Written by Jennifer Toland
Allison Cahill’s mom, Pam, has shared the famous family story about her daughter’s childhood dream before, and she told it again during a voice-over in the documentary “Born to Play,” which chronicles the Boston Renegades’ 2018 Women’s Football Alliance championship season and aired on ESPN last summer.
“When she was about 4,” Pam said, “she told us, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a football player.’ ”
Cahill, the former Uxbridge High basketball and softball all-star who was a standout guard at Princeton University, will enter her 18th year playing football when the Renegades resume practice for the 2021 season this month.
After graduating from Princeton in 2003, Cahill joined the New England Storm of the Women’s Professional Football League. The team’s ownership and name changed through the years, but the 5-foot-5 Cahill has been a constant at quarterback.
She is a five-time national champion, three-time MVP and 12-time all-star. Cahill is the only quarterback to reach 100 career victories (123-27) playing exclusively in women’s tackle football leagues.
At the end of the 2019 season (2020 was canceled due to the pandemic), Cahill had amassed more than 20,000 passing yards and 300 passing touchdowns in her career.
“I just feel gratitude,” Cahill said during a phone interview last week. “I’m still able to do it. I have a vehicle to do it through and I have people who want to do it with me. I’m grateful my body can still to it. For so many athletes, their careers end when they’re 18. A few get to play in college until they’re 22. Not many get to play what they love at a higher level. I want to take advantage of that as long as I can.”
Cahill, a Boston resident, works full time as a personal trainer, and the occupation, she discovered, is a perfect blend of her love of health and fitness and desire to help others.
“I’m passionate about it,” she said.
Cahill was a two-time T&G Super Team selection in basketball at Uxbridge and graduated as the Spartans’ all-time leading scorer. She went on to have an outstanding four-year career at Princeton, where she was a team captain and 1,000-point scorer. She earned her degree in history.
Cahill grew up watching New England Patriots games on TV with her dad, Donald, and playing football in the yard with her older brothers, Shawn and Josh, and at recess.
“When I was a little, little girl,” Cahill said, “I didn’t know women didn’t play football. When I was 4 years old, playing with my brothers, I didn’t have an idea of what genders do. I didn’t know it wasn’t a thing both boys and girls do. I just thought football was football.”
Cahill was the first girl to play in Uxbridge’s town-run flag football league in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. She was the quarterback.
While going on to excel in other sports in high school and college, “I put football out of my mind,” Cahill said, “because I didn’t know there was a women’s league until senior year of college.”
During her almost two decades playing football, Cahill has been a model of leadership and longevity, and, other than a broken collarbone that required surgery about five years ago, has stayed healthy.
“I owe that to having an excellent offensive line over the years,” Cahill said.
In season, the Renegades practice three nights a week from 8-10 p.m. and play their games on Saturdays. They play their home games at Della Russo Stadium in Revere and travel to opponents such as the New York Wolves, the Detroit Dark Angels and the Cleveland Fusion. There are 60 teams in the WFA, the largest, longest running and most competitive women’s tackle football league in the world. The Renegades are one of nine teams in Division 1. Players are not paid.
Director Viridiana Lieberman shows Cahill’s and her teammates’ skill, spirit, commitment, camaraderie, drive, dedication and passion in “Born to Play,” which premiered on ESPN last July.
“It started as a humble thing,” Cahill said, “the filmmaker and her camera. She would come to practices and games. When I got the call it was going to be on ESPN, my mind was blown. I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should have brushed my hair.’”
Renegades players got tremendous feedback on the documentary.
“It exposed us to a much wider audience,” Cahill said, “and so much of the feedback was from women and moms and little girls, not even who are necessarily involved in athletics, but who were single moms or women who work in a career that is male dominated or who have a little girl who is maybe just a little bit different from the other little girls. They said the documentary spoke to them and inspired them, and that’s just been super gratifying to hear.
“As an athlete,” Cahill said, “you’re so focused on your sport and doing the grind day in and day out. With all the physical and mental preparation, you kind of forget there’s this group of people out there that you might be impacting that you’re not necessarily aware of during those day-to-day activities aimed at getting better at your sport. The documentary provided us access to those people which was really special.”
The minimum playing age is 18, the Renegades have one player who is 50, Cahill said, and the majority of the team ranges from mid-20s to mid-30s. Cahill is one of the veterans.
“There is no feeder league for our league,” Cahill said, “and there aren’t avenues for girls to play in middle school and high school and college, so people are starting at ground zero when they start in our league. So we have people like me who have been playing for 18 years and people who have never put a helmet on their head. Our coaches (John Johnson and staff) do a very good job of coaching both of those distinct populations.
“I am happy with the progress our league has made,” Cahill said, “and I hope we continue in that direction.”
Former player Molly Goodwin owns the Boston Renegades.
In basketball, Cahill was an excellent shooter, especially from long range. In the 1998 Central Mass. Division 2 final against David Prouty, she scored 28 points while connecting on seven 3-pointers. She owns the Princeton single-season record for free throw shooting percentage (90 percent in 1999-2000) and ranks sixth on the Tigers’ career list in that category.
“Sometimes I have to remember basketball was such a big part of my life,” Cahill said. “Eighteen years into my football career, it’s more than twice as long as I played competitive basketball. But every few years, when I find myself in a gym and there’s a ball and I just pick it up and start dribbling and shooting around, it’s like visiting an old friend. ‘Wow! We had some great times together.’ I have so many awesome memories.”
Cahill hasn’t decided how many more seasons she will play football.
“I’m taking in year by year,” she said. “I don’t want to be the last one to leave the party or be a liability to my team. My body feels good, and it’s still fun. I don’t want to look back and think, ‘Oh, I could have played a couple more years.’ I’m trying to find that balance.”
—Contact Jennifer Toland at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JenTandG.