Sportsball: The Gate City Outlaws find family in football

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Gate City Outlaws quarterback Jasmine McNeil gains yards on the ground.

The Gate City Outlaws quarterback required little in-game guidance from the coach, scoring touchdowns through the air and on the ground during a Sunday showdown in Garner, NC. A dominating 28-0 victory secured the Outlaws’ 6-3 record heading into the playoffs, and it added a final notch to an impressive regular season for their captain and oldest player.

Plus, she’s the only mother on the team.

Jasmine McNeil, 31, is nearing the end of her second season in a sport she played only as a child, when there were a lot less rules and a lot more boys. But she decided to join the Gate City Outlaws, one of 10 teams that comprise the North Carolina Women’s Flag Football League, in part to support two important people in her life.

“My son’s the water boy,” McNeil said laughing during a warmup practice at the Academy at Lincoln in Greensboro before the drive to Garner on Sunday. “He thinks it’s awesome; he loves to go see me play, plus it gives us extra time together.”

McNeil said she plays not only to show her son what it means to be dedicated, but to teach him how life, like the game, comes with ups and downs.

While she’s the one who leads her son by instruction and example, McNeil has the inverse relationship with her god-brother, Octavius “Juce” James Jr., who serves as the team’s coach.

“Juce, being a young cat, he’s out here trying to do something positive for us,” McNeil explained, including that she always has much to learn from her coach and younger god-brother.

“And he’s out trying to turn us young women into killing machines,” she added with a smile.

James Jr., 24, moved to Greensboro from Jacksonville, NC in 2015. He came to the Gate City with a desire to coach a men’s tackle football team, but his unexpected role at the helm of an all-women’s squad has provided a fulfilling opportunity to spread his knowledge and love of the game.

“It means a lot coming from my perspective,” James Jr. said, looking on as McNeil designed routes for her receivers during the morning’s warmup. “They started out knowing little about the game, but they really enjoy it. It’s an active, healthy alternative for having fun. They love to go out there and rough somebody up.”

(Not long after, one of his players smacked him on the top of his head on her way onto the practice field at Lincoln.)

Though tackling isn’t allowed in the league, there’s still plenty of contact. Like its male-dominated counterpart, players face off on the line, colliding with one another as the center snaps the ball. They crash in the split-second contact — dueling purposes of pursuit and denial — but unlike the men they bear no protective pads.

Jasmine McNeil spins the ball in a huddle, while Coach Juce goes up for a high-five, or perhaps a strip.

For James Jr., as well as the Outlaws themselves, the games are no joke. Though each team has only eight players on the field at one time — compared to the traditional 11 — James Jr.’s approach doesn’t waver.

“My system is more complex,” he explained. “Other teams water it down. They’ve got plays like ‘Jolly Rancher’ or ‘Gummy bear’ or something. We go: 32-wide, I-formation, counter, sweep. And my players know it all.”

Though becoming familiar with different plays and formations has been a learning process for most players, some already understood the game pretty well when they first joined the Outlaws. Alex Bradford said she’d always been a big football person, and even helped coach her little brother’s team when he was growing up. Bradford and her teammate Rachael Wise both thought about playing football for their high school teams, though the physical danger they would have faced through the sport’s violent contact proved too much.

Rachael Wise sports Outlaw jersey No. 6.

But Wise, who wrestled in high school, continues to resist conforming to what those around her expect.

“There’s a societal standard: ‘Women don’t play these sports,’” Wise said. “This is a way to go against the grain.”

The Gate City Outlaws hold open tryouts in July. To follow what’s to come with this women’s flag football team, visit gatecityoutlaws.com.

As is often the case with sports, the relationships between teammates — here as players in a sport normally only acceptable for men — lead to strong camaraderie.

For Bradford, the logic is simple: “We’ve got a family bond. The better bond, the better team.”

McNeil agreed: “We are family oriented. I call them all my little sisters.”

Though her son and god-brother first inspired this quarterback to lead the team, now it’s her sisters who’ve got her back. For the second consecutive season, McNeil has been nominated as league MVP.

The Outlaws play next in the league tournament, claiming the No. 3 seed in a 10-team, single-elimination competition on June 25.