The Greatest Players In Women’s Football History: Part 2
[This is the second 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.]
Yesterday I wrote about some of the greatest women’s football players of the 20th century. Now let’s move on to what you’ve all been waiting for…the modern era, in other words, women’s football since 1999.
The Greatest Players in Women’s Football History – Positional Breakdown
The modern era spans 18 years worth of football, which is a lot of ground to cover. In my book, The Women’s Football Encyclopedia, I listed over 10,000 women who have played the sport since 1999, and I certainly didn’t have anywhere near all of the rosters of teams that have played in that time. If I had to guess, I’d say that anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 women have played football in the modern era. How do you even begin picking out the best players from that large of a group?
Well, I like to go position by position. It’s the easiest way to compare apples to apples in the modern era, and in my opinion, it simplifies the task considerably.
As is the case on the men’s side, not all positions in women’s football are equal in acclaim. Some positions clearly get more attention than others, and for good reason. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the most-celebrated position in football.
The Greatest Quarterbacks in Women’s Football History
Quarterback is by far the hardest position to master in the sport of football…maybe the toughest in all of sports. A quarterback needs to be a passer, a decision-maker, and above all, a leader.
Great quarterbacks are incredibly hard to find, and that’s perhaps even more true in the women’s game. An outstanding quarterback can literally make or break an entire franchise in women’s football. As such, when you ask people to list off the greatest players in women’s football, I’ve found that quarterbacks are the players most prominently mentioned.
Because of the high-profile nature of quarterbacks, it is the position where I have given the most thought toward identifying the all-time greats in women’s football. Based on my research, there are 12 quarterbacks in the modern era of women’s football that have – again, in my opinion – separated themselves from the rest. My top 12 quarterbacks (in alphabetical order) in women’s football history are:
Allison Cahill – New England Storm/Massachusetts Mutiny/Boston Militia/Boston Renegades
Laura Cantu – Houston Energy (Dallas Diamonds)
Melissa Gallegos – San Diego Sunfire/So Cal Scorpions/San Diego Surge
Sami Grisafe – Chicago Force
Kim Grodus – Detroit Demolition (Chicago Force)
Val Halesworth – New York Sharks/New England Intensity/New York Nemesis/New York Knockout
Allyson Hamlin – D.C. Divas
Lisa Horton – Pittsburgh Passion (Cleveland Fusion)
Leilani Limary – Sacramento Sirens
Karen Mulligan – New York Sharks
Jenny Schmidt – Kansas City Tribe/Kansas City Titans
Karen Seimears – Dallas Diamonds
How did I come up with this list? Better yet, how do you determine what makes a quarterback great? You could use individual stats, awards, or any number of other metrics to define a great quarterback.
But in my view, more than any other position, great quarterbacks are judged by championships. That’s certainly true in the NFL (Tom Brady approves this message), and it’s reasonable – to me, at least – that the same holds true in women’s football.
Women’s Football Championship Quarterbacks
Not all “championships” in women’s football are equal, however. My book, The Women’s Football Encyclopedia, groups “league champions” into appropriate categories, the highest of which is “major national champions.” The definition my book provides is this: “A major national champion is, quite simply, the playoff champion of the top competitive women’s football league of any given year and season.”
Using that definition, there have been thirty major national champions in women’s football from 2000-2016. If you’re wondering why there are 30 major national champions in a 17-year span, there are two reasons. First, from 2001-2007, women’s football was split into spring/summer and fall/winter seasons, and separate major national champions were designated for each season those seven years. Also, for the spring/summer seasons of 2002-2007, the NWFA and IWFL were roughly equivalent leagues competitively, so their champions are treated as co-champs of their respective seasons those six years.
Here, then, are the thirty major national champions of the modern era of women’s football. I have listed the teams that won the championships and the primary quarterback of each of these championship teams.
