By Jason Mackey
Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Lisa Horton left her job at a Washington,D.C.-area YMCA early, tossed a few bags into the back of her black 2012 Nissan Rogue and began the four-and-a-half-hour drive northwest to Pittsburgh.
The starting quarterback of the Pittsburgh Passion women’s football team, Horton already has slapped more than 74,000 miles on her Rogue while making this trip for practices and games.
That she does this while continuing to play for the Passion, where this season she became the first quarterback in women’s football history to eclipse 10,000 passing yards, is only the latest example of the 36-year-old’s extraordinary dedication to the sport.
“You can’t get the feeling of playing football anywhere else,” said Horton, who moved from Franklin Park to Crofton, Md., for work last fall. “It’s this indescribable draw that makes you come back every year.”
Or every game, every series or even every play.
Not one of which Horton, who used to work in the U.S. Steel Tower but left to become health and wellness director at the YMCA’s Northwest Washington branch, is willing to miss.
Horton has played with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. She had another season end with a torn meniscus.
She’s made awkward, right-handed handoffs while protecting a broken left wrist. She even lined up at wide receiver when a herniated disc in her neck left her unable to throw the ball more than 10 yards.
A deep thigh bruise probably should have kept Horton out of a 21-6 win over the New York Sharks on May 24, considering she couldn’t run or plant.
But Horton, holding true to form, played.
“There are certainly times when it comes to practices and whatnot where I would say take it easy, we have some time, you can rest up a little bit,” said Passion wide receiver Amanda Haeg, who was an athletic trainer at Duquesne for four years. “But she’s certainly the most intense player that I’ve played with.”
For Horton, missing out on the game she’s loved her entire life is not an option.
Even if the salary, which Horton declined to divulge, isn’t one that’s going to let her quit her day job.
“I wanted to win,” Horton said of playing on a torn ACL during the 2008 conference championship game, an eventual 8-7 loss to the Chicago Force. “I’m a competitive person by nature. You work so hard all season to have that season that we had. At that point, I guess you kind of lose any sense of rationality. You do whatever it takes to win. It’s probably not one of the smarter choices that I’ve made.”
Horton grew up a diehard Cleveland Browns fan in Middleburgh, Ohio.
Soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball appeased Horton in high school, but she never found an adequate placement for the tackle football games she played in the backyard with friends and family.
After two years of softball and volleyball at Baldwin-Wallace — she often went to football practices alone, simply to watch — Horton earned a softball scholarship to Cleveland State.
It was only when Horton enrolled at Slippery Rock to get her master’s degree in exercise science did she have a realistic shot at again playing tackle football; after learning Pittsburgh would be getting a women’s football team, Horton couldn’t wait to drive to Neville Island and try out.
“Growing up, I played baseball, Little League, all that stuff,” Horton said. “I’ve always had an arm, so to speak, playing shortstop and catcher in college. From an athletic standpoint, I always had a great overhand throw.”
To become a better quarterback, Horton borrowed a training program from former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko and spent a season with the Pittsburgh Colts, a minor-league men’s football team, becoming the first female to throw a touchdown pass in a men’s game.
Horton has parlayed her gifts and obsession with tackle football into a remarkable career with the Passion that includes a national championship in 2007.
In 10 seasons, she’s been league MVP three times and has made the all-star game every year.
Horton has completed 722 of 1,465 passes (49.3 percent) over 86 regular season and playoff games for 12,073 yards and 158 touchdowns. The mobile Horton has added 2,199 yards and 54 touchdowns on the ground.
This season, Horton has hit on 56.4 percent of her throws (101 of 179) for 1,680 yards and 19 touchdowns against just seven interceptions.
She helped lead the Passion to a 42-12 win over the Keystone Assault in the first round of the Independent Women’s Football League playoffs last Saturday.
“With everybody having jobs, a lot of our girls could make an excuse and they would still see the field,” Passion head coach Teresa Conn said. “She’s one who has really put in, even with all her talent, more work than anybody I know.”
The one time where Horton’s right arm didn’t resemble the same one that can chuck a football more than 50 yards?
When the herniated disc forced her to play slot receiver during a late-season game against the D.C. Divas in 2012.
“I would go in at quarterback for some screens because we didn’t want to let the other team know I was hurt,” Horton said. “I tried to fake it as much as I could, but by the second half, I think they knew. I know I threw one pass that just went straight into the ground.”
As much success as she’s had, Horton admits that some mornings after a game are brutal; she’s often unable to get out of bed, her neck, back and knees too sore, too uncooperative to move.
Despite the move to Maryland, Horton traveled back here for weekend, offseason practices over the winter. She now makes two of the Passion’s three weekly functions, missing only the team’s Thursday practice.
Will she continue this for the long haul? Probably not. But for now, Horton knows no other way.
“I’m at my end,” Horton said. “I don’t want to officially announce anything, but I’m very close to hanging it up and coaching.
I try to take it year by year at this point. To do the commute, it’s a lot. I do think there’s a time and place where you have to let some things go.”