In the spring of 2017, Mansfield High physical education teacher and track coach Hillary Crook was looking for a new challenge. She was trying CrossFit and continuing to work out several years after her track and field career at Jacksonville University came to an end, but she missed the team atmosphere that came from being a collegiate athlete.
On a whim, she went online and Googled football. Crook found the Boston Renegades website and saw that the semi-pro, women’s football team was holding an open tryout.
“It was kind of a fluke,” said Crook in a phone call from her office at the high school this week. “I thought, this is pretty cool, maybe I’ll give it a try. If I make it, I make it and if I don’t, then I don’t. I went to one tryout and the rest is history.”
Not only did Crook make the Renegades (who play in Div. 1 of the Women’s Football Alliance), but she became the starting left tackle her first season with the team and has started every game over the past two seasons. This past July, the Renegades avenged a loss in the 2017 Super Bowl by beating the Los Angeles Warriors 42-18 at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta to win the national championship.
“I still have trouble describing it,” said Crook. “I’ve been very fortunate in my athletic career that I’ve had a lot of successes and victories…and this one was just different.”
She continued, “It’s really a battle out there. You look to your left or right and you see your teammates and they’re going to fight for you too. When that all clicks and you win…it’s just the best feeling. I’m still just riding this high from it.”
Crook is no stranger to athletic success. She threw the shot put at Mansfield and was unbeaten during her Hockomock career, winning three state titles, finishing second in New England, and seventh in the nation as a senior in 2006. In college, Crook won three Atlantic Sun Conference indoor titles and was a two-time ASun outdoor champion. She set the conference’s indoor meet record with a throw of 14.28 meters (46 feet, 10.25 inches) in 2010.
Two years ago, Crook found the Renegades and was intrigued. She had no background in football, other than backyard games with her brothers, but wanted to give it a shot. The tryout consisted of conditioning and some positional work. The coaches ran prospective players through fundamental drills, including for players that were most likely going to play on the line.
Most of the women who tried out that day had little experience playing competitively on the gridiron, but the roster is filled with former high school and college standouts in other sports, such as track, basketball, and soccer. Crooks earned her spot on the team, but she wasn’t sure how much playing time she would get.
“I don’t want to sit on the sidelines; that’s not my style,” she said with a chuckle. “I didn’t really know that I was going to play until right before my first game. It was at Philly and we were driving down and one of my teammates was writing up the lineups and she showed me and I was starting.” She has started every game for the Renegades at left tackle for the past two years.
The buildup to the first game was filled with nervousness (mostly about remembering the plays, according to Crook) and excitement about the unexpected.
“When that first series happened, I was thinking this is the best thing that I’ve ever done,” she said, before adding something that every football player going into the first game can relate to. “It was great hitting other people that weren’t your teammates,” Crook said. “It clicked and I was like, ‘I’m going to be doing this for a while.’ I thought watching football was great, playing it is even better.”
The WFA is a full-contact league. This is football as you are used to seeing it every weekend in the fall. As an offensive lineman, Crook relishes the contact, especially when it means that her quarterback, Allison Cahill, goes through a game untouched.
“It was really liberating,” said Crook about that first hit on an opposing defender. “We all think our quarterback is the best in the league and when you have that responsibility to protect the best in the league, it’s fun just to stop anyone from touching her. If we play and no one was near her then I did my job and it’s the best feeling.”
More than just the success on the field, which the Renegades have had throughout their history even dating back to their previous incarnation as the Boston Militia, Crook enjoyed the camaraderie. She was thrilled by the trips to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, the hours of studying video together, and the times that they can put aside the outside world and just be a team.
“Sometimes I like the away games better because it’s just about us,” Crook admitted. “It’s a business trip, no outside factors, we’re here to play.”
This summer, the Renegades put it all together in the playoffs. They beat up on Pittsburgh, avenged a regular season loss to the D.C. Divas, and then blew out L.A. in the Super Bowl. When she competed in track, Crook only focused on her event. If she won, the team got 10 points but it was an individual effort to win. Football is different.
“It takes a lot for 11 people on the field to click at once and be successful and I think that’s why it feels so great,” she said about winning the title. “The hours that the team puts in on our own watching film, going over plays, or meeting up to go over skills. It’s a lot and it shows on the field.”
She wants everyone to take part in the fun. The Renegades played home games last year at Harry Della Russo Stadium in Revere and Crook hopes that more fans will come and enjoy the exciting action.
“They see us running routes and running schemes and seeing hard hits and helmets fly and they’re like, ‘wow, this is legit,’” she said. “Come out and watch a game, you won’t be disappointed. If you like football, the Patriots are over, and there’s football to watch.”
Before Friday night’s game against Franklin at Alumni Field, Crook was an honorary captain for the Hornets. When she was asked if she was going to join Mansfield coach Mike Redding’s staff, Crook just laughed and said she was still “a student of the game,” but her passion for football is higher than ever and she is already looking forward to next season.
“I want to play as long as my body will let me,” Crook explained. “Life happens, things change, but if I can play for another 10 years I would. I’m going to play as long as life will let me…it’s too much fun.”