Boston Renegades wide receiver Adrienne Smith reflects on a historic WFA season as the Renegades relish a four-peat championship year.
Many football fans recall their first memory seeing the NFL on television. A three-year-old Adrienne Smith was among them, and she even began practicing her moves against a formidable opponent: a teddy bear named Ginger.
“I was three years old, and for whatever reason, I was enamored with the NFL,” Smith said. “I used to watch it with my parents and my teddy bear Ginger, and I used to tackle Ginger for hours.”
Smith laughs about the memory now, but her supportive parents took her love of the sport seriously. Her father played catch with her in the backyard, and Adrienne hung tough as she played with the neighborhood boys.
“I was very fortunate, I had parents that encouraged me no matter what,” she said. “And when I was seven, I remember my dad, he bought me a football and he taught me how to throw, and I just started playing with the neighborhood boys. When I got to high school, I was able to play a little bit of flag football, but it wasn’t until I became a bonafide adult where I learned about the women’s tackle league.”
Adrienne’s story is similar to the female footballers of her generation: there was a clear, profound love for the sport at a young age, but there wasn’t an institutional structure to support it. Even if families and communities were supportive of them, athletes like Adrienne weren’t able to continue playing the game at a professional level. Fast forward a few decades and Adrienne just wrapped up her 10th season as wide receiver for the Boston Renegades, another Boston team that has established a dynasty in the Millennium.
Like the New England Patriots, women’s tackle teams in Boston entered 2022 with six national titles, but the Renegades recently bested the Pats and every other NFL team with their seventh. Although the Renegades were incorporated in 2015, the team has reached quick success in seven seasons. After winning their fourth straight national title — a feat that has never been accomplished in the century-old NFL — the Renegades remain the defending Division I champions of the Women’s Football Alliance (WFA).
Boston sports fans are quick to remind the world of their many parades in the millennium, and Adrienne has been welcomed by that warmth in their locale. Patriots safety Devin McCourty shouted out the team during a press conference, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft has even invited the team to fly on the Patriots jet on their way to the WFA Championship in Canton, Ohio.
“It’s outstanding,” Smith says of the glowing support from Bostonians. “It was some time last season, before Mr. Kraft even blessed us with the flight on the Patriots jet, I just happened to be going to a store before practice. I’m in the store and I had on a Renegades practice jersey, and then all of a sudden, people recognized me, and there was this, ‘Do you play for the Renegades?’ And I had to do a double take. ‘Why yes, I do!’ I didn’t even realize that we had, or I guess we’re becoming, more of a household name. It’s just a phenomenal feeling. I live in New York City, but I play for Boston, but all of my Boston teammates who live there say there’s something in the water. Boston constantly wins, and you could just make up a sport, like, flicking pencils into a cup. People in Boston would be the best at it.”
The Renegades illustrate the meteoric success that the WFA has experienced in recent years. The growth of the league is astronomical, and it’s about to get even bigger. This January, the league signed a deal to broadcast the 2022 WFA Pro National Championship on ESPN2, one that is expected to be extended into next season based on the viewership numbers.
Smith credits WFA founder and commissioner Lisa King for the jump from ESPN3 broadcasts to ESPN2 coverage. “We’ve got our noses to the grind coming up with new schemes, just really wanting to bring the best out of ourselves so that we end up playing in that championship game,” Smith said in February, hopeful for a fourth consecutive championship.
The 2022 Renegades season unfolded in the best possible outcome for Adrienne as she made it all the way to the championship game and won, all while marking a historic achievement of her own along the way. This season, Smith became the all-time leader in receiving yards in the WFA, an accomplishment that has her that much closer to embodying her football idol, San Francisco 49ers icon Jerry Rice.
“Jerry Rice was my hero ever since I was a little girl. He’s been the man, he is the wide receiver. I guess, in my heart of hearts, my goal was to be the women’s version of Jerry Rice. As long as this body can get it done, I’m going to be on that field running, catching and scoring and helping my team win as many championships as possible.”
