illustration by Mark Smith

Born to Tackle

When Beth Kaleta isn’t managing George Daley’s research lab, you can find her on the gridiron playing women’s tackle football.

From nine to five, Beth Kaleta manages HHMI investigator George Daley’s research lab at Children’s Hospital Boston, using good humor and approachability to keep the place running for 35 other employees.

After work, the five-foot-four 27-year-old is tough as nails: she powers it out on the gridiron as an offensive guard for the Boston Militia, a women’s tackle football team—one of 63 teams in the nationwide Women’s Football Alliance.

Kaleta has played in organized sports since she was 4: from soccer and softball to track and taekwondo. But no football. “Football was a man’s sport,” she says. She always loved it, though. “I’ve watched the NFL every Sunday with my dad for as long as I can remember and even tried to reenact some of my favorite plays against my male cousins after Thanksgiving dinners,” says Kaleta. When she noticed a female player on the field at a high school football game, she told her parents she wanted to try out, but they nixed that idea. Too dangerous, they said.

Kaleta went on to play softball and soccer and to swim for Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts; she graduated with a degree in biology and quickly landed a job with Children’s Hospital Boston. In 2009, she joined the Boston Women’s Flag Football League. Some of her teammates also played tackle football, and they encouraged Kaleta to try out for the Boston Militia.

After a week of tryouts—sprinting, jogging through tires, and showing how she handles the pigskin—Kaleta made the first cut. After two months of preseason practice, she made the second cut and was chosen to play starting right guard on the offensive line—a huge accomplishment for her rookie year.

On the field, Kaleta sometimes faces off against women who stand a foot taller and outweigh her by 150 pounds. “It’s pretty brutal,” she says. In the team’s third game, a large player landed on her, spraining Kaleta’s shoulder so badly she needed help getting dressed for the next two weeks.

The Boston Militia won all but their first game last season and traveled to Dallas for the 2011 WFA National Championship against the San Diego Surge. In front of more than 1,000 fans, the two teams battled it out during a record-breaking Texas heat wave.

Despite the size disparity between Kaleta and her burly opponent on the defensive line— “one of the largest women I’ve had to go against the entire season”—the teams were fairly evenly matched. “We scored the first touchdown, so that set the pace, but it was a back and forth battle,” Kaleta says. In the end, the Boston Militia won 34–19 to take the championship.

Kaleta continues to play flag football in the off-season and plans to keep fighting it out on the gridiron with the Boston Militia. “I’m so honored to be a member of the team,” she says. “I get to have some fun and play a sport that I love.” And, despite their initial misgivings, Kaleta’s parents have become fans: they attend every home game they can, decked out in Militia shirts and hats.

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Boston Children’s Hospital