PORTLAND — The Maine Rebels of the Independent Women’s Football League will play their first home game of the season at 8 p.m. Saturday at Fitzpatrick Stadium.

Lining up at wide receiver in navy blue pants, silver jersey and silver helmet will be Diana Duff, the former Greely High and University of Southern Maine basketball All-American from Cumberland.

Duff never played football but saw an advertisement in The Portland Press Herald saying the team was looking for players. She was intrigued. The competitor in her made her want to give it a try.

“I knew the team existed but I had never seen a game,” said Duff, a juvenile probation officer. “I showed up at a practice and ended up practicing. I’m learning from the ground up. It’s been great.”

The Maine Rebels, formerly the Southern Maine Rebels, are playing the New Jersey Justice while looking to rebound from a 28-0 road loss to the New England Intensity in their opener at Medway, Mass.

The Rebels are a Tier II team in the nationwide league. They have an eight-game regular-season schedule that runs through June 5 against Northeast Division opponents.

“The team we played in our first game was very good. You could tell they have a lot of depth. We had a lot of penalties that held us back,” said Duff.

While Duff is learning football for the first time, her athleticism translates well to other sports.

“My 8-year-old son plays football, baseball, hockey and lacrosse,” she said. “I thought I’d give football a try. Hockey is next.”

“Diana’s got hands of glue,” said Monte Ellison, the first-year coach who has coached high school and college football in North Carolina.

Said Ruth Murphy, the owner/player: “Diana is a godsend for our quarterback. As a wide receiver she has great hands, height (6 feet) and speed. There aren’t too many women in our league with her speed and hands.”

Duff also plays free safety, and is on the kickoff and return teams.

Ellison liked a play Duff made in the secondary in the opener. Reading the quarterback, which for Duff must have been like anticipating a cross-court pass in basketball, she broke quickly and arrived to the ball at the same time as the receiver.

“We were both going for the ball,” said Duff. “I tried to intercept it. I was watching the quarterback’s shoulders to see where she was going to throw it. I was really busting hump to get there. At least I stopped the play.”

At 42, Duff is the third-oldest player on the team. Most of her teammates have played for several years, including some who played for the defunct Maine Freeze of the National Women’s Football Association, such as 27-year-old Jessika Lopez of Portland, who has been playing football since she was 10.

Lopez played on the boys’ teams while growing up in Gorham, and played for the high school team. Lopez plays fullback and middle linebacker for the Rebels, but said she might be at tight end for this game.

“I’m fast, I can hit and I can catch,” said Lopez.

Lopez, who also played softball and other sports, dropped them all to focus on football when she was 12.

“In football you can go around hitting people and not get in trouble. I thought that was the coolest thing,” she said.

Since college, Duff has stayed active by playing in women’s basketball and softball leagues. As a probation officer, she’s constantly on the move.

“Obviously, my athleticism helps me,” said Duff. “I still play basketball and softball, and I exercise every day.

“I’m still learning the different routes as a receiver. To me, football isn’t as natural as basketball. In basketball, you can freelance, which is what I enjoy. When a play is called in football, that’s it.

“I was nervous before the first game, but my teammates made it easier for me because we all want to see each other do well. We all get along.”

It took only one game for Duff to learn that football is physical. Even though she’s used to contact in basketball, this is different, she said. Duff left the game with a bruised calf muscle. She has been rehabilitating it and vows to play Saturday night.

“I have bruises from head to toe. I usually get hit in the same spots,” she said.

 

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be reached at 791-6419 or at:

[email protected]