ORLANDO, Fla. – Growing up, Melinda Sparks and her neighborhood friends would spend hours in the street and on fields playing football and horsing around. She loved it, but as she got older, all that stopped. As she tells it, older girls just weren’t allowed to play football.
But as an adult, she found a way to keep her passion for the game alive, and now she wants other women to know they can play, too.
[TRENDING: Owner pulls the plug on Orlando’s last RadioShack after 52 years in business | ‘Never been done before:’ News 6 investigation helps lead to arrest of gas pump manipulators | Become a News 6 Insider]
The Orlando Anarchy plays in a women’s tackle football league, and Sparks is not only a player, she’s the owner.
“It’s definitely a love for the game,” Sparks said between exercises on the first day of tryouts for the 2023 season. “There’s something deep down inside me that wants to make sure this happens.”
For Sparks, promoting the team is a year-long job.
“Two or three hours a day,” she said proudly. “I’m either sending e-mails or texts, making phone calls or working with different people just to get the word out.”
Her hard work in the off season paid off, as a group of about two dozen women showed up, paid an entry fee and went through a series of drills for their chance to represent the Orlando Anarchy in the Women’s Football Alliance league.
“Everybody who comes out does it because they love the game of football, the true game of football, and they want to play,” Sparks said as she watched her teammates catch passes and run the 40-yard dash. “It’s an exciting time. I think we’re going to have a good season.”
Sparks should know what a successful team looks like. The Anarchy were National Division 3 Conference winners in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
“Each year, a lot of women show up that you wouldn’t think are good at football,” Sparks said. “Then you see them at the end of the season, and they’ve found their footing. They know what they’re doing.”
Chandice Hunter plays quarterback and kicker. She’s been on the team for 8 years. Hunter says for her, the game offers an escape from normal life. “It’s the only place you can hit someone and not get in trouble,” she said with a laugh.
Hunter cheered her future teammates on as they did a shuttle drill, running back and forth between cones set up on the field at Young Pine Park in East Orange County.
Hunter said she grew up with a bunch of brothers and playing football along side them was a way to be part of the family. She fell in love with the sport and was happy to discover a way to play as a adult. She’s thankful that Sparks is able to keep the team going year after year.
“She’s had a lot of early mornings and late nights,” Hunter said. “We try to help, but she does most of it by herself. I appreciate it very much because without her, we wouldn’t be able to do any of this.”
Carol Barnes volunteers at the registration table. “I like football,” Barnes said. “To watch, not play.”
A steady line of women in their 20s through their 50s sign up to put their body on the line.
“They are the best women’s tackle football team in the country,” Barnes said, pointing to a trophy sitting on the floor in front of her. The trophy, red, white and blue with a plaque that said Florida Bowl Champions, stood taller than the folding table. “We even have proof of it right there,” she said with a smile.
Barnes nominated Sparks for the News 6 Getting Results Award.
“Melinda Sparks works harder than anyone I know to promote football for women. She really should be acknowledged for all her years of hard work,” Barnes said.
Britney Stinson has been both a player and coach. Stinson has been part of the team since 2014 and says being part of the team is like an extended family.
“Without Melinda, I don’t know if we would have a team. She keeps it going,” Stinson said.
“I don’t want anybody to not be able to play,” Sparks said. “There will come a time when I don’t play anymore, and that will probably be one of the worst days of my life. But I’ll continue to work to make sure there’s a women’s tackle football team in Orlando.”
The 2023 season starts in April. For more information on team schedule or how you can play, go to the Orlando Anarchy website or Facebook page.