Missy Bedwell: Jack of All Trades

By Neal Rozendaal

This profile was written in 2013.

Mellisa “Missy” Bedwell has been playing women’s full-contact football as long as or longer than any other player in the history of the sport – an incredible 15 seasons. The versatile Missy Bedwell has seen it all and done it all on the football field, and after a long, long journey, she appears to have finally found a home with the D.C. Divas.

Missy Bedwell

Missy Bedwell grew up in Elk Creek, a small town in southwest Virginia right along the North Carolina border. She attended Powhatan High School, where she started to blossom as an athlete while playing basketball, volleyball, and softball. Bedwell was later a four-sport athlete at a small college in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, called Chowan University.

Bedwell was a huge football fan growing up, but it wasn’t a sport available to female athletes. Women played football off and on throughout the twentieth century, but in 1999, women’s full-contact football was ready to make a comeback. Two teams – the Minnesota Vixens and the Lake Michigan Minx – were assembled to showcase the concept of women’s tackle football to the nation.

Tryouts for the Minx and Vixens were held all across the country. Bedwell was living in Miami, Florida, back in 1999. “My roommate saw an ad saying that they were having tryouts for a women’s football team,” she recalled. The tryouts were being held in Daytona Beach, so Bedwell took a Saturday off and went up to try out.

“J.T. Turner, a former cornerback for the Minnesota Vikings, was the guy holding the tryouts,” Bedwell said. “They actually had me at quarterback for the first couple months. I wasn’t a great quarterback; I was third string. I told [Turner], ‘I don’t want to sit on the bench; I want to play.’ He said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to be a linebacker.’”

Turner was skeptical, but he agreed to give Bedwell a shot on defense. “My first play out there, I had an interception and ran it back for a touchdown. So that’s where I was for the next ten years: linebacker,” she laughed.

Missy Bedwell had found her position on the field, and she was placed on the roster of the Lake Michigan Minx. She quit her job and traveled from sunny Miami to frigid Minnesota to be a part of the first women’s tackle football game of the modern era.

Mistaken Identity

On October 9, 1999, the Minx and Vixens met at Midway Stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota. A large crowd of 2,463 fans were on hand, including three camera crews and reporters from Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine. Even after fifteen seasons in the sport, Bedwell still looks back at that evening, waiting for the game to start, as one of her most memorable moments in uniform.

“I remember standing on the sidelines for that first game. The national anthem was going, and I’m not going to lie…I cried. It was a tearjerker,” Bedwell said. “There are so many things going through your head as you’re standing there getting mentally ready for that first game. And then all of a sudden the national anthem starts playing and it all hits me. I’m playing professional football. You’ve worked so hard for this and it’s really here.”

“They started playing that national anthem at that first game, and I just lost control,” she continued. “I was crying, and it was a very emotional time for me. It was a great moment.”

Sports Illustrated described the historic opening kickoff. “The undersized WPFL ball kicked off by Missy Bedwell of the Minx wobbled for 20 yards, hit the dry sod and bounced twice before being swarmed on by a passel of skittish-looking Vixens,” SI reported. ESPN the Magazine’s account was even more vivid. “Finally, the kickoff. The Minx’s Missy Bedwell approaches the tee and rams her foot directly into the ground. She goes down in a heap as the ball musters just 20 yards of flight,” ESPN wrote. “Trainers carry Bedwell off the field.”

Two major national sports publications recorded Missy Bedwell’s place in women’s football history! And both accounts got it wrong.

“I didn’t kick the ball,” Bedwell clarified. “I was beside the girl that kicked the ball. Her number was 52, and mine was 53, so maybe that’s what the confusion was. But it definitely wasn’t me that kicked it; I was beside her.”

“She kicked the ball, but when she kicked it, it only went like twenty yards. She was a great kicker, but on that first kick, she probably had a lot of nerves,” she continued. “As soon as she kicked it, this other girl and I were engaged in a hit. Then somebody clipped me from the side and I went down.”

As a result, Missy Bedwell did, in fact, claim a place in women’s football history. “I was the first ever injured player in modern women’s tackle football,” she laughed. “On the opening kickoff of the very first game, I completely tore my ACL in my right knee.”

You might be tempted to feel sorry for Bedwell, waiting so long to achieve her dream and then suffering a severe injury almost immediately. But if so, you don’t know Missy Bedwell – because there was no way an injury like that was going to keep her off the field. “I came back in two weeks and finished the season,” she said. “They fit me with a brace, I did some physical therapy, and I continued to play.”

