June 14, 2010
By Joanne C. Gerstner
It was a hot, steamy summer day in Ann Arbor, and Terry Chang wondered what she had gotten herself into.
She signed up for the 12th annual Women's Football Academy, a day of learning, drills and fun with the Michigan football staff. Terry and her husband, Bryant, are big Wolverine fans with season tickets to football, basketball and hockey. But playing football, on a sweltering day in June, is quite another thing.
Chang's doubts vanished in the opening minutes when she saw nearly 200 women, ranging from 18 to 83 years old, fired up for football.
"What an amazing opportunity this is," Chang, 40, said. "Everybody is so nice, the coaches are so good to us. And we're really learning football. I didn't know there were seven officials on the field until Coach Rodriguez told us that this morning. I thought I knew a lot about football before, but this is taking everything to a whole new level of appreciation.
"It makes me even happier that all of this is going for such a good cause. It's really perfect."
The Women's Football Academy is the major annual fundraiser for the Patient and Family Services Program at the University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center. Each academy participant paid $100 to register, and was asked to raise at least another $100 in donations for the center.
According to Karen Hammelef, the director of the Patient and Family Services Program, most women surpassed the donation minimum. The academy has raised nearly $2 million over the past 12 years, with the past two events bringing in $80,000 annually.
"This event allows us to offer an amazing array of services to patients and their families, and we do not charge them," Hammelef said. "We were one of the first cancer centers to focus on the whole patient and their family, not just treating the cancer or medical issues. Having access to no-cost services such as art therapy, family therapy, nutrition and fertility counselors helps the patient and family get through a really tough time.
"I cannot be thankful enough to the Michigan football family for all they do for us every year in this event. We have women who come every single year. We also have women who have been or are current patients, so they know what this event really means."
The day started in the Glick Field House with remarks from Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez and his wife, Rita, welcoming the academy's participants. The academy provides rare access inside Michigan football, allowing participants into usually off-limit areas like Schembechler Hall and the Glick and Oosterbaan Field Houses.
The women moved to Michigan's full team meeting room in Schembechler Hall for the first session: film analysis. Rodriguez broke down certain plays, explained cadences and fielded questions from the captivated audience. He also showed his playful side during the film break down, pointing out funny aspects in the crowd and plays.
The participants then divided up into smaller groups, each led by a coach's wife serving as team captain. They worked through eight different stations of offensive and defensive drills. Some focused on passing, while others simulated footwork and blocking.
Army Sgt. Luke Esley, a Michigan football fan from Corpus Christi, Texas, surprised his wife Christina with a trip to the academy. Esley signed her up online while he was serving as a Blackhawk technician in Iraq. Esley returned home on June 6 for his leave, and headed up to Ann Arbor for his wife's football camp. Rodriguez thanked Esley for his service, giving him an autographed Michigan football.
"This is pretty cool, I wasn't expecting any of this to happen like this," Esley said. "I think I like watching my wife play football. Maybe we'll do this again."
Dottie Symons, 65, has attended all 12 academies. She's a big football fan, and confesses that she makes for a mean linebacker. But if she had her way, she'd star at wide receiver.
"How wonderful would it be to make that big catch for a touchdown?" said Symons, who is also one of the academy's top fundraisers this year, raising more than $1,300. "This lets you dream for the day that you really are a Michigan football player."
There was a break for lunch, with time to get autographs from the coaching staff and Athletic Director Dave Brandon. The Academy concluded with awards for the top fundraisers, a scrimmage, passing competition and tours of the team locker room and museum.
Rita Rodriguez talked to a lot of the women, encouraging them to hone their football analysis skills.
"I never question Rich, but I wonder what he's doing," Rita said, adding a laugh. "It's always okay to wonder why something happened, or why something didn't happen, and you thought it would.
"So many women are passionate Michigan football fans, and there are a lot of women who know their football. It thrills me to see all the women in the academy and how happy they are to spend the day being a Wolverine and playing football. They're my kind of women."
Rodriguez was amused by his wife recommended "don't question, but always wonder" approach. He's been on the end of that polite interrogation technique for quite a few football seasons over his career, but said he didn't realize her approach.
"Trust me, Rita knows her football. If she wants to ask me something about why I went for it on a fourth-and-one, she will ask me," Rodriguez said. "I think that was fantastic advice she gave everybody. I've got no problem with people wondering what I'm doing. Heck, I'll try to explain it as best I can after the game. You can't reveal everything, but asking what's going on is a good thing because it means you're thinking about the game for yourself.
"Having events like the Women's Academy are the days that make football really fun," Coach Rodriguez added. "You want to take this enthusiasm and bottle it up. It's even better that we're helping people at the Cancer Center. Every single one of us has been touched by cancer in some way, and this is great to give back and help those who are working on getting better."
Angela Schmidt has participated in the academy for many years, in roles ranging from a volunteer to playing football. This year's academy proved to be an emotional experience, marking her first time as a cancer survivor.
Schmidt, the wife of long-time Michigan head athletic trainer Paul Schmidt, was diagnosed with breast cancer 19 months ago. She was 46, and the mom of two tween girls. And she was scared. She didn't know what to expect but understood she was in good hands at Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Schmidt's surgeries and treatment have been successful so far, making her cancer-free. She decided to share her story with the academy, giving them a living example of what their donations are doing.
"It was a big thing for me to get up and talk about having cancer, I've never done that before because I wasn't ready," Schmidt said. "I just spoke from the heart about what I have been through, what my family has been through, and what the Cancer Center has done for us.
"I have gotten so much support here," she added. "Women are coming up to me, telling me their stories of survival, and that's giving me so much strength. That's the beauty of this: women are helping women, with some football thrown in."
For more information about the 2011 Michigan Women's Football Academy, go to mcancer.org/wfa or call (734) 998-6893.