What does a 5-foot-nothin’, 100-pound-nothin’ woman know about football?
Rachel Baribeau says she knows a lot.
But the sports-talk-radio host used to be able to prove it only with her words on air. Now, she can show people her bruises, or run a post route with precision.
On a dare from her co-host, and to quiet all the doubters out there who proclaim that female sports journalists couldn’t possibly know anything about football since they’ve never played it, Baribeau decided to attend training camp for the Columbus Lions, an American Indoor Football Association League team based in Columbus, Georgia.
“I’m a real student of the game,” Baribeau said. “But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘Missy, what do you know about football? You’re a woman.’ Those are mostly old, antiquated men who say that, but I still wanted to break that stereotype and prove something.”
Baribeau’s challenge was to complete a week of two-a-day (noncontact) practices, which she wrapped up Monday despite suffering a pulled hip flexor and quad muscle.
She is the first woman to participate in an indoor professional football training camp.
“It was just an amazing experience,” Baribeau said. “I have bruises all up and down my arms, but I wear them like a badge of honor. This has been one of the all-time best experiences of my life.”
Baribeau, who works for the ESPN Sports Radio affiliate in Columbus (WEAM 1580-AM), practiced mostly with the wide receivers and defensive backs.
She says that on her first day of practice, which involved heavy doses of running and conditioning drills, her main goal was simply not to pass out and fall down.
“I consider myself to be very fit,” Baribeau said. “But practice was way more than I expected. There’s pretty much nothing you can do to get yourself ready for it. By the end, my knees were like jelly and I just kept praying, ‘Lord, don’t let me be the one who falls down.’ “
But if she had fallen down — by the way, she didn’t — Baribeau is convinced she would have had 30 guys rushing to pick her up.
Just as she was surprised by the intensity of the practices, Baribeau says she never expected the guys to take to her like they did.
After completing two-a-days, she returned to camp just to say hello to all of her “teammates,” and they begged her to go out and eat dinner with them.
“I couldn’t believe that,” Baribeau said. “When I first thought about doing this, I figured the guys would probably just look at me like a joke. But that’s not how it was at all. Other than the fact that they were a little afraid to pat me on the butt after a play, they treated me like one of the guys. They got physical with me, they went hard in the drills and they cheered me on.”
At first, there wasn’t much to cheer. Baribeau says that she didn’t catch a single pass on her first day of practice.
“Everybody was telling me to wear these gloves … and I wasn’t catching a thing,” Baribeau said. “So I took the gloves off, and I started catching passes. It was amazing.
“The best thing was that my teammates wanted me to succeed so badly. If I didn’t catch a pass, they’d be like, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh!’ But if I did, they’d be yelling and cheering and slapping my helmet. Now I kind of understand why they call football a fraternity.”
And if anything, that’s the one way Baribeau — a self-described football fanatic who has been reporting on the game for eight years — has become more knowledgeable about the game.
She says she didn’t realize how close football players are.
“You know, football is such a team game, and every guy is important, and when you bleed and sweat together, you just become really close,” Baribeau said. “I really learned how deep the emotions run in this game.”
So does that make Baribeau a better sports journalist?
“Maybe,” she said. “But I still don’t think you need to play football to be able to know it and report on it. I know a lot about the game just from watching it for years and doing a lot of research on it.
“The only difference is that now I’m able to relate to it a little more. I can not only describe a play, I can go out and run it. And I also understand the emotions behind the game a lot more.”
The 411: To see pictures of Baribeau at training camp, visit: www.rachelbaribeau.com