SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) – While the Utah Jazz, Real Salt Lake, major college football teams, and the minor league baseball clubs get most of the sports press in Utah, it’s possible that one of the best athletic teams in the Beehive State has largely flown under the radar.
Over the past six seasons — not counting the 2020 campaign, which was canceled due to the pandemic — the Utah Falconz women’s football team has racked up a record of 57-4 with a pair of national championships.
“I don’t like those numbers, but it is what it is,” head coach Rick Rasmussen tells ABC4, lamenting the team’s few losses in his tenure.
The Falconz play as members of the Women’s National Football Conference, a league that includes women’s tackle football teams from all over the country. The league is quite impressive for one that hasn’t yet reached mainstream prominence, with an organized system in place for games to be played all over the country, live-streaming of contests, a team apparel store, and a title game scheduled to be played in Dallas in August.
What makes this level of women’s football even more unique is that at least in Utah’s case, the players aren’t paid. Instead, they pay a fee of their own to play. Any woman who can put in the time and pay the fee can suit up for the Falconz. This kind of inclusiveness and availability brings women of all backgrounds together on the gridiron at Cottonwood High School, where the Falconz play their home games.
“If there’s a more diverse group of women in any organization in the state of Utah, I’d be shocked,” Rasmussen says. “I mean, we have white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Polynesian. We’ve got people from every walk of life. We’ve had a young woman that was living in the shelter that I sponsored for her cost so that she could have the camaraderie of being on the team.”
That player he was referencing has since been able to secure a full-time job and a place of her own, an achievement Rasmussen partially attributes to the support she gets from being a member of the Falconz.
Describing the makeup of his team, Rasmussen continued to mention that his players also have varying sexual preferences, employment situations, and other lifestyle differences. Many of the Falconz are mothers, meaning practices often have children running along the sidelines of the field while the moms run plays and drills inside the lines.
“It’s kind of a really good microcosm of how our society could operate if we were just all focused on the same goal,” Rasmussen says of his team’s diverse identity.
One of the team’s leaders, Maki Yamagata, who plays wide receiver and defensive back, is a perfect example of the diversity in the roster. A Japanese-born group fitness instructor and mother of two, Yamagata had no experience with football before a former co-worker who was on the team suggested she join the squad.
“I told her I’m too old for this,” Yamagata recalls. “She was older than me though, so I couldn’t give her that excuse.”
Now, Yamagata is one of the most dedicated members of the Falconz, saying she often arrives a few hours early to practice and games to run routes and build chemistry with her quarterbacks. Named the team’s MVP in April, Yamagata says others are shocked when they find out that she, a 4-foot-11 tall Asian woman in her 40s, is a football player.
“They don’t expect me to like to play football because I’m a small person,” she says. “It’s a surprise for everybody.”
Despite the dedication of his players, Rasmussen, a lifelong football fanatic and a longtime high school coach, acknowledges it can be a hard sell to get folks to come to see a women’s football game. He often teases his friends and former colleagues to simply “come and have a hot dog,” to get them to attend the Falconz games.
Every time though, he says his football-loving buddies leave the game impressed with what they saw on the field.
“They all walk away and say ‘Holy sh**, that was some pretty good football.’”