Capital Pioneers, Salem’s women’s tackle football team, undefeated as home games approach

When Becky Boehme started playing tackle football, her 16-year-old son begged her not to.

But now, the 42-year-old mom of two says the sport has become a way to break through the teenage tendency toward giving their parents one-syllable answers.

“I come home and I ask him to help me with plays or what something means,” she said. They’ll often spend an hour talking about football.

She grinned as she suited up for a recent evening practice on the McKay High School football field.

“I’m more athletic than they probably thought I was,” she said.

Boehme is one of about 30 women who make up the Capital Pioneers, Salem’s women’s tackle football team.

The Capital Pioneers pose after their 41-0 victory against Eugene’s Oregon Cougars on May 11, 2024. (Courtesy/Capital Pioneers)

The Pioneers are part of the Women’s Football Alliance, a semi-professional national association of 60 teams that play 11-on-11 tackle football in three divisions.

Many said the sport gives them an outlet to channel stress.

“We can be aggressive and not go to jail for it,” said Willie Lee, 36, one of the team’s founding players.

The team is midway through their fourth season, with three upcoming home games played at McNary High School on June 1, 8 and 15. 

Kickoff is at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the gate and free for kids 12 and under.

The Pioneers have won three away games, beating Central Valley Chaos in Bakersfield, California, 7-0; Eugene’s Oregon Cougars, 41-0 and most recently Utah’s Wasatch Warriors, 21-6.

Players in Salem are a diverse group, ranging in age from 18 to their 40s. The team was started by players who met playing flag football and wanted a local tackle team to play on.

Kayla Hayden, 39, joined the Pioneers after moving to Salem early in the Covid pandemic.

“I was looking for a community, friends again,” she said. “I found an advertisement on Facebook and the rest was history.”

Hayden is an equestrian and said that experience translated well to the football field.

“I got slammed into walls by horses. I get more padding in football,” she said.

The Capital Pioneers are Salem’s women’s tackle football team. (Courtesy/Capital Pioneers)

Many players start with no athletic experience, and few have played football before.

That means coaches are starting with a blank slate — something head coach Grant Carmichael said is rewarding.

“It’s a brand new culture,” he said. “It’s been a challenge but it’s also been great to watch them grow.”

Andrea Cortes, 24, is a rookie lineman who loves watching the NFL. Her brother-in-law encouraged her to come to tryouts, telling her, “You’ve got the attitude, you’re rough.”

“It took everything in me to actually get to the tryouts because I felt so intimidated,” she said. She almost turned around and went back to her car, but another player saw her and convinced her to come onto the field.

“I’m really glad I did because I’ve been really enjoying it so much,” she said. Cortes appreciates that players make time for the schedule — twice weekly practices plus travel for games — fitting it in around parenting responsibilities, jobs and other commitments.

The athletes said they contend with stereotypes about women in football. People assume the team is a flag team, or that players are dressed in lingerie. 

But they also get to see the impact the team has on young girls who attend games.

“There were a couple little girls who came up to us … who were really excited about women playing football,” said rookie Kelsea Phillips, 32. “They don’t have to be excluded from sports that are thought of as typically for boys or men.”

Before a recent practice, players taped injured hands and traded looking at each others’ most intense bruises.

“Dude, my turf burn looks so good,” one athlete said to a teammate.The Pioneers are always looking for new players, as well as volunteers to help with administrative tasks and training. More information about joining is available on their website.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.