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.
Aside from the occasional spontaneous neighborhood games, Maria Jackson didn’t play football growing up. Instead, she was an accomplished basketball player who attended Case Western Reserve University. Fortunately, football eventually became a large part of Jackson’s life, taking her across the country and overseas to represent the U.S. Women’s Tackle National Team.
“I didn’t play consistently though until about 2011 when I joined a coed recreational league in Cleveland to meet new people after moving out of my hometown,” said Jackson. “That’s where my passion for the game really grew, and I soon started playing flag competitively and travelling around the country to compete in tournaments. After a couple of years playing contact flag together, I was talked into trying out for the local tackle team in 2013 by my future fellow U.S. National Team teammate, Elizabeth Jenkins.”
Jackson later learned about USA Football’s U.S. Women’s Tackle National and set her sights on representing her country in international competition.
“My first year playing tackle football, I went to San Diego to participate in the All-American game and watch the league championship. During halftime of the championship game, the 2013 U.S. National Team members were recognized on the field, and I was completely awestruck,” Jackson recalled. “I didn’t know that the opportunity to play tackle football while representing my country even existed until that very moment, and I instantly knew I wanted to be part of that team.”
Jackson stepped up her training and took advantage of opportunities to improve her skills. She attended Women’s World Games skills camps hosted by USA Football, where she met former Chicago Bears and Seattle Seahawks receiver Fabien Bownes.
“In 2017, I initially made the team as an alternate, but was fortunately called up to the active roster at the very beginning of training camp,” Jackson said. “To this day I’m still so thankful that I had such a supportive and understanding manager at work who allowed me to take two and a half weeks of vacation with zero notice so I could take part in that life-changing experience.”
Jackson traveled with the U.S. National Team to Canada for the 2017 International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Women’s World Championship. The U.S. defeated the host nation 41-16 in the gold medal match to secure its third consecutive world championship. Jackson wasn’t finished with the National Team and decided to chase her second medal when the team returned in 2022.
“When information regarding the 2022 team trials was posted, I knew I had to be there. The experience in 2017 was so unforgettable, and I wanted another opportunity to compete on a world stage and win another gold medal,” Jackson said. “I travelled to Florida and competed alongside over 200 women vying for 45 roster spots. Only four receivers were chosen, and I’m extremely proud to have been one of them.”
Jackson joined the team at Walsh University in Ohio in July for a week-long training camp before traveling to the 2022 IFAF Women’s Tackle World Championship in Vantaa, Finland. There she reunited with some of the most influential coaches in her career.
U.S. National Team defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Stephanie Balochko coached Jackson when she first started playing contact flag and when she played tackle football in Cleveland. Bownes was also on the coaching staff, serving as a wide receivers coach.
Jackson also spent time learning from running backs coach Odessa Jenkins. The two women were teammates on the 2017 U.S. National Team. Now, Jenkins coaches Jackson and the Texas Elite Spartans in the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC), a league she founded several years ago.
“Her vision and passion for the advancement of women’s football are truly unmatched in my opinion,” Jackson said. “I see the tireless effort she puts in to provide more opportunities for women in football, setting the bar higher and higher, and I can’t help but be inspired by her work.”
Working alongside her coaches and teammates at the training camp was one of Jackson’s favorite memories from her time with the 2022 U.S. National Team.
“I think the most positive experience was just being able to completely immerse myself in football for a couple of weeks and basically mimic the life of a professional athlete during that time without having to worry about the typical stresses of the outside world,” said Jackson. “My favorite memory has to be the team talent show that we had at the end of the 2022 camp before we flew to Finland. My teammates are the best kind of crazy, and I literally had tears streaming down my face from laughing so hard.”
The laughs turned to cheers as the U.S. National Team took down Great Britain 42-14 in the gold medal game to secure the team’s fourth consecutive gold. Jackson scored two touchdowns in the opening match against Germany and in the championship game.
An All-Pro wide receiver in the WNFC and two-time gold medalist, Jackson is one of the nation’s most accomplished football players. Now, she is giving back to the next generation.
“This past spring, I was given an opportunity to be an assistant coach for girls’ flag football at Mentor High School (Ohio),” said Jackson. “There’s a major push to make flag football a fully sanctioned sport in Ohio, and I jumped at the chance to be part of that movement. I had so much fun sharing my knowledge with the girls and seeing their growth throughout the season. I’m already looking forward to next year.”
Jackson offered some uplifting advice for any girls or women who are unsure about participating in flag or tackle football.
“Stop hesitating. This sport will take you places and provide opportunities that you never could have imagined.”