Chicago's Darcy Leslie tackles her second Women's Football Alliance National Championship – playing for Boston

Sun. August 6, 2023 7:02 PM by Ross Forman

darcy leslie

photo credit // darcy leslie/boston renegade

Former Chicago Force star shines in WFA Championship Game, proud to represent the LGBTQ community

Darcy Leslie is now a 2-time Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) National Champion, albeit 10 years apart and this summer’s title comes 5 years after she retired from the sport.

Leslie, 37, who lives in Chicago’s Arcadia Terrace neighborhood, was an 8-year player for the now-defunct Chicago Force – and unquestionably one of the team’s best players ever. She was a perennial team Defensive MVP and league All American, and her highest individual accolade came in 2013 when she was named WFA Conference Player of the Year.

“I dreamt of playing for the U.S. National Team my entire football career, but my immigration status prevented me from being able to pursue that dream,” she said. “In 2021, when I was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, I tried out for the team. After making the team and winning a gold medal last summer, I could not imagine not continuing to play football. I wanted the camaraderie, the competition, the team. 

“I knew the Boston Renegade program was top-level and operated similarly to the Force.”

The Renegade is the team in women’s tackle football, having won the WFA PRO Championship Game the past five years that it has been played since 2018. (No game was held in 2020 due to the pandemic.)

“Returning to football was a surreal experience,” Leslie said. “When I played this past summer for the national team, it was my first time back to the sport after being away for five years. I found it very difficult to find my stride. There were several other linebackers, so we had to share playing time. I never felt like I was performing at the ability I was used to. When joining Boston, everything started coming back. I had a whole season to work on things and retrain my brain and body on how to be successful at this sport.

“Coach Johnny (Johnson) and my teammates were patient with me as I learned the defense and this new outside linebacker position. Owning my own CrossFit gym has awarded me the ability to stay in shape all these years. My strength and cardiovascular abilities have increased. Even though I have not consistently played the sport for over five years, I am in much better shape now than I was then. It’s been fun being back on the field and putting myself to the test. CrossFit helped me stay ready, though I didn’t think I was trying to keep myself ready to go back to football.

“Playing for Boston had me feeling like I was on a rollercoaster at first. It took so much time and energy to make this season happen and there were so many highs and lows. Traveling to Boston that much was difficult for my family and my body, but, at the end of the day, I walked away with a national championship and a whole new football family. My realization this season was that my body is still capable of playing this sport and at this high level. I have this gift and I still want to use it and contribute to a team. Winning championships and being a star sound luxurious, but, for me, my focus this season was being the best leader I could be. Being able to open a path for the new generation to come in and continue to innovate and evolve this sport. I’m blessed to be a pioneer of this game.”

And truly a star on the field.

“When Darcy told me she was considering playing for the Boston Renegades, I was excited about the prospect of her playing again at the top level. She was one of the best Force players of all time,” said former Force team owner Linda Bache. 

Leslie and Boston coaches agreed that she would come in for two practices a month as they led up to playing. So, two Tuesdays out of the month, Leslie would join the team for practice and head back to Chicago early Wednesday morning to get home just in time to get her son to school. During game weekends, Leslie, her wife Brandi and their two sons would fly to Boston on a Wednesday – and she would practice with the team on Thursday, so she could understand her assignment and be able to walk through the game plan before the Saturday game.

“When I envisioned how this would work, I needed my whole family to be there with me. I couldn’t just leave Brandi, my wife of 8 years, home alone with two young kids while I go do something that fulfills me,” Leslie said. “I loved the time our family had exploring Boston. My son Lennox came home after our first Boston trip and went to school and told all his friends about all the fun he had in Boston and how he got to watch me play football. Those moments made it all worth it. None of this would have been possible without the support of my wife, Brandi; this was a very tall ask, but she has always been an unbelievable partner and was by my side cheering me on and supporting my dreams.”

Leslie said bonding with the Boston players was a bit challenging at first. “I knew the owner, Molly Goodwin, and Coach Johnny very well. I also had a small number of teammates who I bonded with from the U.S. National Team, so I found myself close to them,” she said. “It’s never easy being the new kid. Some people remembered me from when I played on the Force, but they only knew me as a player. None of them knew who I truly was outside of football, so at first, I wasn’t sure how they would receive me as a teammate. I did not live in Boston and in the beginning, I only had those two-hour practices to make my impression on everyone and it was difficult. The focus was football and learning as much as I could in those two hours, so there wasn’t much time for us to bond. The first couple months were hard and I found myself debating whether I wanted to continue playing.”

Things turned around after the team’s weekend training camp at the University of Connecticut. 

“I had time with my teammates outside of practice that weekend and I left there feeling so much more connected to my teammates and the thought of quitting never entered my mind again,” she said.

