USA Football emphasizes the importance of football for all and actively supports and participates in the creation of pathways for more people to participate in the sport. In the coming months, USA Football will highlight and share the experiences of exceptional members of the football community who have expanded the sport’s scope through their play.
Quineshia Leonard, a former collegiate women’s basketball player at Norfolk State University, had long dreamed of playing basketball on the professional level, but she hung up her sneakers after graduation. Little did Leonard know there was another opportunity waiting for her in the world of tackle football.
“I played basketball since I was nine years old. My basketball career ended before I was ready to let go,” Leonard said. “Remembering those feelings of not reaching my full potential in basketball fueled a fire in me to give football everything I had.”
Despite not having an athletic background in football, Leonard was intrigued by the chance to play professionally when the door opened for her.
“I started playing football after being approached with an opportunity to play professionally,” Leonard said. “I have been an athlete my entire life, and my dream has always been to be a professional athlete, so I jumped at the opportunity.”
Leonard began her first year of organized tackle football in 2022, playing in the Women's National Football Conference as a defensive tackle for the Washington Prodigy.
Leonard admits she had no prior knowledge of the U.S. National Team’s existence when she first started playing. The opportunity to play for the 2022 U.S. Women’s Tackle National Team was a pleasant surprise.
“When I decided to play for the Washington Prodigy, I was told about the U.S. National Team Trials. I had no idea that there was even a National Team,” Leonard said. “When I got to the trials, it was like I was walking into a whole new world. I was surrounded by so many women who were serious about playing football. It was invigorating but it was also very intimidating. When I found out I was selected, I felt such a sense of accomplishment because there were so many talented women to choose from.”
Leonard and the 2022 U.S. Women’s Tackle National Team captured gold at the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Women’s World Championship in Vantaa, Finland this past summer with a 42-14 win over Great Britain in the gold medal match. The U.S. women have won gold in all four IFAF World Championships: 2010 (Sweden), 2013 (Finland), 2017 (Canada) and 2022 (Finland).
“One of the best memories I have from my time with the U.S. National Team was hearing everyone’s story,” Leonard recalled. “Coach Callie [Brownson] had us come together to tell stories about ourselves in order to boost team camaraderie even before we came together for camp. Being able to hear about the backgrounds of other women was amazing, and it helped us connect with each other outside of just being teammates.”
Although Leonard is one of the world’s best tackle football players, the mother of two faced some adversity finding a healthy balance between her obligations as an athlete and mother, including early skepticism about her ability to continue playing at all. However, that did not prevent her from tackling her goals head-on.
“My entire rookie season I doubted my future in football,” Leonard said. “I am a travel player, traveling from Hampton Roads to D.C. for practices, games and events. The strain that being an unpaid athlete puts on me and my family was heavy, but the passion that I have to play football outweighed my doubts and anxiety.”
“Finding the balance between being a good mom and pursuing my dreams has been my biggest challenge,” Leonard said. “Being a travel player requires me to miss a lot of time at home that I wouldn’t have to sacrifice if I had a team to play for locally. I have two children, five and seven, and they are at the age where they are able to understand what mommy is trying to do but they still feel the void of me being gone in order to pursue my dreams.”
Leonard is fortunate to have had mentors pave the way for her, and now she has begun her quest to continue spreading women’s tackle football and providing mentorship.
“I am new to women’s football, but the growth that this sport has had is hard not to see. I am blessed to be able to come into the game now when people are starting to pay attention, and I’m so grateful for all the women who have come before me for bringing women’s football to where it is now,” said Leonard. “I think that in order to continue to grow, we have to start getting the youth involved early. One of the major differences between women and men playing football is that men have been able to develop their games from the time they are five and six years old, solidifying their football foundation.”
“Recently, I was given the opportunity to coordinate a youth girls football camp at Norfolk State University in conjunction with Got Her Back and WNFC,” Leonard explained. “After seeing the amount of girls who wanted to play football, I decided to create the 757 Galaxy. The 757 Galaxy is a youth girls football organization geared towards developing football talent as well as providing mentorship and support.”