By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Jennifer Pirog knows that this is her once in a lifetime moment and so she's running with it like she's just intercepted a game-winning touchdown, and is closing in on the end zone.
Not only is the 41-year-old Manchester Freedom wide receiver from Derry in the best shape of her seven-year football career, but she's about to make history as one of 45 American women participating in the first-ever International Federation of American Football Women's World Championship next week in Stockholm, Sweden.
Priog has been in Austin, Texas, all week practicing with top players, culled from IFAF teams around the country, for a crash course in teamwork.
“I can't quite describe what it means to be here at this point in my career. It's exhilarating to be with all these women who are really, really good players. It's like we're one team, even though we may play each other in our regular season, it's like we've been together forever,” said Pirog during a phone interview from Austin Monday between workouts.
She grew up in Merrimack in a football-centric family, but never got to play on teams like her brothers. Seven years ago she heard about a women's league in Massachusetts and tried out, but that league fell apart.
Then she found Freedom in Manchester.
Pirog was a quick study and fast became one of the team's most well-rounded players, said Dave Sarvis, former head coach and current director of operations.
“What sets Jen apart? She's a former power lifter and has been actively involved in sports since she was young, so she brings that natural competitive nature and desire to be the best at her craft to the field with her,” said Sarvis. “She's highly motivated and critical of her self, and that makes her a bona fide athlete and standout player.”
Current owner of the Freedom, Ray Simoneau, explained the international tournament is a test run for what organizers hope will be a recurring event.
Looking forward to the Freedom's 10-year franchise anniversary feels good, said Simoneau. “We're still here, and we find that once fans find us, they stay with us. We've outlived other local football franchises, like the Wolves. I believe women's football is not only here to stay, but after this, it's only going to grow.”
He noted that in addition to Pirog, fellow Freedom teammate Julie Carignan was also called up for the international tournament, doubling the hometown pride for Freedom fans.
“Julie's been with us since day one. She's an outstanding defensive player and puts her heart and soul in the game,” Simoneau said. “In the last couple of years she's been taking on more of a coaching role, she's had some tough injuries. But she was chosen for the international team for her past performances. To be honest, I'm not sure where the team would be without either of these two ladies – they do so much more behind the scenes, and bring so much more to the team than I can say.”
As for Pirog – whose team nickname is Frog “because it rhymes with Pirog and she happens to like frogs” according to Sarvis – her talent and ability are boundless.
“Here's a gal who never played before she came to us, and has learned multiple skills and skill sets for offense and defense. She started as a corner back and developed into what we call a shut down corner. That means you can put her one-on-one with the best athlete on the field and know we can take that athlete out of game and make them a non-factor. Her coverage techniques are that good,” Sarvis said.
“She went on to learn special teams and had a lot of interceptions, so her open field running ability stood out, and she became our punt returner. Because of that, she made her way onto offense where she learned both running back and wide receiver positions. She went from zero to star athlete and a threat in four positions on the field,” Sarvis said.
“And off the field, it would be hard to find a more humble or well-tempered person. She's just spectacular, both she and Julie are the kind of players you want to send to an international tournament to represent the United States,” Sarvis said.
Pirog downplays her success as a player with regular doses of reality. Participating in women's football is all about the passion, because she doesn't get paid a dime for it. During the regular season, she works the two weekly practices and Saturday games around her schedule as a hairdresser in Nashua. She's tough, but she's also 41 and will be that much closer to 50 in four years when the next international team is being fielded.
“So yeah, I truly know it's a once in a life time thing for me. I say every year it will be my last playing football – been saying that for a while. But maybe, after this, it will really be it,” said Pirog. “It sure would be a good way to end my football career.”
The IFAF Women's World Championship in Stockholm, Sweden is June 26 - July 3 and kicks off with Game 1, U.S. and Austria, on Sunday. Game video will be available for downloading 24 hours after a game is over. Video & stats for all games will be available for downloading at: www.2010WWC.info