It was in the summer of 2017 while working as a Bill Walsh Coaching Intern with the NFL, that Women’s National Football Conference CEO Odessa Jenkins decided to take her knowledge of football and her ability to empower thousands of women football players to the next level.
“I’m a pretty good football coach and was invited by the Atlanta Falcons to come and be a coaching intern with the running backs. So I did nine weeks with the Falcons and was in the running back room the entire time,” Jenkins, a two-time USA National Team gold-medalist (Women’s Football), two-time Big West Conference basketball player of the year, Coach and Tech Executive, told The Shadow League.
“I’ve learned a lot as a football coach,” Jenkins said, “but nothing taught me more than being under Coach (Dan) Quinn and those other coaches with the Falcons…I learned how to become a better organizer…I learned a lot about the game and how to prepare a team, but frankly, I also learned a lot about how to build a professional organization. So I was able to also get off the field, executive training.”
Jenkins took those jewels and incorporated them into her love for football, eventually fulfilling her mother’s advice of ownership as the end game.
Co-Founded by Jenkins who is also co-owner and coach of a team, and managed by an all-female leadership brain trust, the WNFC features 20 teams, playing a 10-week Spring season, broadcasting nationally; and culminating with the IX Cup Championship game honoring women in sports. Last year’s inaugural championship was held in Denver.
“If women can teach and lead countries and be the head of engineering at MIT and Harvard,” Odessa told The Shadow League, “then they for sure can coach football. I was able to step out there and build a connection and reputation with those male athletes in a matter of days.”
Whether it be (NFL players) Dovantae Freeman or Tevin Coleman, Jenkins has maintained those relationships today because she says she made an impact on them as a coach and “is proud of that.”
The NFL Coaching internship boosted her confidence to go full speed ahead with conquering what she calls “The Final Frontier” in women’s sports; women’s professional tackle football.
The Final Frontier
“Football is the sport we love, buy and consume the most,” Jenkins insists. “Yet there’s no woman counterpart to the NFL. Why? It’s the last piece to full inclusion of women in sports. Right now we are in a place of social justice and diversity. So if you want a truly inclusive society you’re going to have to get equity everywhere and sport leads the way.
As much as we talk about racial tensions, if there is a white person who might not align with a Black person in their normal life, they still don’t mind putting their white kid in a Black man’s jersey… so that’s something that sports allows the world to do like nothing else does.”
“Why should women be left out of that?” Jenkins asks. “That’s why I call it the ‘Final Frontier’ because the WNFC getting on the world stage and being recognized as a pro counterpart to the men’s pro league will change the way people see women in the world. And in the words of Adidas, “change the way the world sees sports.”
Women Playing Tackle Football The Last 60 Years
More and more women are using their voices to uplift women in sports and dismiss some misconceived notions about the female athlete.
Jenkins understands the challenges that lay before her, but with the world acknowledging the lack of diversity and inclusion in corporate America, Odessa is coming to the table with her whole authentic self to help propel women’s tackle football to the main stage.
“Most people don’t know that there are thousands and thousands of women and coaches playing tackle football over the last 60 years,” Jenkins revealed. “Women were playing organized football in the ‘60s and prior to the NFL becoming a major league, there were major leagues in women’s football. So women have been playing organized tackle almost as long as men have.”
This Isn’t Lingerie Football
“Our authentic brand of tackle football is different from any other women’s sport. There’s a difference between the WNBA and NBA as far as men dunking all the time… and women don’t. You go watch a WNFC football game. As soon as the game starts you’re going to see somebody get their head knocked off, or a quarterback throw a 60-yard bomb with precision, or a DB pick one off and take it to the house.
It’s the same game as the NFL game and we have great athletes… my tightend used to play in the WNBA…that’s why it has a great opportunity to be successful”
WNFC: Advancing, Highlighting Elite Women in Football
The WNFC is a groundbreaking organization that provides women with an opportunity to play, coach, and participate in American Football at the highest level.
Said Jenkins: “We have great coaches with high school, college, and some pro experience. 50 percent of our coaches are women…it’s an opportunity for growth because women have played forever and most of them don’t get coaching opportunities.”
