For a trio of Williamsburg-area players on the Richmond Black Widows women’s football team, the sport has always been in their DNA, but they had precious few outlets to pursue their passion.
College of William and Mary chemistry professor Dana Lashley — who by the way can talk DNA with the best of ‘em — fell in love with the sport in Germany as a young political refugee from Iran.
Amanda Turner, a lifelong Williamsburg resident, played football with the friends she grew up with, and Sherlanda Buskey tackled the sport in sandlot games with cousins, all the while being a soccer standout.
But with few formal opportunities to play, they largely kept the love for the sport to themselves.
Sarah Schkeeper founded the team in 2015 after moving to Richmond from Brooklyn, N.Y. After playing for five years for the New York Sharks of the Women’s Football Alliance and on a U.S. women’s national football team, Schkeeper still wanted to play, so she formed the Black Widows after a MeetUp group.
The Black Widows, also part of the WFA, are in their third year and have about 40 players and 10 coaches — all unpaid — who are a part of the team.
Everyone has a story about wanting to play football, and Schkeeper has heard all of them from the women on her team. Many, she says, describe the team as a second family.
“The opportunities are so few and far between to do anything (in football) for women,” Schkeeper said. “It’s always a positive response when they find out about the opportunity.”
Lashley: A sport her parents didn’t understand
Lashley found football while living near an American Army base in Germany. She saw girls playing and wanted to be one of them. At 13, she practiced with a team, but couldn’t play in games until she was 16. She played on several teams in Germany throughout her undergraduate studies there.
“My parents were very open minded and they always encouraged me to be very independent, even as a girl,” Lashley said. “I always wanted to do things that the boys did. LIke, why not? Just to step out of this, being a Middle Eastern woman where you can’t do what the boys do, I just wanted to do the opposite.”
Still, she said her parents didn’t expect her to fall in love with football, a sport they still don’t understand.
“I was fascinated by (football),” Lashley said. “First of all, I had just a big fascination with America growing up. I always wanted to come here. To me, American football was just as American as it gets. And I really, really wanted to see if I had it.”
When she went to graduate school at Auburn University in Alabama, there was no women’s football team nearby, so she played rugby, but it wasn’t the fix football gave her.
After earning a PhD at Auburn, Lashley was hired at William and Mary in 2014. She joined a flag football team in Hampton — the Virginia Vixens — before finding out about the Black Widows a couple of years later.
“At that point, I’m thinking, maybe I’m too old to start playing football again,” Lashley said. “But I had this itch, so I decided to go and try out, and sure enough, I still had it. At least, they still wanted me.”
Now 37, Lashley has kept with it and is in her third season with the Black Widows as a running back and backup quarterback, driving about an hour from Williamsburg to Richmond two to three times a week for practices and games.
Turner: A brief high school stint before an injury
Turner had a much different route to football. A 2001 Jamestown High School graduate, she grew up playing football with the boys, but didn’t formally play on a team until she was a senior in high school, going out for the Eagles’ football team.
She had wanted to play earlier, but said she felt discouraged from doing so until a new football coach came to the school.
“I walked into the weight room that year with a little sass,” Turner recalled. “(I said,) I’m going to play and you’re going to like it, and if not, I’m going to the school board.”
As the new coach that year, Jerry Varacallo had coached girls on football teams before, so that was never an issue. Turner also got encouragement and help from standout running back Tim Strawn — the two worked together after practices, games and on weekends.
“Obviously we’re not going to get rid of you, so I’m going to make you better,” Turner recalled Strawn telling her.
But Turner, 35, didn’t get into a game that season, as she tore an anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. She didn’t know if she’d get the opportunity to play again.
Turner, who coaches defense for the Williamsburg Hornets youth team, played for a women’s football team in South Hampton Roads in 2005 and 2006 before it disbanded. She found out about the Black Widows three years ago and she has been playing ever since as a defensive tackle and backup center. She balances that with being a mother of four children and her job working from home in customer service.
“It’s huge, it’s like another family,” Turner said. “I feel accepted, feeling the sense that your teammates are going to make you better, no matter what.… It’s not just a love of football; it’s women empowering each other.”
Buskey: From goals to gridiron
Buskey, 25, played soccer at Jamestown, helping lead the Eagles to Bay Rivers District titles in her sophomore, junior and senior seasons. She racked up 21 goals and 11 assists as a senior and helped the team reach the regional title game in 2011.
As a freshman at Goucher College in Baltimore, she scored 10 goals — three of those game winners — and was the Landmark Conference rookie of the year and team MVP. Her sophomore season at Goucher, she scored 13 goals and had seven assists. She finished her college soccer at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach and went to graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
“It was always a dream of mine to play football,” Buskey said. “But I never had the opportunity as a female. Parents don’t want you to get hurt.”
She found out about the Black Widows while she worked at a Goochland County recreation center in February 2017. That’s when the team’s coach walked in on a cold morning and asked if his team could warm up inside.
"I was thinking it was a little league team,” Buskey said. “So they come in, they start taking their helmets off and I realized that they were women. So then I started asking questions.”
She asked enough of them to earn a tryout with the team, making the cut and then buying her equipment.
Now in her second year on the Black Widows, Buskey is a wide receiver, safety and a special teams captain; she spends her days teaching special education at Forrest Elementary School in Hampton.
“I thought I knew the game of football from growing up, watching TV, playing video games,” Buskey said. “But when you get out here, you’ve really got to think about the plays, and your role as a player on the team.”
What a women’s football team means
The players acknowledge the commitment it takes to have a career and play football, especially having to drive the hour to practice, pay for equipment, transportation — sometimes driving themselves to road games as far north as Maine and then south to South Carolina — as well as league and team fees, with no pay for playing.
“The women who are playing football are really passionate about it,” Lashley said. “Maybe even more so than the boys, in a sense, because of all the hurdles we have to overcome to even be able to play. We come from all different walks of life and we find unity and fun.”
Turner said she loves the diversity of backgrounds of the women who play for the Black Widows.
“It’s very humbling, because you do have the different backgrounds, and you do have everybody's fight of what they have gone through to get here,” Turner said. “It goes back to that sense of support and family. You don’t just get the passion from the game. You get the passion from each other.”
Buskey said she was initially scared to play football, even though she had played soccer. But she has developed confidence with help from her supportive Black Widows teammates. For her, having a team and new friends has been a blessing.
“Football definitely changed my life,” Buskey said. “It changed my perspective on a lot of things. I realized that I was tougher than I thought I was, and I can actually be one of the best in the league and be a part of a great team.”
Want to go?
The Richmond Black Widows play in the Women’s Football Alliance, with home games this season at Laurel Park, 10301 Hungary Spring Road in Richmond. All home games are on Saturdays and start at 6 p.m., gates open at 5 p.m.
In the 2018 season, the Black Widows are 2-0 and play Saturday in Harrisburg, Penn., against the Keystone Assault.
Tickets: $15 for ages 9 and up, $5 for ages 8 and under, students with ID, seniors 65 and older and veterans with a military ID.
Home game schedule:
- May 12: DC Divas
- May 19: Baltimore Nighthawks
- May 26: South Carolina Smash
- June 9: Connecticut Hawks