Right now, Smith matches Rice with the No. 1 spot on the leaderboard, and she even has one more championship than The Man With The Hands.
“I am on cloud nine,” Smith told FanSided. “What can I say?”
Adrienne Smith eclipses WR record with ‘excellence’ in historic 2022 season
The moment Adrienne Smith’s name was inscribed in the annals of football, she didn’t even know it. She just thought she scored another touchdown.
It was May 21, and the Boston Renegades were playing at home in Della Russo Stadium. Renegades quarterback Allison Cahill found Smith in the end zone, making the score 41-8 against the D.C. Divas. Much like how Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans didn’t know he casually handed Tom Brady’s 600th career touchdown pass to a fan, Smith didn’t know that she had just eclipsed Jeannette Gray of the Chicago Force to top the WFA’s all-time receiving yards list.
Smith offered insight into what exactly was going through her mind in that pivotal moment.
“I had no idea it was happening. I had no idea I was even close to it. And what’s interesting is after the game, I watched the replay on Revere TV and the commentators… Everyone knows! Everyone knew but me. They’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness, Adrienne Smith is only 13 yards away from breaking the WFA all-time receiving yards record.’
And here I am just out on the field, clueless — excellence is all I’m thinking about.
Do your job. Adrienne, get the block. All right. You have to run a post. Here’s the slant. Do that.
And so when it actually happened, I remember the the play call. And the route I was given, there just wasn’t enough room. We were in the redzone, I think we’re about maybe three yards out outside of the endzone. And I was supposed to block and go, and I’m like:
Where am I running my go route? Tike there’s no room the end zone. Only 10 yards wide.
So I just kind of I gave a little shimmy, throw a little shake and bake with the shoulder, and then cut inside, and sure enough, I look up, and here comes Allison, just throwing this dart, so of course I have to catch it. So I catch it, tuck it and then we scored the touchdown and I’m like, ‘Yay, we scored.’ And as I’m jogging off, Allison’s looking at me and I’m like, that was great. We kind of just — that was a backyard-type of football thing. She’s like, yes, but do you know what you just did? And I said to her? Yes. We just scored a touchdown. And she’s like, No, Adrienne, you just broke the record. And that’s why in the video you see me go like this [gestures] because I had no idea. I really didn’t.”
Jeannette Gray finished her career with 5,092 career yards. In her 10th season, Smith logged her 5,094th yard to best Gray’s record. Retired Kansas City Titans wideout Liz Sowers, the twin sister of Katie Sowers (who also played in the WFA), ranks third on the list with 5,049 career receiving yards. Lisa King, the WFA commissioner, racked up 4,779 yards with the Cali War.
These are the biggest names in the wide receiver game, and Smith went on to stack up more yards in the postseason. It puts Adrienne that much closer to her idol, Jerry Rice, the unrivaled NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver who has inspired generations of athletes. Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ wide receiver who comes second only to Rice in postseason dominance, is one of the few wide receivers that has had ample opportunity to frequent the postseason in the salary cap era. And Smith, like Rice and Edelman, is no stranger to the postseason, either.
Smith joined Boston’s roster back in 2011, when the Boston Militia first joined the WFA. That year, Smith helped the team win a championship, and she was there when they won the title again in 2014. When the Militia dissolved and the Renegades formed, Smith remained. It took a couple of seasons for the Renegades to reclaim WFA championships, but once they began in 2018, they never stopped. The Renegades won the WFA title in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022 — four straight championships, with 2020 being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pressure was on because we are the defending champions,” Smith said of the 2022 season. “And so the big question was whether or not the Boston Renegades could continue: were they really this dynasty that they seem to be? And it starts at the top, from from the ownership, management staff, our coaches who are amazing, and then it comes down to players, to us being on the field and executing the game plans that our coaching staff puts together. I’m just so excited to say that we did it — we won our fourth consecutive Women’s Football Alliance title.”
