When Jamaica Plain resident Nelli Ruotsalainen tells people she plays football, they assume it’s not of the tackle variety. Ruotsalainen, who is a running back for the New England Intensity professional women’s football team, wants to change that.
“I want people to know women are playing football and it’s not flag football,” she said in a recent Gazette interview.
Ruotsalainen, who is a native of Finland, used to play that other kind of football with the round instead of oval, leather-skinned ball. Her soccer skills earned her a scholarship to the University of Rhode Island, where she played for four years.
While at college, she saw men playing football and was jealous. Ruotsalainen felt that the game was challenging with athletic players, some who were big and strong while others were small and fast.
But, she said, she thought at the time that the only football women played was promotional lingerie football, and being a women’s studies major, that certainly was not in the cards. Ruotsalainen eventually found out that was not the only option, and after graduating in 2011, she went back to Finland, where she played American football.
“I thought I had found the sport I was meant to play,” she said.
Ruotsalainen said the transition was not that difficult from soccer to football. The biggest difference for her was having to learn the playbook for football. She said soccer is more fluid, while football is like “stepping out onstage: either you know your lines or not.”
After a year in Finland, she realized she missed the United States and moved back. Ruotsalainen tried out for the Intensity, who are part of the Independent Women’s Football League and play homes games in Medway.
Ruotsalainen was soon playing running back for the Intensity. She said she did well in her first season last year, scoring the second most touchdowns in the league. But being modest, she said that was largely the result of the play calling, which favored the running game.
Ruotsalainen is gearing up for her second season, which starts in April, and is blogging about her experience at tacklethis.wordpress.com. For more information about the football team, visit newenglandintensity.com.