Jessica Hayden, middle, prepares to block a defender during a Boston Renegades game last season. Submitted photo/Mitzi Velez Lorenzana

Jessica Hayden was the one chastised for playing too rough in a coed flag football league. Hayden was the one who never shied away from contact, no matter the game, when she played with other children. Hayden was the one constantly searching for something to scratch the competitive itch she often sensed she alone felt.

Hayden found it. As a key member of the Boston Renegades, who play in the Women’s Football Alliance national championship, Hayden found exactly what she’s missed.

“I instantly fell in love. It was the level of competitiveness I was looking for,” said Hayden, 30, and a 2008 graduate of Madison Area Memorial High School.

The Renegades — who won championships in 2018 and 2019 — were recently featured in a documentary that aired on ESPN. Hayden joined a good team and helped make it better, becoming a starter on the Renegades offensive line at left guard. In Boston’s 52-24 win over the Cali War in the WFA Division I championship game a year ago in Golden, Colorado, Hayden saw time on defense as a third down rush specialist. Hayden’s third quarter fumble recovery set up a Renegades touchdown, expanding Boston’s lead to 21 points.

Hayden’s commitment to playing the game a certain way, moving opponents out of the way with the force of a snowplow, still occasionally raises eyebrows, but Boston coach John Johnson loves it.

“(Hayden’s) pancaking everybody, even in practice. It got testy at times,” Johnson said. “Her energy is what draws you to her right away.”

Like Hayden, Alison Gauvin, a Whitefield native and Erskine Academy graduate, was a Renegades rookie in 2019. A running back, Gauvin quickly figured out the best path on the field usually was behind a Hayden lead block.

“I love when it’s her side pulling. I know she’s going to make the block and get to the next level. She’s very athletic, very smart,” Gauvin said.

Hayden family lore states Jessica, the oldest of four children, was born to play football because she came out of the womb kicking. Hayden spent her childhood around the game. Her father, Joe Hayden, spent time as Madison football coach. Her younger brother, Chris, represented Madison in the 2014 Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl.

Hayden played football in Madison youth leagues and through her freshman year of high school. By that age, boys who once had been smaller than Hayden suddenly became bigger. That, and the hassle of having to constantly change in a portable restroom before and after games, led Hayden to switch to soccer. It wasn’t the best fit.

“In soccer, I definitely was more aggressive than I should’ve been,” said Hayden, who also played basketball and was a four-year starter on Madison’s softball team.

Jessica Hayden, of Madison, wraps up a ball carrier while playing for the Boston Renegades last season. Submitted photo

Hayden played softball at the University of Southern Maine, where she was an all-Little East Conference catcher in 2013. She hit .321 that season, with two home runs, 20 RBIs and 20 runs scored. A catcher, Hayden’s name appears in the Huskies’ record book among the top 25 all-time in home runs (five), doubles (21), and RBI (54).

After graduating from USM, Hayden moved to Boston. She tried a few things to stay active, including flag football leagues. Those left Hayden feeling unsatisfied.

“I wasn’t getting much out of them. People don’t take them seriously, I guess,” said Hayden, who was recently laid off from her graphic design job, a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hayden joined the Renegades after attending a meet-and greet-session, in which perspective players are introduced to players and coaches, and take part in non-contact drills. It instantly felt right, for both sides.

“My first game was everything I needed and wanted it to be,” Hayden said. “On my first play, I pulled around the end. The feeling of making that block was incredible.”

“It’s a veterans’ league. Usually it takes a couple years to get acclimated and understand all we do. From day one, she was focused. She was intense,” Johnson added.

Hayden tends to leave her intensity on the field, Gauvin said.

“Her personality in general is more charismatic. She’s the fun one in the group,” Gauvin said.

With Hayden’s speed and tenacity, Johnson and his coaching staff put her at left guard, where she could pull and be a dominant lead blocker or protect the quarterback from a rush up the middle on pass plays.

“She could play tight end. She could probably play running back. Putting her at guard fir style of play we like. We like athletic players who can move,” Johnson said. “She gave us some great flexibility. In the screen (pass) game, she can get out there. She has a defensive mentality on offense, flying after everything.”

The championship game victory is a perfect example of what Hayden brought to the Renegades offensive line. Boston gained 465 yards of offense. Quarterback Allison Cahill threw for 289 yards and five touchdowns. Running back Ruth Matta, the game’s MVP, rand for 174 yards and two touchdowns, and caught three passes for 95 yards and a touchdown.

Cahill had the best season of her 16-year career, throwing for 2,664 yards and 46 touchdowns while completing 64.2 percent of her passes.

“Our line was probably the best line in women’s football, and (Hayden) was a big part of that,” Johnson said.

In the championship game, Johnson used Hayden on defense as an edge rusher on third down. Hayden’s fumble recovery in the third quarter set up a 2-yard Matta touchdown run.

“I hadn’t practiced D all year. That had put me there and there, but nothing big,” Hayden said. “They hiked, and I ran as fast as I could. When I fell on the ball I went into armadillo mode.”

It was a bad snap, Hayden recalled, and she outran everybody to the ball. After the officials pulled apart the pile, Hayden’s teammates asked her, you have the ball? ‘I have the ball,’ she said, a few times to convince herself she did have the ball.

Jessica Hayden, of Madison, blocks a defender during a game for the Boston Renegades last season. Submitted photo

“It was like a movie. It kind of happened in slow motion,” Hayden said.

The championship game’s start was delayed by lightning, giving Hayden, Gauvin, and other rookies time to overthink the impending contest.

“We’re sitting in the locker room, and all of us rookies are like ‘What are we gonna do?’ The veterans are like ‘Don’t worry. We know what to do,'” Gauvin said.

Between the delayed start, the thinner mountain air, and the exhaustion that comes from playing in a championship game, Hayden said she’s never been as tired as she was when the game was over. Still, the Renegades celebrated their championship together at the hotel, but many had to get up early for flights back to Boston.

That’s the thing about playing in the Women’s Football Alliance. Nobody is making any money. Each player pays $750 before the season to offset the costs of things like officials and fields, but that accounts for just one-third of the money needed, Hayden said. The rest is raised through fundraising.

A portion of the dues pays for hotel rooms for road games, but players are required to get themselves to those road games. In 2019, the Renegades played regular season games in Tampa, Washington, D.C., New York, and Baltimore. Late night and early morning flights are the cheapest, Hayden said.

The Renegades were three weeks from the 2020 scheduled season opener against the New York Wolves on April 11 when the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They had gone to Baltimore to hold a training camp with a team making the move up to Division I. Boston will go for the threepeat in 2021.

“Nobody’s done that in women’s football. We have a big target on our back,” Hayden said.

Hayden will play a big role in whatever the team does. Johnson is already scheming.

“We’re going to expand her role a bit. She can run and catch,” Johnson said. “She’s a freak of nature athlete. In the championship game, she had two quarterback pressures. She hunts the ball. (Offensively) A lot of those big runs were behind her.”

Playing for the Renegades gives Hayden’s competitive fire a release. She’s ready to pancake block anybody who gets in her way.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

 

 

 


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