Women’s football team settles in Inver Grove Heights

Vixen co-owner Laura Brown, offensive line player, goes in to intercept a throw during the team’s game in Nebraska against the Stampede. (Courtesy of Mark Kuznia)
Vixen co-owner Laura Brown, offensive line player, goes in to intercept a throw during the team’s game in Nebraska against the Stampede. (Courtesy of Mark Kuznia)
Grace Arnold of West St. Paul suits up before a game.  (Photo courtesy of Mark Kuznia)
Grace Arnold of West St. Paul suits up before a game. (Photo courtesy of Mark Kuznia)
West St. Paul’s Grace Arnold takes down an opposing player during the April 18 home game against the Wisconsin Warriors. (Photo courtesy of Mark Kuznia)
West St. Paul’s Grace Arnold takes down an opposing player during the April 18 home game against the Wisconsin Warriors. (Photo courtesy of Mark Kuznia)

It’s likely that many female athletes in the area have acquired sports-related leg injuries. Perhaps equally probable though: few in the country have obtained them the way 42-year-old Laura Brown of Inver Grove Heights did.

That’s because she ruptured her Achilles tendon this spring while playing tackle football as a player of the Minnesota Vixen.

The Vixen, which is the longest continuously operating women’s American football team in the nation, play in the Midwest Division of the Independent Women’s Football League.

The team of 46 players hosts its games at Simley High School, calling Inver Grove Heights its home base for the first time this year.

Brown, who co-owns this full-contact, semi-professional women’s football team with her husband, admitted that her doctor says that her Achilles tendon could have ruptured while just stepping down from a curb, considering its poor condition, but her story is more interesting.  

During the team’s first game, which took place April 11 in Nebraska against the Stampede, Brown went in to sack the quarterback, but on her way to make what would have been a great play, she collapsed in pain.

Brown had surgery April 27. Doctors expect a full recovery after surgery, physical therapy and a decent amount of time.

Though disappointed the injury took her out of the games this season, she’s not regretting her role on the team as an offensive line player or as co-owner.

She and her husband, James, bought the team two years ago and relocated it from Farmington High School to their son’s alma mater, Simley.

Keeping the location

“We want to keep the team local,” James Brown says. And though the Vixen represent the state in the league, he says “local” means staying in Inver Grove Heights, where the team has recently become a business member of the River Heights Chamber of Commerce.

The Browns, who have lived in Inver Grove Heights for the past 16 years, say this is a way they hope to support the local community.

Since the Vixen came into existence in 1999, the team has moved from one field to the next, from a stadium in Savage to the Sea Foam on the Concordia University campus in St. Paul, calling handfuls of metro area cities home over the years.

But the Browns say they plan to keep their local high school stadium as the team’s home field as long as possible.

“It’s a brand new field,” James Brown says. “It’s really nice, and through our taxes we helped pay for it; now we want to help utilize it.”

The couple, whose son graduated from Simley High School in 2011, are not the only team affiliates who call Inver Grove Heights home.

Local players

Courtney Apfelbacher, 25, originally from South St. Paul, currently lives in Inver Grove Heights.

Playing either on the offensive or defensive line, this is her rookie season with the team. It’s also her first time playing football in general, as it is with many women when they join the Vixen. This is due to a lack of opportunities offered to females who wish to be football players.

“I love it,” Apfelbacher says. “And it’s less than a mile away from my house. My grandma can come watch the games.”

She jokes that it’s amusing to play on the grounds of her former rival high school. Growing up, Apfelbacher attended South St. Paul High School.

Grace Arnold, another rookie, plays wide receiver and outside linebacker and lives in West St. Paul.

After playing basketball and running track, the 24-year-old Arnold felt that joining the Vixen was the right move in her athletic pursuits. Plus, the new location was a draw.

“Home games are only 15 minutes away from where I live,” she says. Only Apfelbacher has a shorter commute.

While most players live in the Twin Cities, wide receiver and cornerback Amy Mugaas drives all the way from Fargo to participate. And other teammates come from as far away as Cloquet, Pine City, Northfield, Wannamingo and St. Cloud.

Family and business

“I love the family aspect of it,” Arnold says. “It’s a super supportive group to be a part of.”

That resonated with her teammates, who called the team a “second family.”

However, it’s not just a family; it’s also a business. Games can draw up to 400 spectators—primarily people who are fans of women’s tackle football, and the players’ family members and friends.

According to the Browns, hundreds of people watch the games either on local television (televised on Comcast channels TST 14, Metro 6 and CTV 15) or, as is most popular, people view games live or archived online at www.townsquare.tv.

“Laura and I both have a background in retail, restaurant and other business management,” James Brown says. “Laura loved playing for the team over the years so much that she thought [owning it] would be a good way to give back to it, to help support it and keep it going.”

Brown, who works in IT computer networking and security, jokes that the end result of the Vixen as a franchise “is not to become the Vikings.”

The environment at the games is meant to be comfortable and family-friendly, he says.

Fans can wander onto the field at halftime with their children and throw footballs back and forth.

But there’s also professionalism to be sure. At home games there’s a merchandise table offering various Vixen gear. During the games there’s a public address announcer narrating the plays on the field. The team has seven coaches, an equipment manager, a statistician and a fox mascot.  

James Brown explained that many of the players have full-time jobs or they are college students.

“They’re all plenty busy with other stuff [outside of football],” he says. “It’s a self-sustaining business; a side job.” He adds that many players are married, have children and even grandchildren.

Laura Brown, who is a pharmacist, says the team is excited that the local Applebees is considering hanging a Vixen team photo on one of its walls.

The Browns say they hope the Vixen can become rooted in Inver Grove Heights. A photo at a restaurant in town is just one small part of that goal.

Rooting for football

According to River Heights Chamber of Commerce president Jennifer Gale, the presence of the Vixen is a healthy business addition to the city.

“They’ve been a great partner to the local business community,” Gale says.

In addition to offering business owners specials on tickets to the games, Gale says the Browns have been working with the Inver Grove Heights Convention and Visitors Bureau to attract visiting teams and their fans to spend money in the area.

“We draw fans from all over the metro area, greater Minnesota, as well as fans from out of state to watch the opposing teams,” James Brown says. “They buy food, gas, and hotel rooms in Inver Grove Heights.”

“We’re very excited to have them here,” Gale adds. “And to have them call Simley home.”

The team has won all three of its games thus far this season. The next home game is scheduled Saturday, May 9.

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815. Follow him at twitter.com/JPooleNews.

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