In the 2023 WFA championship game, played in Canton, Ohio, Boston silenced the St. Louis Slam, 35-7, becoming the first team in WFA history to complete a ‘five peat,’ winning a championship an unprecedented five consecutive seasons.

Leslie was, naturally, key to the Boston win. She grabbed an early interception that led to what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.

“Darcy made the pivotal, game-changing play late in the second quarter: a red-zone interception,” said Bache, who attended the championship game. “(After that interception), the entire tone of the game changed and Boston took complete command. 

“I’ve always loved watching Darcy play … and seeing her pure joy to be out there competing again for a championship was fantastic.”

Leslie said winning the second national championship was “a magical experience.”

“It has been 10 years since I won my first national championship and it was pretty emotional being there and having the opportunity to play for another,” Leslie said. “I walked away from football five years ago and never could have imagined being back in this sport, let alone playing for another national championship. But being out there, I felt like a completely different athlete than where I was five years ago.”

She praised her teammates and coaches for her play in the championship game. “(They) set me up for success all season,” she said. “Their preparation each week before we met our opponents was unmatched. The weeks leading up to the championship game, we had several zoom film sessions where Coach Johnny broke down the St. Louis Slam’s offense and their tendencies. Then, during our Friday practice, the morning before the championship game, Johnny spent a lot of time with me going over the specific plays. Johnny wanted to make sure I knew exactly how to cover because they ran certain plays a good amount. Then, during the championship game, it all played out just as Johnny said it would. I was covering the number two receiver, then I heard my (teammate) yell ‘IN’ which was my que to leave the number two receiver and go in with the number one receiver, which I did. When I looked up, the darn ball was coming right to me. I thought to myself, ‘You better catch this.’ Lucky for me and my team, I did and this play seemed to be exactly what our team needed to turn things around to take and keep the lead. 

“When I look back at the final game, one of my most memorable moments was how our team reacted when faced with adversity. A lot of things were not going our way in the beginning of that game and the Slam were hungry and wanted to win. We stayed united when things were not going our way and never imploded. That is a true testament to a championship-caliber team.”

Leslie also had nothing but praise for Chicago’s Bache and Boston’s Goodwin: “two owners who put their heart and soul into their teams and into women’s football. “I am blessed and so grateful for all they have done and continue to do for me. Linda Bache and Molly Goodwin have been pioneers of this sport both as players and now owners and they have given so many of us the opportunity to play this sport at such a high level. Thanks to them, the only standard I have had my entire football career was to be an effective leader, work hard and to be dedicated to my teammates and the success of our team.”

Yes, Leslie absolutely misses her Force family, as the team ended after the 2017 campaign.

“My 8-year career on the Force entails some of my greatest athletic accomplishments,” Leslie said. “The Chicago Force will always hold a special place in my heart. Coach (John) Konecki and the coaching staff helped me learn the game and helped me become the player I am today. I started on the team when I was 20 years old. I was so young and had so much to learn. In a lot of ways, the Force played a pivotal role in helping shape me into the woman I am today. I grew as a person and player on that team and figured so much out about myself. That was all thanks to Linda and my amazing teammates. Thanks to the Force, I made some lifelong friends and for that I will be forever grateful.”

When asked if she will play again in 2024, Leslie laughed and said that the answer is still TBD, though a decision will be made in the next month or so. “For now, I’m just focusing on being a good wife and mother, while trying to run a successful small business,” said Leslie, the owner/head coach of Hardware Strength and Conditioning.

“I committed to CrossFit as my next journey after I retired from football five years ago. So, it has allowed me to still be in the physical prime shape that I needed this season. Owning Hardware Strength and Conditioning and competing in CrossFit competitively has helped fill the void I had when I left football. Now with football returning into my life, I get to have a little more fun with my training during the season. Training in a community as amazing as Hardware makes fitness so much more fun. I’m so grateful for my coaches and my community for how much they showed up for me this season. It really takes a village and I have a strong one.”

Brandi and the kids did not make the trek to Ohio for the championship game. Instead, they hosted a watch-party. Brandi and the boys wore their No. 45 Boston shirts and she was able to capture a precious video of Lennox when Leslie caught the interception.

Brandi and Leslie have been together for 12 years and married for 8 years. They met playing rugby and made a connection very quickly, Leslie said. “We have two beautiful sons together: Lennox (4) and Leon (1),” Leslie said. “Brandi always joked that she never wanted to be a football wife again but look at her now. She’s my rock and the glue that holds our family together. Football couldn’t happen without her. 

“I am humbled and honored to be able to represent the LGBT community in the championship. I am an openly gay Black woman and blessed that I get to live my truth and represent my community at such a high level. I hope, by doing so, my story can help inspire others out there.”