Football was Odessa Jenkins’s first love as a little girl. The Women's National Football Conference (WNFC) CEO recalls running around with the boys, playing football, basketball, baseball — any sport really — as a youngster in her native California neighborhood. But football was the one and an activity fully endorsed by her parents.
“I was always active and wanting to compete. And I took that love of being out and being competitive. And frankly, just being one of the guys really developed into what I wanted to do with my life.”
And what she has done is nothing short of remarkable.
Jenkins is a five-time National Champion, USA Football Gold Medalist, and was inducted into the Women’s Football Hall of Fame.
She has coached the Texas Elite Spartans to an undefeated record and was named by American Express as one of the Black women entrepreneurs selected for its “100 for 100” program that provides various business resources in addition to a $25,000 grant. Jenkins has held the position of VP in a tech firm and been the recipient of a Bill Walsh Coaching Internship.
It was during the internship that the idea of creating a women’s tackle football league first started percolating.
A Grand Idea
“At that time, I had just come off a national championship, I just won a gold medal in the World Games with USA football, and I was coaching the Atlanta Falcons,” Jenkins said. “I was at the highest sport and I was sitting there and I was looking around and looking at all the men in professional football.
“I was looking at everything that they had available to them. And I thought that I wanted those things to be available to my teammates and my players. So, I decided then that we were going to go off and start the Women's National Football Conference and we were going to change the business of women's tackle football and create an entertainment company where professional tackle football for women could eventually live.”
But sponsorship wasn’t easy to come by. When soliciting support from companies in 2018, some were familiar with women’s tackle football but had never taken it seriously or viewed the sport as a potential asset to their brand. Jenkins approached Riddell, a company whose equipment is ubiquitous throughout the NFL and NCAA and had an existing relationship with the Women’s World Football Games and the U.S. Women’s National Team through a partnership with USA Football. To seal the deal, Jenkins shared a personal anecdote.
“I had my own story during my pitch. I told them that the first time I'd ever worn a new football helmet was seven years into my career playing on the US National Team. I'd never had new equipment all the years I’d played at the top of the sport. And they said, ‘Okay, we’re in.’ And it was the first time ever that any equipment company had embarked on a formal partnership with a women’s tackle football league.”
A collaboration with another football pioneer, former teammate, and friend Dr. Jen Welter, led to an apparel deal with Adidas, making them the first global brand to ever support women playing against women and tackle football.
The magnitude of these moves cannot be understated. Jenkins has a theory that companies are more enamored by the idea of women in football as an anomaly because it maintains the proximity to men's professional football.
“And so, what I am bringing in helping a brand's value,” she explained, “is the story of women playing tackle football and telling their story, which is a fabulous story of adversity and triumph.”
Drawing Strength From Tragedy
If resilience is her superpower, then the origin story begins in Watts, a notoriously tough neighborhood in the South Los Angeles region. Jenkins recalls tragedy visiting her doorstep early in her childhood when her brother was murdered at the age of 21. She was only 11 at the time and to her, it seemed like gang violence claimed a life every month. The turmoil conditioned her to live in what she describes as an “optimistic but very aggressive” way.
“I was convinced that I was going to only live 10 more years. Because my brother was 21. So I thought, if I'm going to live ten more years, then I have to do it the way I want to do it and not let anybody else's definition of who I am or what I could be define me. So that mindset as an 11-year-old never changed. And I think having that mindset of, if it isn't available to me, I'll go create it and I won’t take someone else’s no for an answer has been my saving grace.”
Part of the plan included getting a college degree. But to do so, Jenkins would need a scholarship. Her family was unable to foot the bill for her college education. With her athletic talent, the possibility was there but her coach advised that she switch from football to basketball to improve her chances of being recruited. The move worked. Jenkins ended her senior year in high school as the Los Angeles Times Girl’s Basketball (Southern Section) Player of the Year. And more importantly, she received a full-ride basketball scholarship to California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo; a division one school in the Big West Conference. She would also be the first college graduate in her family.
“I ended up becoming player of the year twice while I was in college for basketball. Whatever sport I played I was just able to do it at a high level, willing to compete and always found a way to win. But when I left college, I went looking for football because I couldn't play my sport in high school or college. I had to watch men play tackle football, and I was playing basketball and I had to be happy with it because that's what girls did.”
After college Jenkins sought out a chance to play and came across a friend who had an 8 on 8 women’s team. Up until that moment she had never considered the possibility that women could play each other. She had dreamed of being the first female running back in the NFL but the experience changed her mindset. When she moved to Dallas in 2008 for work, she joined the Dallas Diamonds, a now defunct powerhouse team that had won four national championships in the Women's Professional Football League and Independent Women's Football League.
Charting a New Course
Women’s tackle football has been around a lot longer than most people might realize. A November 1939 issue of LIFE Magazine featured a Southern Californian league who dared to challenge the status quo and the ‘seen and not heard’ image of women by playing rough and tumble tackle football.
Eighty years later, the WNFC launched its inaugural season in 2019 with 15 teams. This year will see a move to 20 teams with nationally broadcast games.
Now as an executive, Jenkins counts among their greatest accomplishments getting through a full season without forfeiture; an impressive feat for a league where a player can go from treating a COVID patient to being a quarterback or from engineering during the day and starting at running back by night. She would love to see NFL players follow the route of NBA stars like the late Kobe Bryant and LeBron James who openly championed the WNBA to drum up support. And, of course, more investments and resources to grow the game.
“It's a working woman sport. These women don't do it for millions, not yet. They do it for the love of the game and frankly, for building a legacy that will stand when they're gone.”