Football differentiates itself from most sports in that the board is reset after each play. While the unpredictable can happen between snaps, there’s a choreography that must be mastered; a synchronicity that must be achieved. Perhaps that’s why coachspeak and mantras are prevalent in the sport: so much of football is about executing fundamentals and getting the steps right. There’s something to the boring answers Bill Belichick drones on about in his monotonous press conferences, and everyone in Boston knows it: winning at football is really about doing your job.
For the Renegades, their method to paving their own dynasty is one that Bill and Ted would happily endorse.
“I think it’s the standard that we set, and that standard is excellence,” Smith said. “If you are taking a handoff from the quarterback, do it excellently. If you’re on the D line and your job is to plug the A gap, plug that A gap excellently. If you’re on the outside like me, a wide receiver, and you need to hit a comeback or a snap route, do it with excellence. For us, It’s never about comparing ourselves to others. It’s always looking within and making sure we are executing the game plan to a tee.”
Adrienne exemplifies that excellent mentality with a quip only champions can make:
“The only numbers I keep track of are championship rings.”
Smith has three of them with a fourth on the way, a dazzling reminder of just how far the Renegades, and women’s football, have come.
A continued celebration of their achievement, NFL champions are rewarded with extravagant galas when they are awarded their Super Bowl rings. Jewelers now chronicle the intention behind the ring design, which now includes stadium models in the last two Super Bowl rings. It’s a wonder Tom Brady can even prop up all seven rings on his hands because that’s how overloaded these jewel-encrusted trophies have become. For women’s football, that kind of celebration is something new, and it’s another source of pride for the Renegades.
In 2019, the Toledo Furies received their championship rings after 35 years. It didn’t take nearly that long for the Renegades to celebrate their 2021 championship, but it did take a year to receive their rings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With their precious gems comes a poignant story about how their rings were shaped by their coaches, players, and season.
“There is so much meaning behind this ring. Our special teams coach, Cliff Ashley, just went in depth in terms of the number of stones on each side. We even have a black stone here that represents the Black Lives Matter movement and how that was just a changing point for our team in terms of the discussions that we had honestly with each other. And then the stones in the middle just representing the myriad of people who helped support us: those that go unknown or unnamed, but we just wouldn’t be able to function without them. So it really it really means a lot.”
The Renegades and the Patriots lead the way in WFA-NFL partnerships
There are more eyes on the Renegades than ever before, and some of football’s greatest players are taking note of their schemes and adjustments. In the same way that NBA players stress how much they learn from watching WNBA film, the Patriots take note of what the Renegades do to maintain dominance. “We’re trying to learn from them this year,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said before the 2021 season. Coming from one of the NFL’s best safeties and a key defensive player the Patriots sought to retain in free agency, McCourty’s admiration means something.
Devin McCourty shows off his @GoRenegades T-shirt, saying after their third straight national championship: “Big shout-out. Renegades. Champs. They hooked me up. They put 32 on the back. We’re trying to learn from them this year.” pic.twitter.com/yowaUym4tJ
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) July 27, 2021
“It does two things: one, it’s just really cool, but then two, it sends a signal to boys and girls that there is equity and that there’s a place for men and women in football. I think that’s the power that representation has. When you have some of these NFL players giving a shout-out, it means a lot. It helps shift the paradigm from being separation and inequality to one of unity.”
Rice may have been known as Flash 80, but for Adrienne and several other NFL stars, that magic number is 10. There’s the fact that Smith ranks No. 1 in her 10th season, and there’s also the fact that she joins a trend that makes the case for Flash 10. Smith has joked in the past that the New Orleans Saints signed her because of what she has in common with Tre’Quan Smith.
“It’s almost like a triple entendre with Tre’Quan because he’s a wide receiver, his last name Smith, and he rocks the number 10 jersey. So I tend to focus on it…There’s something to it. There’s something to wide receivers that wear the number 10. We’ve got Cooper [Kupp] in L.A., we’ve got DeAndre Hopkins, we’ve got Tyreek Hill. So there are a lot of phenomenal wide receivers in the NFL that wear number 10. And I happen to studying them throughout the season. I’m looking for how they release off the ball. I’m looking for how they’re making some of their jukes, how they’re shaking defenders, and I study that. I do mental reps, and then when I get out on the field, I physically put my body through that because I want to be the best.”
