At age 38, a former Schaller athlete becomes a middle linebacker for women's pro football
When Mary Jo Naberhaus becomes an inside journeyman wireman this December, she will install conduits, put in electrical wires and use cable pullers to insert fixtures and grounding systems in many buildings around the greater Phoenix area.
While her career involves connecting wires, Naberhaus will attempt to short circuit the offenses of opposing teams this fall, when she will begin playing football for the Arizona Knights of the Women's Professional Football League.
A native of Schaller, Naberhaus is the middle linebacker for the Knights, one of nine teams competing in the WPFL, a league which will soon be the sister organization to the NFL, similar to the NBA-WNBA relationship in professional basketball.
The 38-year-old Mesa, Ariz., resident will begin her first season when the Knights open their season in August, and said she is ready to help the WPFL squad take its place among other pro teams playing in the Valley of the Sun.
"Some people question whether women have enough aggression to play the sport of football. I'm here to tell you that we do," Naberhaus said. "I'm not so sure that some basketball games are much different, in that I've witnessed some very intense, aggressive games from women, and women play hockey now more than ever and don't shy away from a check. Why not football? Women are evolving and changing the definition of what it is to be a female athlete, and no one ever questions the determination of a woman, so that gives us women's professional football."
A former standout at Schaller High School, Naberhaus played softball, basketball, volleyball and ran track at SHS, and then took her athletic prowess to the University of South Dakota, where she earned a track scholarship throwing the shot put and discus.
After earning a degree in physical education, she moved to Mesa in 1987, and first heard of women's prof football 14 years later while attending a Phoenix Mercury basketball game at America West Arena.
Naberhaus met members of the Arizona Caliente, a team in the rival Women's American Football League (WAFL), in the lobby of the arena during halftime of the game, and friends and players encouraged her to try out for the squad the next week. After attending the tryout, Naberhaus did not receive any feedback from the WAFL team, but met Byron Autry, the head coach of the Arizona Knights, who had watched Naberhaus during her Caliente tryout.
Autry asked Naberhaus and two other Caliente hopefuls to try out for his group of players, and immediately signed all three to the Knights' roster after watching them perform at a workout.
At 5"8" and 200 pounds, Naberhaus instantly became one of the leaders on the Knights defense, and said she is excited to be a part of the 62-woman squad.
"The best thing about being on the team is just that, being on a team," Naberhaus said. "I forgot how much fun it is. That feeling of 'what we do, we do together' is always there, and with the determination of these women I play with now, it's that much more intense."
Other members in the organization, including Arizona general manager Deena Roach-Canty, have taken notice of Naberhaus' leadership qualities and physical abilities, and Roach-Canty said the hard work of the native Iowan reflects well on her and the entire Knights team.
"Mary Jo is a very important member of our organization," Roach-Canty said. "She is a leader on our defensive squad and a role model on our team. She is a team player and has a very positive attitude, and she is a motivating force for her teammates and exhibits first-rate qualities. She is truly an asset to the organization."
The WPFL, in its fourth season, has teams located in Houston, Boston, San Antonio, Dallas, Indianapolis, Syracuse, N.Y., Scottsdale, Ariz., Springfield, Mo., and Austin, Texas, and franchises based in Virginia, New Jersey, Las Vegas and Pennsylvania are set to join the league in either 2003 or 2004.
While the league is set to establish ties with the NFL, salaries for the women are not yet comparable to those of their male counterparts. Knights players are paid only $1 per game at home contests, with bonuses and incentives helping Naberhaus and others earn anywhere from $15 to $75 per game.
Despite the difference in salaries, Roach-Canty said she feels players such as Naberhaus are the pioneers in a venture which will one day be able to recruit participants from colleges across the country and pay them a large stipend.
"We want to be recognized as professional women who play professional football with regular NFL rules and standards across the board," Roach-Canty said. "Each year we survive we will be recognized and more people will become interested and start to support these organizations, which will help the talented women who are just as competitive and who deserve the media hype, recognition and opportunity to be the best at our game."
Family, friends and fellow Schaller High classmates will watch Naberhaus play for the first time against the Denver Foxes in an exhibition game in June, and Naberhaus said she knows the traits she learned on the courts of SHS will serve her well on the football field this fall.
"The things that I learned playing sports for the coaches at Schaller, such as never giving up, always believing in oneself and knowing that hard work pays off are all the things that have molded me as an athlete and person ever since," Naberhaus said. "I owe a lot to what I learned there, and I'm ready to use that knowledge to have fun and play with intensity for the Knights."
At 38, Naberhaus is unsure how long she will play pro ball, but she notes that there is currently a 45-year-old playing on the Titans. And just in case the team needs a youth movement, Mary Jo notes that her three younger sisters all live in the Arizona area now, and might look good in helmets and pads one day.