Maria Rivera perused the aisles of a sporting goods store. She passed the women’s section, dotted with bright pinks and purples, and approached the football equipment. She asked the store clerk where the mouthpieces and girdles were in her size. 

“Football? What do you know about football,” the store clerk asked. 

While they assumed Rivera, a mother of three, was shopping for her son, she knows a thing or two about the sport. Rivera is one of 20 players on Salem’s newly formed semi-pro women's tackle football team: the Capital Pioneers. 

The Pioneers compete in the Women's Football Alliance, a national tackle football league for women.  

The team already was hurdling setbacks long before they stepped onto the field for their first game. In 2020, the Pioneers were preparing for their premiere season but it was canceled due to COVID-19. 

“We started off with, ‘Can we do this? Can we make this happen,’” Rivera said. “As long as we get to play that’s all that matters right now.” 

The Capital Pioneers have a range of varying experiences but anyone is welcome to play. The team originated when 10 players who formerly played for a tackle football team based in Eugene wanted to start a player-owned team based in Salem.

The Pioneers are a nonprofit and receive funding through sponsors, fundraisers and team fees. A board made up of six players and one family member help make decisions for the team. 

Each woman on the Pioneers pays $400 to play for the season, which covers the cost of their uniforms, referees and other expenses. The players also additionally pay for their own equipment, like cleats and gloves, and any other travel expenses when on the road for games.

From girls who are still in high school to women who have teenagers of their own, each player has their own reason for wanting to play the game of football. 

Renee Gonzales, 31, has been surrounded by football her entire life and joined the Capital Pioneers four months ago. Gonzales remembers cheering on both of her brothers who played youth football in Canby, Ore. and watching her dad coach on the sidelines. The name of her four-year-old daughter, Oaklyn, was inspired by none other than the Oakland Raiders.  

“It’s just always kind of been the center of my family,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales has carried on the family tradition, joined by one of her brothers.  She is a starting offensive lineman for the Pioneers, and her brother the line coach.   

One of Gonzales’ favorite things about playing football is seeing her daughter fall in love with it too.  

“To see the happiness and joy that it puts on my 4-year-old's face when she’s on the sidelines, and I hear her scream 'Go mom!' nothing tops that,” Gonzales said. 

“I know that I’m doing what this league stands for and that’s showing women that they can do this. Women can play football.”

Dedicated to the game

Running back Willielee Missouri thinks of three things when in the game — catch the ball, find the blocker and run.  

“I try not to think so much because that’s when the nerves come,” 33-year-old Missouri said.

Missouri weaves in and out of defenses, speeding past the opponent. As a running back, her eyes are on the goal line. She believes her experience with other sports has helped prepare her for this. She strategizes and takes what she’s learned from basketball, track and cross country and applies it to football. She stays on her toes when looking for the football, similar how she'd shuffle her feet when playing basketball.

However, Missouri wishes she and her teammates had the opportunity to play the sport sooner. 

“That’s the hard thing for women, is we know the sport, but we don’t really know the sport,” Missouri said. “Some people love football and can tell you about the players on the field, but actually being out there and learning the different lingo ... that’s the hard thing for women.” 

This is one of the reasons Missouri thinks her teammates are that much more dedicated. 

The investment is worth it to Missouri. Football has given her an outlet to stay physical, a place to meet friends and taught her the patience to deal with what she can’t control. 

“I want to play football until I can’t anymore,” Missouri said. 

Leaving a legacy

Growing up both of Maria Rivera’s parents worked. Some days Rivera and her siblings had to take care of each other. Before her sophomore year, Rivera became pregnant at 16 with her first son. A few years later, she had her two daughters. With three kids by the age of 19, there was no time to pursue sports.  

Now at 32 years old Rivera looks back on spending much of her young adult years as a stay-at-home mom.   

“It’s time to take care of myself,” Rivera told herself before signing up for flag football. 

Rivera played flag football in 2014 and found herself invested in the competition, but wanting to be challenged. That’s when she pursued tackle football.

“If you really want it, if you really enjoy it, you’ll find a way,” Rivera said. “I want to keep pushing, I want to keep going.” 

Rivera plays as a tight end for the Capital Pioneers. She’s even inspired her daughters and their friends to have an interest in the sport.  

“There are little ones looking up to me,” Rivera said. “If I can have that much of an impact on my daughters, imagine how much of an impact as a whole women’s team we can have on our community.” 

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