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For the love of the game

by CAROL MARINO
Daily Inter Lake | January 20, 2022 12:00 AM

They’re professional athletes playing by NFL rules in NFL stadiums, but they pay to play. Their coaching staff is all-volunteer. There are no endorsements, no sponsorships and most of the players hold down jobs and have families. This is the underfunded world of women’s professional football.

Sami Grisafe has made her mark on sports history by becoming the most award-winning quarterback in the history of the Women’s Football Alliance. She was the starting QB for the Chicago Force women’s tackle football team from 2007 to 2014 — winning the national championship in 2013 — and led Team USA, the U.S. Women’s National team, to three Gold Medal wins in the International Federation of American Football (I.F.A.F.) Women’s World Championship where she was awarded MVP twice.

A 2003 graduate of Redlands High School in Redlands, California, Grisafe was the first female in California’s history to be a starting quarterback in a varsity Division I football game. Named team captain, she was inducted into her high school Hall of Fame, one of the first and only female athletes to be inducted for football.

​​Grisafe has broken innumerable barriers in sports. Her life and the world of professional women’s tackle football are the focus of the full-length feature documentary “Open Field” premiering in Montana this month at the Flathead Lake International Cinemafest (FLIC) in Polson. To date, “Open Field” has garnered Best Documentary Awards at four film festivals across the country.

Grisafe said it was a struggle gaining ground in a game traditionally thought of as a men’s sport.

“Trying to convince coaches and, that first season, the guys, that I belonged was daunting,” Grisafe said. “Especially at a young age, navigating social issues and trying to make people forget about my gender. That was really hard in the beginning.”

Grisafe and director/producer Kathy Kuras will be in Polson for FLIC.

Shot on location over the course of six years — with full access to practice sessions, games, locker room conversations and off-field activities — “Open Field” shows three Team USA world championships. The film screens at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 28, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30, at the Showboat Stadium 6 in Polson.

“Open Field” points a lense on not only on women’s professional football but on the struggles the players face in a sport that garners little recognition.

A co-founder of Vanguard Muse music and film company and after developing video production for the YMCA, Kuras says, while her initial goal in directing and producing her first full-length documentary was to raise awareness about women who are playing tackle football, ultimately it was about telling the stories.

“These folks were doing something they may have never seen someone doing before, so it was about preserving that,” Kuras said. “I was really inspired by everyone in the film and felt I had a responsibility to share their stories.”

In one scene from the film, Katie Sowers, a former Team USA teammate of Grisafe’s, and now offensive assistant coach for the San Francisco 49-ers — the first woman NFL coach in Super Bowl history — says about the athletes, “They don’t have to be spectacular at someone else’s job; they just need to be great at their job. Whenever everybody does their job, that’s when you really see what a team can accomplish.”

“We call that the 1 11,” Grisafe said. “There’s 11 players on the field and it’s important to stay in your lane. A great coach, and a good teammate, knows what their teammates’ abilities are and when to be supportive … and when to give them a push. It’s about listening and awareness.”

That, for Grisafe, is a metaphor for life.

Having played football since age 10, she says it was never about the novelty of playing on a men’s team.

“It was the love of the game,” she said. “I just wanted to be the best at it I possibly could and play for as long as I could. It had nothing to do with me wanting to be the first.”

Grisafe’s confidence was rooted in her home life.

“I had really supportive parents who allowed me to take chances and pursue things that maybe other parents wouldn’t have,” Grisafe said.

“Open Field” also showcases Grisafe’s talent off the field as a performing artist. After receiving a scholarship and graduating from the Chicago College of Performing Arts, she moved to Los Angeles to launch her career as a singer, songwriter and actor. She earned six Grammy pre-nominations for her 2012 album “Atlantis” and in 2013 received the Chicago Music Award for “Best Rock Entertainer.”

Grisafe worked with two Los Angeles songwriters over the course of a year to co-write the soundtrack to “Open Field.” Her album by the same title is being released in singles. On Feb. 2 the track “Manifest” will be released — the first music video to have ever been shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame — available presale Jan. 22.

Ultimately it is as much about Grisafe’s grit as her considerable talent as a singer/songwriter that illustrates her innate perseverance.

​​“The message I gave myself when I was young is if you put the work first, usually everything else will fall into place,” she said. “Pursue your passions unwaveringly. If you really love something and the world is telling you that you can’t do it, don’t listen.”

And as for seeing her life on the big screen, Grisafe says, “I’m so grateful to Kathy and John Alexander (the film’s editor). What they put on the screen feels honest. It feels true. They did a beautiful job.”

LEARN MORE

The Flathead Lake International Cinemafest (FLIC) celebrates its 10th anniversary Jan. 28 to 30 in Polson.

FLIC 2022 features a full slate of documentary and narrative short films with entries from 18 countries, as well as homegrown Montana films.

The festival kicks off Friday, Jan. 28, with an informal gathering at the Cove Deli & Pizza. Screenings begin at 6 p.m. on multiple screens at the Showboat Stadium 6. Films continue through Jan. 29 and 30.

For a complete schedule and tickets, visit flicpolson.com.

If you miss FLIC weekend, the Showboat Cinema will host FLIC 2022 encore screenings from Sunday, Jan. 30, through Thursday, Feb. 3, at 4:30 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The schedule will be posted on flicpolson.com.

Community and Entertainment editor Carol Marino may be reached at 406-758-4440 or thisweek@dailyinterlake.com.