2000 WPFL – Houston Energy (Donna Vicknair)
2001 NWFL – Philadelphia Liberty Belles (Zeffi Angelikas)
2001 WAFL – California Quake (Mary Montgomery)
2002 NWFL – Detroit [Demolition] Danger (Kim Grodus)
2002 IWFL – New York Sharks (Val Halesworth)
2002 WPFL – Houston Energy (Kristin Anderson)
2003 NWFA – Detroit Demolition (Kim Grodus)
2003 IWFL – Sacramento Sirens (Leilani Limary)
2003 WPFL – Northern Ice (Petra Olsen)
2004 NWFA – Detroit Demolition (Kim Grodus)
2004 IWFL – Sacramento Sirens (Leilani Limary)
2004 WPFL – Dallas Diamonds (Karen Seimears)
2005 NWFA – Detroit Demolition (Kim Grodus)
2005 IWFL – Sacramento Sirens (Leilani Limary)
2005 WPFL – Dallas Diamonds (Karen Seimears)
2006 NWFA – D.C. Divas (Allyson Hamlin)
2006 IWFL – Atlanta Xplosion (Cheryl Glover)
2006 WPFL – Dallas Diamonds (Karen Seimears)
2007 NWFA – Pittsburgh Passion (Lisa Horton)
2007 IWFL – Detroit Demolition (Kim Grodus)
2007 WPFL – So Cal Scorpions (Melissa Gallegos)
2008 IWFL – Dallas Diamonds (Karen Seimears)
2009 IWFL – Kansas City Tribe (Jenny Schmidt)
2010 IWFL – Boston Militia (Allison Cahill)
2011 WFA – Boston Militia (Allison Cahill)
2012 WFA – San Diego Surge (Melissa Gallegos)
2013 WFA – Chicago Force (Sami Grisafe)
2014 WFA – Boston Militia (Allison Cahill)
2015 WFA – D.C. Divas (Allyson Hamlin)
2016 WFA – D.C. Divas (Allyson Hamlin)
Now compare my list of 12 great quarterbacks with this list of national champions. Of the 30 major national titles in women’s football, 24 have been won by one of the dozen quarterbacks I mentioned earlier. Here are the quarterbacks I listed and the major national titles they’ve won as a starter:
3: Cahill, Hamlin, Limary
1: Grisafe, Halesworth, Horton*, Schmidt
0: Cantu, Mulligan
*Note that while Lisa Horton won back-to-back titles with the Pittsburgh Passion in the IWFL in 2014 and 2015, the IWFL was an inferior league competitively to the WFA those years. So while Horton has won three national titles overall, only one is truly a major national title – her NWFA championship with the Passion in 2007.
Now, just because one player has won five major championships does not mean that she’s necessarily “greater” than a player who has won fewer (Tom Brady does not approve this message.) But leading your team to a major national title is the strongest argument you can make that a player is worthy of this kind of lofty recognition.
You’ll note that two quarterbacks on my list of 12 have won no major national titles as starters: Laura Cantu and Karen Mulligan. It’s not impossible to make a list like this with no titles (like Dan Marino in the NFL)…it’s just considerably more difficult. With Cantu and Mulligan, I think you can make a case for the two of them, even without such a title in hand.
In Cantu’s case, she actually won a major national title with the Dallas Diamonds in 2008, but she was a backup to Seimears that season. As a starter, she has won four conference titles and appeared in four national title games with the Houston Energy in 2006, 2007, 2013, and 2014. The first two were major national title games, while the latter two were minor national title contests.
The downside of Cantu’s career is that she is 0-4 in four national title game appearances as a starting quarterback. To be fair, she faced some stiff competition in those title games. Her two major national title game appearances were against the Dallas Diamonds (and Seimears) in 2006 and the So Cal Scorpions (and Gallegos) in 2007. Her most recent national title game appearance in 2014 was a loss to Lisa Horton and the Pittsburgh Passion, although the IWFL, again, was not the major league in the sport that year.
The point is that while Cantu has four losses as a starter in national championship games, three of those four defeats were to quarterbacks also on my “top 12” list. That makes me more inclined to overlook the losses, particularly in light of the fact that she has played for five conference championship teams.
