March 22, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

An approaching stampede can be seen, heard, and felt. The blur of feet and thunderous vibration of anapproaching herd almost reaches out to touch you on any given Saturday as the Nebraska Stampede practices in preparation for a new season.

But the women of the Stampede wouldn’t call it a touch. They’d call it a hit—and a bone-crushing one at that.

“Get out there and get aggressive, okay?” yells a linebacker whose ponytail peeks out from her helmet. “This isn’t dance class,” she adds, as the team huddles up for quarterback Jenny “Flip” Filipowicz to call the next play.

On the sideline stands Dave Dawson, the coach of Omaha’s team in the Women’s Football Alliance. He’s been with the Stampede for four years, and it’s his first as head coach, a baton he took from team co-owner Rex Johnson.

“I think people would be surprised at the level of talent on this team and how hard they play,” he says as a four-player pile-up comes crashing down just inches from his feet. “It’s exciting for me to help someone who’s passionate about the game and otherwise might not get the opportunity to play at a competitive level.”

Co-owner Julie Johnson says they are known among other teams as being great sports—which she takes pride in—but talent and competitive drive is what wins games for the squad that produced five All-Americans last season, the second-most in the division.

Julie and her husband, Rex, started the team in 2009 in order to give their football-playing daughters an outlet. She says the Stampede is a good mix of experience levels. Some players have Pee Wees experience while others are picking up the pigskin for the first time.

Depth charts can be rather one-dimensional, and versatility is a prized asset.

“We call this ironman football…ironwoman football,” says Julie, pointing to how most of the roster plays both sides.

Julie herself played for the Nebraska Stampede in its first year.

“It was something I wanted but also felt like I needed to do it so I knew firsthand what we were asking them to do,” she says.

Rounding out the family affair, daughters Bethany and Tina Johnson also play. But even non-Johnsons are a part of the Stampede family.

“They are a unified team, and they have become a very close family,” says Julie.

Rachal Pender says her involvement in the Stampede family has been an essential part of her life.

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“I genuinely believe the Stampede saved my life,” says Pender, acknowledging past difficulties with alcohol abuse. “This is the first thing in my life that was more important to me than that.”

Pender had a very insular upbringing. Although she always loved football, joining the Stampede was her first foray into playing sports.

“My parents didn’t allow me to play any organized sports,” she said. “I grew up in a very religious home; never wore pants or cut my hair until I was 20. I’ve always been [like this inside]—crazy, aggressive, loud. I’ve never had a place that I fit in quite like I do here because my aggressiveness is celebrated and loved.”

With the Stampede she not only gets to play football, she also gets to be herself.

“I don’t mean to brag,” she adds, “but I am the lungs of the Stampede. I yell the entire game whether I’m playing or not.”

Pender has played in every Stampede game since the team’s inception, but her streak will end when the clock runs out on the team’s first game in April. And it will end in a way that could never be reported during an NFL pregame summary.

She is pregnant.

Pender adds she’s not the only player for whom the Stampede was life-changing.

“Julie and Rex accept us all as we are,” she says. “They came here and created this huge thing that so many people could come be a part of. They just embrace everyone.”

Bethany Johnson, a hard-hitting vet on the Stampede team and Julie and Rex’s daughter, has been playing football since age 9.

“Too much in society, women are dictated by their bodies,” she says. “In this league it doesn’t matter because we need every body shape. [Playing] gives you lots of confidence. Not just for me, but for so many of us.”

Bethany sports long, manicured nails—a sight that seems to contradict her tough gridiron persona.

“That’s how I know I’m doing my job,” she says. “If my nails aren’t broken then I did my job: I hit them before they hit me.”

Though she has nothing against them, she clarified that the Stampede is not the Lingerie Football League — a common confusion.

“LFL gets a lot of attention, so it’s nice that we’re getting some momentum,” she says. “Kudos to them, but we like to know that girls can play this sport without having to take their clothes off.”

As for advice for any aspiring Stampeders?

“Come out and give it a shot,” says Bethany. “The girls here have awesome, positive attitudes. They’ll make you feel at home on day one.”

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