Sporting black helmets, red jerseys, and protective shoulder pads, the women of the Memphis Belles football team are sweating in the sweltering June heat right before their game against the team from Pensacola, Florida's Gulf Coast Riptide.
When the action begins on the NSA Varsity Field in Millington, fans seated in the bleachers scream, "Go, hell's Belles!" From the sidelines, the Belles look like any football team as they tackle players in white Riptide jerseys for control of the ball.
As part of the nationwide Women's Football Alliance (WFA), the Memphis Belles play according to full-contact, NFL rules. Now in their second season, the Belles are the only women's football team in West Tennessee. Members range in age from 18 to 50 years old.
"A lot of women athletes find that after they graduate college or high school, there's really nothing to do at the level of competition they're used to," says Zachary Anderson-Klingemier, director of operations for the Memphis Belles. "There's local softball leagues, but they don't compete on a national level like we do."
As in men's football, minor injuries aren't uncommon. During the game against the Riptide, receiver Brandi Shappley of Olive Branch is treated for an injury to the bridge of her nose.
Since women don't have many opportunities to play football in high school or college, many women join the team without knowledge of the game. But the Belles coaching staff provides full training on the basics.
"We have players who played on college basketball or track teams, and we have people who've never played a sport in their life and decide football is the first one they want to try. I'm always impressed with that," Anderson-Klingemier says.
During the season, which began in mid-April, the Memphis Belles play other teams in the WFA's Southeast division, which includes New Orleans, Jacksonville, Panama City, and Pensacola. After losing Saturday's game against the Riptide 54 to 20, the Belles won't be going to the playoffs, but they have one more home game against the Jacksonville Dixie Blues Saturday, June 20th.
"The women on the Riptide team are so much bigger than the women on our team," says Anderson-Klingemier after Saturday's loss. "The Belles are smaller and faster."
Once the season ends, Anderson-Klingemier says the team will work on community outreach projects, such as visiting school groups.
"Our focus is not just women's football but women's athletics all around," Anderson-Klingemier says. "We want to encourage young girls to participate in athletic programs."