[This is the first of five articles I wrote in 2017 on the greatest players in women’s football history. For the next installment in the series, read here.]

I received an e-mail the other day from Patrick Premo, a women’s football fan. In it, he asked me a question that I have been asked many times over the years: Who are some of the greatest players in women’s football history?

The Greatest Players in Women’s Football History?

With his permission, here is the message Patrick sent my way.

I am still enjoying your book on women’s football! It is a wonderful reference work, besides being a great read.

Using your book and internet searches, I am trying to come up with a list of the best women players (in the USA) in the history of the sport. Below is my list (in alphabetical order), which I call my “Elite Eight”:

[Names removed for now…but we’ll get to that!]

Of course, I am just learning about the sport, so I don’t know how I succeeded in putting this list together. Are there any “must” players that should be added?

I appreciate any thoughts you might have on the subject.

First and foremost, I appreciate his question and interest in the sport. This is a subject I have avoided commenting on for years…to be honest, it has taken me four years of being involved with women’s football to consider myself educated enough to even take part in such a discussion. But I’ve decided it’s time to take my first crack at it, since it’s one of the most asked questions I get.

A Disclaimer

Before I get started, however, I need to add a disclaimer to this topic. Due to its relatively small size, women’s football is much more of a closed community than many other sports…it’s a network in which everyone seemingly knows everyone else. Because of that, discussions and rankings of this sort often take on a personal nature that they don’t necessarily in larger sports.

Understand that just because I list one player ahead of another – or if I list one player and fail to list another – I’m not “attacking” the player ranked lower or left off. It’s not designed to be a slight, an attack, or an insult. I hate to leave anyone out, but we are talking about the greatest players in the history of the sport here, so I can’t mention everyone. Also, it’s entirely possible that I legitimately overlooked some people.

Rather than have this conversation turn contentious, I’d prefer if this series of articles triggers a legitimate and reasoned discussion on which players deserve such consideration. Many of the players who have been around this game for ten to fifteen years are, quite honestly, in a much better position to identify the greatest players in the history of women’s football than I am. My hope is that by starting the conversation, I wind up hearing from them and curating this list in a more informed way.

Okay…enough beating around the bush. Let’s get to this!

The Greatest Players In Women’s Football – First Era (1967-1985)

The first thing I noticed about the eight players on Premo’s list, right off the bat, was his inclusion of three players from the “first era” of women’s football from 1967-1985. As such, these are three ladies that may be unfamiliar to current players and fans of women’s football.

Premo’s picks: Carole Duffy, Rae Hodge, Linda Jefferson

One thing is not in dispute, however…and that is that Linda Jefferson was pretty unanimously seen as the best women’s football player of the 20th century. The Toledo Troopers were the most visible and arguably the most successful women’s football team of the era, and that was largely due to Jefferson and her remarkable play at running back. If you’re going to include any players from the first era of women’s football on a list of this sort, Jefferson is a no-brainer.

As for Carole Duffy and Rae Hodge, I understand the rationale behind their selections. Namely, the American Football Association operates a Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame, and a decade or so ago, the AFA made waves by inducting its first female members into its Hall of Fame. In all, the Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame has four female inductees: Jefferson, Duffy, Hodge, and former NWFA head Catherine Masters. Given that Jefferson, Duffy, and Hodge are the only three women in the Semi-Pro Hall of Fame for their playing accomplishments, that’s likely what prompted Premo to include them on his list.

Time to shake things up a bit…I don’t think the AFA or their Hall of Fame is particularly knowledgeable about women’s football, so I don’t take their opinion as authoritative. Don’t get me wrong, Duffy and Hodge were excellent players, I’m sure. But were they better than all of their first era peers? I’m not sold on that one…and I’m not going to believe it just because the AFA Hall of Fame says so.

Duffy and Hodge have more than just the Hall of Fame honors in common, however. It’s worth noting that both of them played for the Pittsburgh Powderkegs: Duffy from 1969-1971 and Hodge from 1970-1971. It’s also worth mentioning that both Duffy and Hodge were nominated for the AFA Hall of Fame by their old coach, former Pittsburgh Steeler Charley Scales. It’s likely that a former NFL standout like Scales lobbying on their behalf played a large role in getting these two particular women recognized by the AFA Hall.

In the end, good for Duffy and Hodge…again, I’m sure they were excellent players, and I’m not taking anything away from them. Personally, I’d like to see the AFA nominate even more women’s football players in the future. But again I ask, do their places in the AFA Hall of Fame mean that Duffy and Hodge were better on the field than their first era peers?

A Few More Players of Note

A quick historical note…the women’s football team in Pittsburgh started as the “All-Stars” in 1968, and they were also known as the “Hurricanes” at times. But they were best known as the Pittsburgh Powderkegs from 1969-1971. The Pittsburgh organization is probably most notable for being the second established women’s football team of that era, founded in 1968; they were the second women’s football team after the Cleveland Daredevils, who were established one year earlier.

While the Powderkegs were one of the first teams in the history of the sport, that doesn’t mean they were necessarily one of the best…in four years of existence, they had roughly a .500 record. Conversely, the two best teams from the “first era” of women’s football – by a wide margin – were the Toledo Troopers and the Oklahoma City Dolls. If the Pittsburgh Powderkegs truly had two of the three best players from the first era of women’s football, I would have expected them to have a much better record than they did in their four years of play.

Let me put this another way…if I were going to assemble a top ten list of players from the first era of women’s football, I would almost certainly have three or four players each from the Troopers and Dolls. Such was their dominance on the field, and to the victors go the spoils.

Other Troopers that deserve mention in this discussion (in addition to the obvious choice of Jefferson) are QB Lee Hollar and WR/DB Sunday Jones. For the Oklahoma City Dolls, QB Jan Hines and RB Frankie Neal were certainly two of the top players of the era.

Duffy and Hodge have been singled out in large part due to their roles with the second-oldest women’s football team of the “first era”. But on that note, Cleveland Daredevils QB Marcella Sanborn is worth a mention as well. Sanborn was the first true “star” of women’s football; as the quarterback of the Daredevils, the first honest-to-goodness women’s football team in history, Sanborn was the first player hyped as a true star in the sport.

These are just a few of the great players from the “first era” of women’s football who merit mention and recognition, and I’m sure there are many others. Without question, the first era of women’s football is a subject that deserves more attention and study.

The Greatest Players In Women’s Football – Modern Era

With all that said, it’s difficult to compare players of this era to players from the “modern era” – in other words, since 1999. While women’s football players today don’t get a lot of publicity, it was even more scarce for those who played in the 20th century. There was no Facebook or Twitter, virtually no stats, few rosters…all in all, very little historical record of the game at all back then. As such, I tend to treat them as two entirely separate entities.

What about the modern era, then? Who are some of the greatest women’s football players that have played since 1999? Well…I’ll start to tackle that explosive subject in part two. Until then, thanks for reading.

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