The Minx and Vixens traveled all around the Midwest, showcasing women’s football by playing exhibition games against each other. On the field, this barnstorming tour didn’t turn out quite the way the league’s organizers expected. “The Vixens were supposed to be the ultimate team,” Bedwell confessed. “They were supposed to be the team blowing everybody out; they were supposed to be the molded team that was going to stay.”

“The Lake Michigan team was just supposed to provide the competition for them that made them look good,” she noted. “Come to find out, the Lake Michigan Minx were the team that was looking better and winning all the games!”

Switching Sides

Missy Bedwell started her career with the Minx when she made women’s football history again. “After four games, we had a break in the season so that everybody could go home and see their families,” Bedwell recalled. “Well, when the break was over, a lot of girls didn’t come back. Either they felt football was too tough, or they missed their families too much, or maybe it was just too cold in Minnesota that time of year – remember, a lot of these girls were from Florida! Anyway, several girls just didn’t come back.”

“At that point, I got moved over to the Minnesota Vixens. I got traded. I don’t know if you want to call it that since we were all playing each other anyway, but I was the first player traded in modern women’s football. I went to the Vixens and finished out the season with them.”

“It was tough,” Bedwell admitted. “I had been playing with the Minx for four games and I felt this bond. Then all of a sudden, I’m with another team and I’m playing all my old teammates!”

She didn’t just play her old teammates, though. The Vixens challenged the Long Island Sharks, a prominent women’s flag football team, to a full-contact game. The Sharks accepted the challenge, and on December 11, 1999, the newly-dubbed New York Sharks took the field against Bedwell and the Minnesota Vixens in Uniondale, New York.

“The Sharks were still a flag football team at that time,” Bedwell observed. “The Sharks actually put pads on for the first time to play the Vixens to see what it was all about and see if they wanted to participate in full-contact football. They put on the pads, and we played them for their first ever game.”

The Sharks captured a 12-6 exhibition victory for their first win in franchise history. Over thirteen years later on May 11, 2013, Bedwell lined up for the D.C. Divas to play against those same New York Sharks. “But I don’t think any of the girls [on the 2013 Sharks roster] were on the field with me back in 1999,” Bedwell laughed.

The 1999 season ended with a game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, a contest between the Minx and Vixens billed as the “Women’s Super Bowl.” It was an experience Bedwell would never forget.

“It was the first game where I had ever been on Astroturf,” she said. “Just being on the same field as NFL players I’d been watching all my life was amazing. It was definitely a rush to be out there. It was great.” Although her Vixens lost the game, 30-27, Bedwell was pleased. “I didn’t care who won the game, because I felt like I was a part of both teams,” she added. Playing in the Metrodome for the Women’s Super Bowl was the perfect way to end a historic rookie season.

Six Franchises

Missy Bedwell had her first knee surgery in 2000 to repair her torn ACL, and she quickly recovered and returned to action. Bedwell played for the Minnesota Vixens in 2000 and 2001, and the Vixens were the second of six teams she has played for over her long career. Each of them has a unique and special meaning to her.

“The Lake Michigan Minx and Minnesota Vixens are special to me because they’re the first teams I played for,” Bedwell said. “Then I moved back to Virginia and played one season [2002] for the Carolina Cougars, a North Carolina team that wasn’t far from my house. That was special because it was so close to my home…I was actually living at home when I played for them, so I felt like I was representing my home town.”

There was one game during her single season with the Cougars that stood out in Bedwell’s mind. “I got to play in the Orange Bowl before they tore it down,” she recalled. “When I was with the Cougars, we played the Miami Fury, and their field was the Orange Bowl. It was a pretty cool experience to be able to play there.”

Bedwell soon landed a job in New Jersey, so she joined the closest team to where she lived – the Philadelphia Phoenix. The Phoenix were a memorable team for her, because it was the first time she played for a winning organization. In her first season with the Phoenix in 2003, Philadelphia posted a 7-1 record, which was good enough to land them in the NWFA playoffs.

Bedwell suited up for the first playoff game of her career, and ironically, the team on the opposing sidelines was the D.C. Divas. It was the Divas’ first trip to the postseason in franchise history, and the Divas squared off with the Phoenix in an Eastern Conference semifinal game.

It was a terrific, back-and-forth contest. Bedwell still vividly recalls one particular play in that game, in which her teammates recovered a kickoff in the end zone for a Phoenix touchdown. “There was a kickoff and it went in the end zone, and everybody was kind of looking around,” she remembered. “We went down there and got the ball. And I was thinking, ‘Hey, that ball was live! That’s a touchdown!’”

That touchdown helped to seal the Divas’ first playoff defeat; Philadelphia prevailed in a thrilling game, 36-32. The Phoenix went on to lose in the Eastern Conference championship game to the Detroit Demolition. In her four seasons in Philadelphia, the Phoenix compiled a 23-9 regular season record, won two division championships, and made three playoff appearances.

