San Diego Surge win title at Heinz Field
PITTSBURGH -- Christine Carrillo didn't set out to own a women's football team, but the chief operating officer of an HMO decided to step up in support of her San Diego Surge.
The offensive lineman's sacrifices didn't end there. When Carrillo and her partner, Surge quarterback Melissa Gallegos, chose to have a baby, they decided that Carrillo would get pregnant so that Gallegos could play on.
"That was our deal at the beginning of this season," Gallegos said. "She said, 'If I carry this baby for you, you have to win a championship.' And with this team, we did it."
Carrillo gave birth to their son, Brayden, in June. She was back on the field on Saturday, where she helped Gallegos fulfill her part of the bargain. The Surge beat the Chicago Force 40-36 in the Women's Football Alliance championship at Heinz Field in front of more than 2,000 fans. The game wasn't decided until a Surge interception sealed it with 18 seconds left.
"We were in a heavyweight fight," said Force coach John Konecki, who also coaches the Swedish national football team. "A 16-round fight that went to decision and the Surge beat us."
The game lived up to the venue. There were big plays. Surge wide receiver Holly Peterson set the tone on the opening kickoff, which she returned 82 yards for a touchdown. Force quarterback Sami Grisafe completed three passes to take her team 80 yards in the last minute of the game before the interception.
Konecki said the level of competition and speed has improved in the decade he has coached women, who play while working other jobs and volunteering their talents to help support their teams.
It was the first Women's Football Alliance title game to be held in an NFL stadium. And the women who had sacrificed to make it happen cheered from the tunnel when it was announced as they waited to run out to the field.
Andrea Grant, the Surge's defensive line coach, stood in the end zone of Heinz Field and reflected on what the milestone meant for her sport.
"It's huge," Grant said.
The Pittsburgh Passion had hoped to hold the championship in the new stadium they are building with a local soccer league in Station Square. Team co-owner Teresa Conn realized the stadium wasn't going to be finished in time.
She went to Passion co-owner Franco Harris, the former Steelers great.
"Franco grinned and said, 'Let's check Heinz Field,'" Conn said. "The Rooneys were great to come let us do this. There's so much football history in Pittsburgh. That's just the way the family is. They see someone with the heart and the passion and said, 'Let's give them the opportunity.'"
Harris said he called Steelers owner Art Rooney but didn't need to do much convincing.
"He knows of the Pittsburgh Passion," Harris said. "He said if the details can be worked out on that date, the Steelers would be happy to work with the women's football league."
When Grisafe's high school football career ended -- she was the varsity backup quarterback her sophomore year but decided to pursue a sport which could produce a college scholarship -- the Force quarterback scooped a handful of dirt from her Redlands Senior High School field.
Grisafe thought it would be the last time she stepped onto a football field in a uniform.
"I never thought I'd be running out in one of the most prolific stadiums in football," Grisafe said.
Deborah Parker came from Fowler, Ind., to see her daughter-in-law, Surge offensive lineman Stephanie Parker, play. "My son is in the Navy stationed in San Diego, so I'm here to support her. He's never seen her play," she said.
Andra Douglas, owner and quarterback of the New York Sharks, has been waiting to see the sport gain wider popularity. She said the championship venue is a promising sign.
"I think if we can get a television contract, good backers, it's a good product," Douglas said.
One of those backers is Harris, who was honored at halftime for his part in the Immaculate Reception 40 years ago. As the video played on the JumboTron, Harris got high fives from some of the WFA all-stars. Harris' interest has upped the Passion's profile. The team averages between 2,500 and 5,000 fans a game, which leads the WFA in attendance. The Passion have had a few of their games broadcast on local television.
"If someone saw this game today," Harris said, "that would convince them that this is good football and this is exciting football and the talent is here."