Minnesota Vixen Home Opener
Courtesy Minnesota Vixen
Madison Schmatz is definitely someone you’d call a lifelong athlete and sports fan. Soccer may have been her main sport growing up, but she also sprinkled in school sports like volleyball and track and field. Now, though, you can find her in a crimson jersey on the field, gunning for whoever’s reaching for the football.
Schmatz is one of the Minnesota Vixen’s linebackers for the 2018 season, and if you’ve never heard of our state’s all-woman traveling tackle football team, you’re missing out.
The Vixen have been around since 1999, and when Schmatz joined them eight years ago, they were still a small, 20-person team losing most of their games. We could talk about their crazy comeback over the past few years, with their playoff prowls starting in the mid-2000s, an undefeated regular season and Independent Women’s Football World championship game in 2016, and a 2017 season where they joined the Women’s Football Alliance and made it to the quarter-finals of the WFA championship. But honestly, what’s more indicative of the team isn’t that they’ve managed to turn around their win-lose record: It’s that they grew from about 20 people to a full roster of 50 or 70 people through, yes, some community outreach, but mostly through word of mouth.
When the team wasn’t doing as well, when the lack of players had women on the offensive, defensive and special teams all in the same game, it had a culture where people came to play for the love of the game and the community it created. As Schmatz says, “Most people don’t just come and play for one season; it’s for multiple seasons. You pretty much get addicted to it.” That seems to apply to the audience, too, as family, friends, and fans come to cheer on the team and watch the sport that should be for everyone.
The Vixen’s home opener is this Saturday, April 21, so you can see for yourself what makes the game so fun. Before then, though, Schmatz sat down with us to give us a clue as to why players kept coming back year after year to build this quiet empire.
How did you first hear about the Vixen?
So eight years ago, I had a friend that actually had tried out, and I’ve always wanted to play football and I had never heard of them. We were having lunch, and she told me about it, looked it up, came out at one of the last tryouts, tried out. I loved the camaraderie and the sisterhood of everyone there and how welcoming it was and just the idea of being able to play a sport that most people look at as a male-only sport, so that was really interesting and inspiring to me. Then I made the team and I’ve been playing ever since. I always want to inspire younger women and girls that they can do everything they put their mind to.
When you were growing up, did the idea of football being a “male-only” sport make sense to you? Was there a steep learning curve going from your school sports to football?
I’ve never thought it should only be a male sport. I played with my brother, my friends, my cousins growing up—all the time, but never in school. … I mean there was some I didn’t know about that I needed to learn obviously, but I’ve always enjoyed the sport and watched it and paid attention to it, so I knew most of how it was played coming into it.
Do you have a distinct memory from your first season where you realized that you wanted to keep playing as long as you could?
It was our first hitting practice, and one of our veteran players—she’s been playing all 20 season—she laid me out. And I was like, “Ah, that was painful,” but at the same time, it was like, now I know what this is like. This is great, and I love it. So I’ll just do it until either I can’t do it anymore or I just want to help out and my body can’t take it.
As far as camaraderie goes, do you mean that everyone was just simply nice, or that you have traditions, or …?
We have both. Ever since I started, everybody has been really welcoming and open if you have questions or want to get together. We always have a veteran who sponsors or adopts a vixen rookie, so they help you throughout the season. If you had questions, you could go to them so you don’t feel alone or left out; we do that to this year. At away games, we do, like, a “secret vixen,” so everyone has someone else on the team and you give them a little gift. W have team bonding events where players go out together, do community services or go out to dinner or go to an event or something together. … You become a sisterhood, a family.
Have you had other teams bond to that level?
I wouldn’t say so because, like, you get to know your teammates and you get along with them, but in soccer, it was a team, but I don’t feel like everyone was a family. And (it’s the) same with track and field; you’re all competing together, but it’s still individually. Here with football, this team especially, it’s literally like a second family. I’ve never seen anything like it—I love it.
Looking at the Vixen’s season stats, the team has been dominating the past few years. How competitive does the atmosphere get?
Considering how when I started, we had maybe 20 players on the team, so coming from there to coming to how it is now, we have a full roster and women who are passionate about the sport, really driven. They want to learn, they want to be here, so I would say it is competitive, very much so. Not so much within our team, but throughout all the teams in our league, it’s definitely competitive.
I know you’ve never really wanted to quit playing football after your first season, but has there ever been a time when it’s been more difficult just because of schedules?
A lot of people don’t realize that when they sign up, but it does take a lot of time, and it is a full year commitment. You have to volunteer at different events, work at the state fair, practice is three days a week—it’s a lot of time. It is well worth it, especially to go out on the field, to do something most people wouldn’t expect women to do. And to have little girls come up to you and say, “Oe day I want to play football too,” or “When I’m 18, I’m going to try out,” is a great feeling.
Does it feel like you’ve been playing for eight years now?
No. It really doesn’t. It never … It doesn’t feel like it’s been eight years at all. It feels like it’s maybe been three. It’s been amazing—all eight years have been really amazing.
Photos from the Minnesota Vixen's first away game of the season, April 7, 2018, against the Madison Blaze.