In 2007, Missy Bedwell once again relocated to south Florida. She signed up with an expansion team named the Palm Beach Punishers, for whom she would play three seasons. Bedwell cherished that experience, because for the first time, she was treated royally as a true veteran of the sport.

“They thought I was the best thing since sliced bread,” Bedwell laughed. “None of them had any experience, and none of them really knew what they were doing. Here I come with all my knowledge and experience. I played offense, defense, and special teams for them.” Bedwell’s leadership wasn’t enough to make a dent on the scoreboard – the Punishers won just three games in her three years in uniform.

“We never won,” she admitted. But she remembered how tight-knit the Punishers were off the field. “They had a real bond, because they were friends long before they were a team. So there was a closeness there that was awesome. You could call any one of them at any time, and they would be hanging out with five other members of the team.”

After the 2009 season, Bedwell was offered a job in Virginia. “Before I even accepted the job, I called the Divas and asked if they needed any players. When they said yes, then I called my boss back and told him I’d take the job,” Bedwell said. “I didn’t care where my job sent me…as long as there was a football team within an hour and a half where I could play!”

The D.C. Divas are the sixth team Bedwell has played for, so what makes them unique? “Oh my goodness,” she replied. “I’ve never been on a team that was so organized. With some of my previous teams, our warm up before the game was just running across the field and back. Then the players and coaches would all stand around for fifteen minutes trying to figure out what to do next. But when I got here, I was blown away. They had schedules…they had organization. I remember thinking, ‘This is awesome!’”

Whatever It Takes

Missy Bedwell has been an asset to six different franchises primarily because of her versatility. While she is a jack of all trades, she’s clearly a master of one: long snapping. “I’ve been a long snapper for every team I’ve ever played for,” she noted. “I’ve played a lot of different positions, because every team needs something different. I’ve played every position on the defensive line and all three linebacker positions. I’ve played every offensive line position: guard, tackle, and center. I started out at quarterback, and I was actually a fullback for a while, too.”

For Bedwell, it’s all about helping the team. “The thing I love about football is that it’s so flexible. If something needs to be done and I can do it, that’s what I want to do. I want to help the team in any way possible, whether it’s cheering on the sidelines, being on the field, or helping someone else get better. Ever since I started, that was my role; that’s my passion.”

As a veteran leader of the Divas with years of football knowledge to impart, that desire to help others improve is invaluable. “I just love the game, so I want everyone to know what I know,” Bedwell stated. “If I can do something but somebody else can also do it, I’m not going to hold back and say I don’t want to teach them because I don’t want them to look better than me. That’s not helping the team. I’d tell everybody else anything that I knew, and if they can do it better, then so be it.”

Bedwell has played nearly every position on the field, but being on the defensive side of the ball seems to fit her personality best. “I love defense…it’s where my heart’s at,” she admitted. “You’ve got that killer instinct to get out there and hit somebody. You’ve got no fear, and you just let it all hang loose. You don’t really have to think a whole lot. You just find the ball and kill whoever’s in front of you. That’s what I love.”

Her physical style has taken a toll – Bedwell has endured three knee surgeries, two wrist surgeries, and a repair of a torn rotator cuff. But it’s the release of aggression that she lives for. “You have so many things go on in your life, and you get so stressed out,” she said. “Everything builds up, but then you go to football practice and just let it all out. You can be as mad as you want to be and hit somebody – the right way, because you’ve been taught correctly – and you don’t get in trouble; there’s nothing wrong with it. You can just lay somebody out, have one of your best hits, get up, and help them up. You tap each other on the helmet, go on about your business, and feel great. You come home all relaxed, go to bed, and sleep great. You get up the next day, and life is good again. It’s just great…I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Finding a Home

With a decade and a half of football experience, Missy Bedwell truly stands out as one of the legends of the sport. Her enthusiasm for the game has greatly enriched the D.C. Divas organization for the past four seasons. At the same time, she is thankful for having had the opportunity to be a part of the Divas’ winning tradition.

“I love this team; I really do,” Bedwell said. “I’ve been on so many teams, and I think some of these girls don’t even understand what they have, because they’ve never seen it any other way. If I could take them to a practice of a team that isn’t as organized, they’d see the difference. I think some of us just don’t understand how special and unique this is and how lucky we are to be part of an organization that cares so much about winning.”

“This organization cares about every girl on that roster,” she continued. “If something’s going on and you need something, you go to any one of the coaches or anyone in the organization, and they listen and they care. It’s an amazing feeling to know that you’re not only a team but a family. I love it; I really do. I feel honored and privileged and blessed to have been a part of this for as long as I have.”