Longwood alum breaking down barriers

Published 9:37 am Thursday, September 10, 2015

The 2015 college football season started last Thursday night. The National Football League holds its season opener this week. While a Longwood student-athlete has yet to crack a roster for either, there is one former Lancer who is putting the school on the football map. Standing at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Longwood’s lone football standout is a strong, athletic outside linebacker who doesn’t so much “man” the field sideline to sideline as she does “woman” it. 

Her name is Tia Watkins and if you think football is a man’s sport, you’ve never been on the receiving end of one of her hits.

A former two-sport athlete at Longwood in basketball and lacrosse, Watkins is a member of the D.C. Divas of the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA), the nation’s largest women’s professional tackle football league. Since she began her football career three years ago, the 34-year-old mother of two has made a rapid ascent from rookie to elite defender to WFA National Champion.

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“We play in full uniform, full pads and helmets, and we tackle just like the guys,” said Watkins, who began playing professionally in the Independent Women’s Football Alliance (IWFL) in 2013 before jumping up to the WFA last year. “When I first heard there was professional women’s football, I was like why am I just finding this out? I’m in my 30s now, but can you imagine what I would have been able to do if I would have found it right out of college?”

Known as Tia Richardson during her days as a two-sport athlete at Longwood from 2000-04, Watkins is the defensive fulcrum of the Divas, one of 40 teams in the WFA. Her defensive dominance was key in leading the Divas to the 2015 WFA National Championship, or women’s professional football’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. The reigning WFA National Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Watkins amassed 51.5 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and an interception in eight games during D.C.’s championship run, including a team-leading 11.5 tackles and 2.5 for a loss in the title game win over the Dallas Elite in Los Angeles on Aug. 8.

Watkins’ seamless transition to football should come as little surprise to those familiar with her athletic resume. She came to Longwood as a basketball player under coach Shirley Duncan, but friend and Longwood lacrosse teammate Kris Denson encouraged her to try out for the lacrosse team. Despite never having picked up a stick before befriending Denson, Watkins’ athleticism stood out and she went on to play four years under former Longwood coach Janet Grubbs. She helped the program to two NCAA Lacrosse Tournament appearances, a national championship berth in 2002, a No. 1 national ranking in 2003 and a four-year record of 54-7. To this day, Grubbs (now Janet Green) still bills Watkins as “one of the best athletes to ever come through Longwood.”

Watkins still picks up a lacrosse stick or basketball on occasion and has returned to campus several times to take part in the programs’ annual alumni games. However, even dating back to her days playing football with her male peers at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Md. — as a starting cornerback and a second-string running back, no less — Watkins has long viewed her athletic endeavors as more than a hobby.

Watkins was a regular in pickup basketball games as a child, and as she grew she began to understand the symbolic value of keeping pace with her often taller and stronger male counterparts. Ever since, she has found herself pushing the boundaries of what she believes to be a limited view of what it means to be a woman. Now as a female competing in the male-dominated pastime of football, she sees herself delivering the same hits to gender stereotypes that she dishes out to running backs on game day.

“I’m feminine, but I can be rough and tackle. I don’t have to put myself in a box,” Watkins said. “My kids and other kids are seeing that you don’t have to fit the stereotype. You can be good at sports, but you can still do your hair and do your makeup, and you can still get out there and hit the boys and do whatever you want.”

While Watkins’ most immediate audience is her family, which includes her eight-year-old daughter Jori and her five-year-old son Shawn Jr., her football prominence has made her a role model to her peers well. She was profiled in a Washington Post article on Aug. 13 titled “Here’s what winning the Super Bowl looks like when you’re a female football player.”

“When the article came out, I didn’t even post it but I still had so many of my friends tagging me on Facebook telling me how awesome it was,” she said. “I’ve had so many adult women tell me I’m inspiring for playing football and for doing everything else. It’s not just little girls, it’s older women who are being inspired and being shown that they don’t have to do what society says they’re supposed to do. They don’t have to be labeled.”

Therein lies Watkins’ motivation. She is a woman by her own definition, one who is equally comfortable on the field draped in shoulder pads and a helmet, sitting at her desk as a sales manager for Unum, or at home raising her children. Watkins believes that by having so many irons in so many fires, including fires that have been traditionally underrepresented by women, she will inspire others to develop a more open understanding of where perceptions of masculinity and femininity intersect.

“Now more and more, girls are playing with the boys in football,” Watkins said. “Hopefully one day it’s not like, ‘You can’t do this because you’re a girl and only boys play this.’ They can do anything they want to do. It’s just a mindset that we shouldn’t limit our daughters. You want to play football? You want to be the CEO of a company? You want to be president? You can do anything you want to do. My parents always raised me like that. They never tried to limit what I could do.”