Sonia Austin-Moore hadn’t even told her family yet that she’d be tested for lung cancer in September.
The first people she nervously told were her teammates on the Richmond Black Widows women’s football team.
Her medical news wasn’t the driver of the impromptu speech in the middle of practice. Austin-Moore wanted to diminish a growing sense of animosity within a team that has become a second family for its players during its three years of existence.
“We always talk about how we’re a family all the time,” said Austin-Moore, who hung up the helmet and pads after she suffered a small stroke in March. “The little stuff we, as family, might bicker about, just leave it alone. It’s nonsense. It’s stupid. Just forget about it.”
Being unified in shattering the glass ceiling of what’s thought of as a male-only sport, the struggle of sacrificing time with family, having to pay for equipment and travel on top of being mothers and working 40 hours a week in jobs such as forensic detective, math teacher, physical therapist and engineer created an unbreakable bond for the Black Widows.
However, they’ll caution others not to overlook a main reason they’re playing: to claim a championship that escaped their grasp two years ago.
“Oh man, I will beat down anybody to get there,” said running back Shermanda “Moo” Fambro, a youth behavioral intervention specialist. “Won’t nobody take me down, that’s the attitude I have to have.”
The Black Widows are in the quarterfinals of the Division III playoffs of the Women’s Football Alliance, which has 62 teams nationwide in three divisions with two expansion teams coming in 2019. They’re attempting to make it back to the Division III final for the second time in three years, where they lost by 2 points.
Team owner Sarah Schkeeper founded the Black Widows in 2016 after playing for the New York Sharks, the oldest WFA franchise in its 20th season. She said she had some expectations, but she wasn’t even sure if the Black Widows would last one year.
The idea behind the Black Widows was to create an outlet for women athletes after college that didn’t exist in Richmond, Schkeeper said.
Fambro is one of several former collegiate athletes on the team, including tight end and defensive end Shanice Cole, who played professional basketball in Switzerland, and defensive lineman Donna Pegram, who qualified in hurdles for the 1996 Olympics.
Desiree Edmondson has seen the team’s influence on the community exemplified in her friend’s 6-year-old daughter, who couldn’t help but ask when she could begin playing after attending one of Edmondson’s games.
“I think we all serve as role models,” said Edmondson, who is a nursing assistant for military veterans and is studying for the Medical College Admission Test. “I think that whenever you can see somebody that looks like you or is similar to you, it can inspire you to do or be better.”
Numbers of women trying out each year continue to grow and are becoming self-sustaining for the Black Widows, Schkeeper said.
Schkeeper wants to be able to afford a bus for each road game — or at least one that doesn’t have expired service tags like the one they took to South Carolina this year. With more winning, she believes the sponsorships needed to foster the organization’s longevity will come. For the time being, however, the Black Widows’ family still is growing.
“I feel like people are missing out on just seeing how much we can do, what women are capable of,” Edmondson said. “Women are capable of anything, I know that, but sometimes you just need to see that.”