The National Football League hired its first female official in 2015, and the Buffalo Bills hired the first full-time female assistant coach in January.
So, with the penultimate professional game -- Super Bowl 50 -- on tap this weekend, it only seemed appropriate to visit with a couple of Stateline area women who in recent years have joined hundreds of others around the country in realizing their dream of playing football.
Although it wasn’t their goal, two Walworth County residents’ love for the sport is helping change stereotypes and turning heads.
Alexandra Bjelopetrovich of Whitewater and Kara Haines of East Troy are members of the Madison Blaze, an entrant in the five-team Midwest Conference of the Independent Women’s Football League.
“I definitely believe that the ladies of the IWFL and WFA -- Women’s Football Alliance -- are erasing the stereotype of women and football,” Haines said. “Most everyone I tell reacts funny like, ‘No way, are you serious?’ And I’m like so serious. It is intriguing to most, which is good, because most are like, ‘Well, you’re girls,’ so it’s not as good. But when they come see it, they are like, ‘Holy c---, this is legit!’”
Bjelopetrovich agreed that progress has been made, but work remains.
“I think we are making great strides in defeating stereotypes about women in football,” the Lake Forest, Illinois, native said. “The reaction I normally get is, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ and then the next statement is normally, ‘I didn’t know Madison had a team.’ So there is still a great deal of work to be done as far as increasing exposure and spreading the word.”
Meanwhile, the team conducted tryouts and began workouts in January in preparation for the start of the season in early April.
That means, despite their experience, putting in a lot of hard work because they know the competition won’t get any easier.
“The competition in this league is higher compared to other sports I’ve participated in simply because we are all fighting to show how great women’s football is,” Bjelopetrovich said. “And because it’s not as well known, we get less opportunities to show people. So when we get a chance, we really turn up the heat and make sure it’s worth your while.”
Haines echoed those thoughts.
“All these girls are B-A-D,” Haines said. “A lot of women say, ‘Oh, I like football, but I could never play.’ So for us who do play, we are a special, unique, tough group of women.”
And these two have been mainstays for the Blaze.
Bjelopetrovich is starting her third year with the organization. She has performed everywhere along the offensive line but prefers the center position.
“My strengths are being a good leader and role model and setting an example of what women’s football is all about,” Bjelopetrovich said. “I also believe that one of my biggest strengths is making people laugh and making it fun, because if it’s not fun, who’s going to want to do it? I would like to improve in all aspects of the game. I learn something new every day of every season and want to make sure that I’m never not learning something new.”
The multipurpose and multitalented Haines is more often in the spotlight, playing running back, quarterback and punt and kickoff returner, not to mention as a long snapper and defensive back.
“I love to contribute in any way I can,” Haines said. “I love offense and defense. As long as I’m out on the field, I love playing anywhere.”
Regardless of their roles, both have helped the Blaze become one of the league’s top franchises. And they said participating in the playoffs makes them hungrier to keep playing.
“We have been very successful … one of the top four teams (out of 35 to 40) in the league the past three years,” Haines said. “Competing in the playoffs is what you work hard for all season. It’s a huge honor and rewarding. The playoffs have been the best sports experience I’ve ever had in my life. The level of play is at an all-time high, and the competition is the best in the league. I get to see this beautiful country and play a sport I love. Last year we went to Houston, Salt Lake City and the Carolinas. There’s nothing better.”
Bjelopetrovich said being in the playoffs has been a great experience.
“I have had the opportunity to travel to a lot of new places and played with the best of the best,” she said. “It’s like family vacation with 45 people. It’s a lot of fun.”
It’s that combination of camaraderie and competition that keep both women, lifelong athletes, coming back for more action.
Bjelopetrovich played boys baseball and basketball and was captain of the wrestling team in grade school, moving to Whitewater in seventh grade. She then played tennis, basketball and softball for the Whippets.
Bjelopetrovich underwent reconstructive surgery twice, suffering torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees as a prep, but she has avoided any major injuries with the Blaze.
“I always wanted to play football, and when I got into high school was planning on trying out,” said Bjelopetrovich, a clinical systems analyst for UW Health who counts being a paranormal investigator as one of her hobbies. “But my mom drew the line for some reason. I searched online for women’s football and the Madison Blaze came up. I would love to play as long as humanly possible.”
Haines is an East Troy native who earned 13 letters for the Trojans, participating in golf, tennis, basketball, soccer and track. She attended UW-Waukesha for a semester, where she played soccer on the co-ed team just for fun.
“I really went to play basketball, which I did,” Haines said. “Then shortly after first semester, I figured school wasn’t for me.”
That led her to football. She played one year with the Wisconsin Warriors, but then latched onto the Blaze, who were called the Cougars at the time.
“Going into my first year I really just wanted to do something fun to stay in shape, and it turned out to be more serious than I intended,” Haines said. “I’m a competitive person, so that was a good thing for me.”