In New England, of course, No. 10 belongs to Mac Jones. The promising Jones joins Smith in keeping the legend of the numeral alive.
Smith affectionately refers to her Foxborough compatriots as “our big brothers over there,” detailing the extent to which the Patriots have gone to bat to see the Renegades elevated in the public space.
“It’s really been a tremendous amount of support in terms of just helping to elevate our platform, helping to turn eyes towards us,” Smith said.
“The WFA was able to negotiate a broadcast distribution deal with ESPN2. That was tremendous. It’s the first time it’s happened in the history of planet Earth. That definitely elevated women’s tackle football to an extraordinary level. And that was really supported very well — I have to just shout out, I hope he doesn’t mind — but Mr. Stacey James has been absolutely tremendous. He’s the VP of Media Relations for the Patriots. And he’s been an integral part in helping to ensure that we get media attention, that people realize what we’ve been doing, and that our story can be told. And also journalists, it makes a big difference. You have a choice of who you’re going to cover, what you’re going to cover, and when. And when we have the support of journalists like you and others out there, it makes a difference.”
This year, the Patriots are doing even more to introduce the Renegades to even more passionate New England fans. Mr. Kraft invited the team to Gillette Stadium for the first Pats preseason game against the Miami Dolphins. The Renegades touted their WFA trophy, tried on glittering Super Bowl rings, and shouted a heartfelt thank you to Mr. Kraft.
The WFA is working to become the NFL’s counterpart for women’s tackle football, exemplified by collaborations with NFL players, the NFL Alumni Academy, and a five-year deal to host the WFA Championship at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.
“To be playing in that stadium, the aura of being in that town, where it’s a football town… it was extraordinary,” Smith said. “We’re in this beautiful stadium, this magnificent field, and it’s at the end of the season, the culmination of all of that hard work. You’ve got teams that weren’t as fortunate and were not able to make it to the championship. Everyone still descends upon the city. It’s a huge celebration of women in football.”
Women’s football has come a long way, from being feared as a popular trend to being reduced to a gimmick to now being celebrated in what Smith considers “the mecca of football.” These athletes are endorsed by NFL allies, but still, the notion that women aren’t suited to play the sport plagues its potential growth.
“I don’t know what gets tougher than a woman who’s had children, so let’s just rewrite everything when we’re talking about what true toughness is,” Smith said. “Honestly, for me, it’s no longer a male-dominated sport, right? We’ve got women playing, succeeding, in this sport. We’ve got girls who are growing up who are participating for the first time in this pipeline that’s going to produce some amazing talent.”
Smith credits Sam Gordon for starting the Utah Girls Tackle Football league, which has created a pipeline for young girls in that state outside of sexist school parameters.
“Right now the opportunity for football, whether it’s tackle or flag, is quite large for girls and women,” Smith said. “I really want to give a shout out to the Utah Girls Tackle Football league out in Utah, and what they’ve done to actually create those opportunities. The sport is growing tremendously for girls in flag football, and those skill sets translate well into tackle. And so just for all the girls out there, the woman out there who wanted to play tackle: do know that the WFA exists. The Women’s Football Alliance is out there. There’s over 60 teams in the United States to varying level, so you can just do some quick research, Google where you are, see what team is located near you. And then go out to games go out to practices, contact those teams and express your interest.”
With promise on the horizon for the future of women’s tackle football, Smith reflects on what being a face for Team Milk means in her life.
“As a little kid, I never imagined being in a position like this, and certainly not for women in football. Team Milk is extraordinary, and they are groundbreaking. And the whole concept of ‘Football is football’ is really putting a unique spin on gender equity. And the fact that a game is a game, whether you’re a female, whether you’re a male, sports are sports and we can all succeed and we can all participate.”
Original artwork for this article was provided by Elliot Gerard. Follow him on Twitter (@elliotgerard) and Instagram (@elliotgerard), or check out more of his work at Heartlent Group.