As for Karen Mulligan, she started with the New York Sharks in 2003, the year after they won the franchise’s only national title. Mulligan played a few other positions her first three years with the team before taking over the quarterback position in 2006. In over a decade as the Sharks’ signal caller, Mulligan has not been able to guide the Sharks to the national title game. Her closest shave came this past season, when she led the Sharks to the IWFL conference title game against the Minnesota Vixen. Mulligan threw the interception in double overtime that was returned for a touchdown and sent the Vixen to the IWFL championship, a pick that denied her a chance to start in her first national championship game as a starting quarterback.
Still, Mulligan is a statistical standout, usually ranking among the league leaders in passing in her decade-plus career. In addition, she has won two gold medals as a quarterback with Team USA at the IFAF Women’s World Championships, backing up Sami Grisafe on both medal-winning teams. That’s enough for me to put her on this list, too.
These 12 quarterbacks all had different styles; some were game managers, while others filled the sky with passes. But one thing they all have in common is that they are all winners. And really…what’s more important in a quarterback than that?
Premo’s picks: Sami Grisafe, Jenny Schmidt
Patrick Premo selected two quarterbacks on his list: Sami Grisafe and Jenny Schmidt. Note that Premo’s two quarterback selections were both on my list of 12. As such, in my opinion, they’re very good choices. If I were whittling my list of 12 down to two, Premo’s two wouldn’t be my two…but because the two he chose are on my list of 12, they’re certainly defensible selections as far as I’m concerned. If he had picked a QB that wasn’t on my list, I’d need to hear a much stronger argument to convince me she’s more deserving to be there over any of the 12 on my list.
More Great Quarterbacks in Women’s Football
The 12 quarterbacks on my list are a cut above the rest, at least in my estimation and based on my research into the sport. However, this list is not set in stone…there will certainly be more players added to this list down the road as more titles are handed out. (I would not be surprised to see the name Jessica Gerhart on this list in short order, for example. Call it a hunch.)
Also, there could certainly be a few outstanding QBs I missed. On that note, let’s take a moment to mention the six major national title winning quarterbacks not on my list.
As I said before, the quarterbacks on my list have won 24 of the 30 major national titles in the modern era. The other six are Donna Vicknair, Zeffi Angelikas, Mary Montgomery, Kristin Anderson, Petra Olsen, and Cheryl Glover. Most of these quarterbacks did not have the same career longevity as my top 12, which puts them on a slightly lower level in my view. Angelikas is a bit of an exception, as she played at least half a dozen years…that would make her one of the top quarterbacks I left off my list.
You’ll also note that these six quarterbacks all won their titles prior to 2007. That’s worth mentioning, because passing has grown exponentially over the last decade, adding quite a bit of technical nuance to the game. Take Olsen of the 2003 Northern Ice, for example. In the 2003 WPFL championship game, Olsen was reported to have had exactly one yard passing in the victory. It was just a different game back then. Even so, these are six excellent quarterbacks worthy of praise.
For a complete list of national title winning quarterbacks, here is a list of the starting quarterbacks who have won minor national titles:
1999 WPFL – Lake Michigan Minx (Missy Boyd)
2001 WPFL – Houston Energy (Shelly Squires)
2008 NWFA – H-Town Cyclones (Deborah Rusch)
2009 WFA – St. Louis Slam (Liz Lacy)
2009 IWFL2 – Wisconsin Warriors (Brenda VanCuick)
2010 WFA – Lone Star Mustangs (Brittany Bushman)
2010 IWFL2 – Montreal Blitz (Saadia Ashraf)
2011 IWFL – Atlanta (Xplosion) Ravens (Dana Marsal)
2012 IWFL – Montreal Blitz (Saadia Ashraf)
2013 IWFL – Carolina Phoenix (Jennifer King)
2014 IWFL – Pittsburgh Passion (Lisa Horton)
2015 IWFL – Pittsburgh Passion (Lisa Horton)
2016 IWFL – Utah Falconz (Louise Bean)
2016 WFA2 – St. Louis Slam (Jaime Gaal)
Some outstanding quarterbacks on this list as well. Again, it’s the most scrutinized position in the sport…and possibly in any sport. But these are the best of the best, in my opinion.
As important as the quarterback is, there are many other positions worth a look. We’ll get to that in part three. Until then, thanks for reading.