As a premier professional women’s tackle football league, WNFC plays 11-on-11 full padded American tackle football. Each team has an owner, general manager and coaching staff. Sponsored by Adidas and Riddell Sports, Wilson and United Sports Brand, the WNFC has over 1,000 athletes and coaches across 17 states which makes up 20 teams with thousands of fans.
The WNFC launched in 2019. COVID-19 canceled out a promising 2020 season, but the league, which Jenkins says carries a yearly operating budget of $500,000, is in healthy economic condition entering 2021.
The WNFC was among fifteen women-led organizations in sports that were awarded a grant created by adidas + IFundWomen as part of their initiative created during International Women’s Day to jumpstart the seeding efforts and help to break down the barriers of funding for women entrepreneurs
“They came out last year with this initiative for investing in helping the world to reimagine sport and the way they do that is to invest and make a seed into certain businesses founded by women,” Jenkins recalled.
“We’re an entity that could legitimize and centralize the sport corporately if we were funded properly. We definitely think that there’s going to be a time when the NFL invests in women’s football, “ she predicted.
Who’s to doubt her? She’s gone from Watts to pioneer owner of a professional league that is crushing gender barriers and liberating generations of women who crave higher accolades and a bigger stage for their football passions.
Family Tragedy Leads To Clear Future
Jenkins grew up in South Central Los Angeles, so you already know she’s built different. Tougher than most. As the youngest of four kids, the boys in her family always took her along to play and always made her feel a part of the sports culture early in her life.
“Sports was always a way I could empower myself as a young woman growing up,” Jenkins told TSL.
Her mother encouraged her to continue to play…”be an owner and be a leader,” Jenkins remembers her mother reinforcing. “As I started to grow up… after my brother was murdered in 1991 gang violence…I decided I would make my family proud.”
Jenkins used sports as a springboard to a better life, attending Division 1 university Cal Poly on a hoops scholarship and becoming the first person in her family to graduate college. Then she went into coaching, leading the undefeated Texas Elite Spartans women’s football team.
“I always wanted to own a sports team and always have been an entrepreneur. I always envisioned myself owning the Raiders and the Lakers,” Jenkins said.
Me growing up and playing football, when I got to high school everybody told me I couldn’t play football anymore because girls don’t play football in college or the pros. I was at the top of the sport… I was on the US National team, I won national championships in all of these minor leagues, but I got nothing for it. I played on great USA National teams and nobody has heard of it.
It was like being Ezekiel Elliott and nobody knows who you are. I felt like this because nobody has treated the sport as a business or taken the athletes seriously. You got the NFL. You got college football. Everybody loves football, so it’s a no brainer to invest in women doing it. Nobody has ever done that before.”
“That’s another reason why I started the WNFC,” said Jenkins, “because I felt like for all that we achieved in the sport, we were doing it wrong.”
Black Women Changing The Sports Landscape
Jenkins’ power moves have elevated her to a leadership role as a vehicle that advances Black women in sports.
“I started investing in my passion which was sports and it allowed me to play football all over the world,” she said.”I had to make a decision to truly make women’s football a pro sport. I had to put my money where my mouth was so other people can put their money where my dreams are.”
She’s also a sterling representative for an ever-evolving, growing and talented LGBTQ community.
Jenkins’ football acumen was polished by the same NFL coaching program that produced fellow LGBTQ pioneer and San Francisco 49ers’ assistant coach Katie Sowers, who became the first female, openly gay assistant to coach in a Super Bowl in 2018.
“I’m also a leader in the LGBTQ community and I know that when people look at me and they befriend me and they decide they respect me, they are respecting a woman that might be different from them. I know what that responsibility is and I don’t ignore it,” Odessa insisted. “Cause what it all comes down to is ball is ball and business is business.“
Business and ball have catapulted the career of this football pioneer. With the drive, experience and connections, Odessa Jenkins is bossing up and packaging organized, skilled, and ferocious women’s football. It won’t be America’s best kept sports secret for long.