jefferson said. When she was still playing, Owens Corning sponsored her so she could go from city to city to teach young women the merits of playing sports.

Her main goal at each clinic was to let the girls know how sports could make them better. A 2018 study found that 94% of women who serve as C-suite executives were athletes.

The year after Jefferson retired from football she had to undergo knee surgery, which effectively ended her athletic career. She then spent 35 years teaching young children in Detroit and Toledo, and retired in 2016. When Jefferson was younger, she hoped to become a coach one day. Teaching gave her a similar purpose.

“When you teach, you have all these little different personalities and different mood swings,” she said. “And to help a child to succeed in something they never thought that they would, and the smile that they have on their face when they’re finished. It was like coaching.”

Jefferson joined the Troopers 50 years ago this year and said she never dreamed people would be so interested in her story — in the Troopers’ story.

Her hope for women’s football’s next 50 years is for the players to make further strides toward nationwide respect, particularly in the form of higher salaries. She now dreams of a world where women can afford to be football players full time.

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