Photo by Christine Troyke
Name a sport and there's a pretty good chance Dana Marsal has played it.
The McKendree Elementary School physical education teacher grew up playing softball, basketball, volleyball and tennis in high school. In college she played on intramural flag football, ultimate frisbee and soccer teams and was the captain of the rugby squad.
But there was one sport Marsal thought she would never get to play -- full-contact football.
Then she heard about the Atlanta Xplosion, one of the top teams in the Independent Women's Football League. Marsal completed her second season with the Xplosion this spring, leading the team to a 7-1 record and the first round of the playoffs.
"This is the sport I've always wanted to play that I thought I would never have the opportunity to play," Marsal said. "All the other things most of the time females were given the opportunity through high school or rec sports."
It was after her rec basketball season ended two years ago that Marsal heard about a tryout for a women's football team. She went to the tryout in December 2008 where she competed against some players nearly half her age.
"Physically, I wasn't intimidated by anyone," Marsal said. "I was the oldest one out there and I was outrunning 25-year-olds, doing more pushups."
A month later she found out she made the team and by the fourth game she was splitting time at quarterback after the starter went down with an injury.
Marsal still remembers her first career touchdown. The Xplosion were down to Miami and Marsal scored on a quarterback sneak, a play that has worked well for her the last two seasons. She had always seen NFL players celebrate in the end zone, but didn't want to risk penalizing her team.
"When I crossed the line and they are signaling touchdown and everyone is coming over and high fiving me and I'm thinking I'm still holding the football," Marsal said. "I always wanted to spike a football. I took the football and I slammed it down really fast. I didn't go all out like they do in the pros. I slammed it down really quick and then I ran away from it like I didn't do it. I was so embarrassed that I was going to get flagged for it and I never did. But it turned into a big joke and it made my teammates laugh."
The quick celebration is still a running joke among Marsal and her teammates. At age 45, she's the oldest player on the team, which has prompted her teammates to call her Brett Favre, one of the oldest players in the NFL who also plays quarterback.
After splitting time at QB last season, Marsal was the full-time starter this season. So it wasn't uncommon for her to show up to school at McKendree with bruises on her arms and legs. It often drew questions from her co-workers and students. After explaining that the bruises came from football, the school has quickly become a big supporter of Marsal.
Xplosion players are required to pay for their own uniforms and travel expenses and Marsal has relied on McKendree to help out with part of the cost. The moral support she gets from her school is even more important to her. Last season one of her co-workers had red T-shirts made with "Marsal's Mob" printed on it with her No. 13. More than 40 friends, family and co-workers wore them to the first home game at Centennial High School last year.
"I'm impressed," McKendree Elementary School principal and Xplosion season ticket holder Dr. Loretta Denmark said. "Dana treats football like her job. She puts 100 percent into it."
Marsal's typical schedule finds her teaching a full day at school, being a driver's education instructor in the afternoon and then going to football practice at the Buchanan School of Technology in Norcross. She could be at the field as late as 10:30 p.m. with film sessions, game planning for that week's opponent and then going through drills and practice. It's a lot of the same things that are involved with being a professional football player in the NFL.
"A lot of people get it mixed up with that women's lingerie league," Marsal said. "Trust me, we're not that."
Marsal isn't sure how much longer she will play. After all, she's waited nearly 35 years to finally get to play professional football, why give it up so soon? The Xplosion were recently put up for public sale and she's not sure how much longer she can take the physical demands. But she does know if they need a quarterback next season, she wants to be there. It's been her life dream.
"I don't think I'm at the point where I want to pick up any brand new sports," Marsal said. "I've had this passion, this dream since I was 10 years old of always playing football and I thought, 'Will I ever have an opportunity?' I don't even know today if it's sunk in that I'm a professional athlete."