Linda Jefferson has always been competitive. She said she became an athlete at age 11, running up and down the street she grew up on in Toledo, Ohio.
While attending Libbey High School from 1968 to 1972, Jefferson played basketball and ran track. He graduated just weeks before President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law, so he missed out on an athletic scholarship. That didn’t stop her from becoming one of the most dominant female athletes of all time and a pioneer in what seemed like the most unlikely sport: soccer.
As the game continues to grow and the presence of women in the sport expands, Jefferson fondly looks back on her career on the gridiron. She and the Toledo Troopers, the winningest soccer team of all time, paved the way for women’s soccer as it is played today in more than 60 cities across the United States. The 50th anniversary of Title IX provided a reason to remember the Jefferson story.
“I am proud to be a pioneer,” said Jefferson. “They stepped on my shoulders to get to where they are.”
A passion for soccer
An advertisement for a professional women’s soccer team appeared in a 1971 edition of the Toledo Blade during Jefferson’s junior year of high school. She took the idea of a football career. Her mother, Sally Jefferson, did not.
Sally Jefferson was concerned for her daughter’s safety, as she had to nurse Jefferson back to health after he injured his arm in a Junior Olympics softball competition years earlier. Football sounded too risky and Sally wouldn’t stand by and watch her daughter get hurt. But after the first few games, she relented. She saw that her daughter was too evasive to be approached.
When his mother reacted, the city of Toledo also supported Jefferson and the Troopers. Between 1971 and 1979, the Troopers amassed a winning percentage unlike any other in modern football history. While his overall record is up for debate (reports have Toledo going 61-4, 59-4, 59-5), his dominance was not. Toledo won seven straight National Women’s Soccer League titles between 1971 and 1977. And Jefferson played a key role in its championship culture.
“Oh my gosh, Toledo really supported the Troopers,” Linda said. “Everyone loves a winner.” As they began to flourish, the Troopers overtook the Toledo Goaldiggers of the International Hockey League as the most popular team in town, Jefferson said. When both teams played on the same night, he said more fans chose to watch the Troopers.
Jefferson’s celebrity grew with each touchdown and 1,000-plus rushing season, drawing comparisons to NFL greats like Walter Payton, OJ Simpson and Jim Brown. He made appearances on “Good Morning America,” “The Phil Donahue Show,” and the game show “Tell the Truth.”
“Not just me, but the whole team, our contribution was to make women’s soccer acceptable and not a sideshow,” Jefferson said. “To make it acceptable that people can come out and appreciate that we play as well as they can appreciate any men’s soccer team.”
She appeared on the cover of womenSports magazine, created by Billie Jean King, in 1975 as her first “Female Athlete of the Year.” With the help of the citizens of Toledo, including the mayor and the entire city council, Jefferson racked up enough votes to claim the title over the likes of tennis star Chris Evert and gymnast Olga Korbut.
The following year, she was invited to compete on ABC’s “Female Superstars,” a show in which elite female athletes were invited to compete in prize money events. It was there that she met and competed against her idol, tennis player Althea Gibson, who blew Jefferson away.
“She was a pioneer in women’s soccer,” said Gloria Jimenez of Jefferson, who joined the Troopers in 1973 and gave them extra points. “We were the founding mothers of women’s soccer basically, the Toledo Troopers. And as big as women’s football is right now, people look back to where it all started.”
Women’s football on the rise today
In the more than 40 years since Jefferson retired and the Troopers disbanded in 1979, women’s soccer is in the midst of a renaissance. The NFL’s Rooney Rule was expanded this year to include female coaching candidates; women’s flag football has become a sanctioned sport in high school athletic associations across the country and in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics; More than 2,400 girls played football in 2018; An estimated 4,000 women play organized football in the United States. Women also occupy space in NFL front offices and ownership groups, such as newly anointed Las Vegas Raiders president Sandra Douglass Morgan and Denver Broncos co-owners Condoleezza Rice and Mellody Hobson.
Jen Moody owns the Tampa Bay Inferno, a Women’s Football Alliance tackle football team. Moody met Jefferson when she and former Troopers quarterback Eunice White flipped the coin in the April 23 matchup between Tampa Bay and the Boston Renegades.
“Certainly if you’re a part of women’s soccer during these years, then you know the Toledo Troopers and the incredible history and journey they had starting in the ’70s,” said Moody, who played wide receiver for the WFA’s Pittsburgh. . Passion and won a national championship there before moving to Florida. “And certainly, if you learn anything about the Toledo Troopers, you know that Linda Jefferson played a key role in the success of her team. And I think that obviously translates into some of the success that we’ve seen with women’s tackle football.”
Jefferson’s legacy lives on
Stephen Guinan, Troopers historian and author of the book “We Are The Troopers,” calls Jefferson “the greatest athlete you’ve never heard of.”
Mitchi Collette played high school basketball against Jefferson and joined the Troopers in 1973 at her urging. Colette played offensive lineman and was Jefferson’s primary blocker on the right side. The woman was “magical,” Colette said.
Jefferson was inducted into the Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, becoming the first black woman to receive such an honor. At the end of her career in 1979, she rushed for more than 8,000 yards and scored 140 touchdowns.
While the Troopers’ story occurred during a time of women’s liberation, laws like Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment were far from their minds. They just wanted to play soccer. But Jefferson’s motivations for playing and encouraging young girls to get involved in sports seemed to embrace the spirit of the movement.
“I would show them respect, discipline and independence,” said Jefferson. When she was still playing, Owens Corning sponsored her so she could go from town to town teaching young girls the merits of playing sports. Her main goal in each clinic was for the girls to know how sports could improve them. A 2018 study found that 94% of women serving as C-suite executives were athletes.
The year after Jefferson retired from football, he had to undergo knee surgery, effectively ending his athletic career. Ella then spent 35 years teaching young children in Detroit and Toledo, retiring in 2016. When Ella Jefferson was younger, she hoped to one day become a coach. Her teaching gave him a similar purpose.
“When you teach, you have all these different little personalities and different mood swings,” he said. “And helping a kid succeed at something he never thought he would have, and the smile that he has on his face when it’s over. It was like training.”
Jefferson joined the Troopers 50 years ago this year and said he never dreamed people would be so interested in his story, the Troopers’ story. Her hope for the next 50 years of women’s soccer is for players to move further toward national respect, particularly in the form of higher salaries. She now dreams of a world where women can afford to be full-time soccer players.