Kalamazoo College's Student Newspaper
By Elaine Ezekiel, News Editor
When Liz Okey ’07 got the email that said she had qualified for the U.S. Women’s National 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-worker. I stopped before I even got to the door; I put my hands on my knees, and they knew I had made the team.”
Looking back on the path that led her to this achievement, Okey says her time at Kalamazoo College built a foundation for her love of the game.
“I didn’t just stumble on football. I had had experiences at K that shaped that,” she said.
While studying Human Development and Social Relations at K, Okey served as captain of the women’s volleyball team. At the time, K’s Head Football Coach Terrance Brooks created an off-season bootcamp-style conditioning class from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. three days a week. It was open to any athlete, and Okey decided to join in the training sessions. She said this program was one of the most influential experiences she had at K, alongside study abroad and playing volleyball.
“I really loved it,” she said. “I was able to train in an extremely intense, militant-style program with five to 10 women in a group of 70 men.”
She also dabbled in football as a Hornet, organizing a powder puff football game as president of the Athletic Leadership Council. After graduating from K, Okey moved to Chicago where she discovered a women’s tackle football team called the Chicago Force. She researched the program and said she thought, “ I can do this.”
Okey tried out and made the team. From there, she played in the 2010 National All-Star Game and tried out for the U.S. Women’s National Team in Austin, Tex. for the opportunity to represent her country in the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship. This tryout came just months after she had severely broken her leg while playing football.
“It was a crazy awesome experience of everyone wearing matching red, white and blue,” she said. “Everyone knew that only twenty percent of the people there would make the team.”
When she found out she had made the team’s offensive line, she was most excited to tell her grandma, whose husband had played football. “We have big family love for football,” she said.
This summer, Okey and her 44 teammates will compete against five to eight other teams from North America and Europe in the 2013 World Championship in Vantaa, Finland. Despite her athletic achievements, Okey says there are remaining misconceptions about her sport.
“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.” She says the way to overcome the stereotypes surrounding women playing football is to offer people exposure and invite them to a game.
Okey channels that drive for exposure on and off the field. When she’s not playing football, she works at Girls in the Game, a non-profit that supports girls’ health and wellness.
Okey looks back fondly on her time at K, and she maintains contact with her volleyball coach, Jeanne Hess, who came out to one of her games four years after she had graduated.
“It’s definitely been a really strong supportive foundation, and you don’t see that,” she said. “I can’t name another teammate who had her athletic director come out to a game as an alumna.”