Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
When Adrienne Smith was 7 years old, her father bought her a football for Christmas and taught her how to throw a perfect spiral. As she grew up, Smith would play with the boys in the neighborhood, but it wasn’t until she became an adult that she found out there was a women’s professional tackle football league.
Now, the Boston Renegades’ star receiver is dedicated to making sure that the little girls growing up today have a different experience—that they are aware of the possibilities available to them in football. She’s living a dream that she never imagined would be a reality until she rediscovered her first love in 2005—a bittersweet moment after the heartbreaking death of her mother, who was her mentor, best friend and biggest supporter.
“I was still in a very dark place and almost didn’t go,” Smith says of the tryouts. “After I touched the ball for the first time in the game, it all became crystal clear for me. It was as if a promise that I had unknowingly made to myself at the age of 3 had come to fruition.”
During her 14 professional seasons in women’s tackle football, Smith has garnered a long list of barrier-breaking accomplishments: two gold medals with the U.S. Women’s Football National Team; four Women’s Football Alliance championships; nine WFA All-Star appearances; and a history-making touchdown that changed her life.
In Stockholm, in 2010, Smith was competing as a part of the first U.S. National Women’s Football Team at the International Federation of American Football’s Women’s World Championship, the first competition of its kind. With a 52-yard catch and run, Smith became the first to score a touchdown in the history of women’s international tackle football. She remembers every detail of the moment like it was yesterday.
“I remember running down the field saying, Keep running, don’t trip; keep running, don’t trip!” she says. “Before I knew it, 52 yards later, I’m in the end zone. Everybody erupts, the whole stadium erupts, my team erupts.”
One would think that moment would’ve prompted Smith to say, Mission accomplished! But she is a no-excuses, no-obstacles kind of woman—all she sees is the end goal, so that touchdown was not enough. Smith’s goal is to promote the sport that has had such a positive influence on her life any way she can, from speaking engagements, to brand partnerships, to her own organization, Gridiron Queendom, which she started in 2013 to support young girls and women worldwide who love and want to play football.
“I simply say, girl, go play football, no excuses. Don’t worry about what anyone else is saying. If you have the desire, then you have the ability,” Smith says. “There are opportunities in existence for you to start playing football, to hone your skills and to be in a pipeline where you could end up playing for your college. … Things have changed.”
With Smith leading the charge, women’s tackle and flag football leagues are on the rise. Major corporations like Nike and the NFL have invested millions of dollars in girls high school flag football programs. Smith wants to see the sport normalized, where if you love football, you simply love football—no matter who’s playing.
With every touchdown, every kick and every pass, Smith and her fellow players are a united front, tackling antiquated images of how we see women in sports. That’s the ultimate goal, for women to get the recognition they deserve.
“We’ve got women who have little kids who all they really know personally is women playing tackle football,” Smith says. “Now, you’ve got this 4-year-old boy who just thinks that girls are supposed to play football, which is the exact opposite of how most of the country has been informed. It lets me know that if we have a concentrated effort to promote and to show visually, consistently women playing sports at a high level, that these biases and stereotypes can be wiped out within a generation, if not less.”
Senita Brooks is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.