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A passion for the game

Written by Jeffrey Benzing | PublicSource | May 29, 2014 12:47 PM
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Photo by Martha Rial / PublicSource

Coach Robert "Hutch" Hutchinson conducts drills with his defensive line during Pittsburgh Passion practice at George K. Cupples Stadium on the South Side.

Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson doesn't yell or bark like a football coach.

Bulky defenders suited out in black and gold crouch on three points while he sputters a snap count, trying to get them to jump offside.

“Hut. Hut. Go, Joei. Hut.”

With his hefty frame bent low, he’ll mimic a snap, and the defenders power out of their stances.

This is his defensive line.

“Do not tackle the coach,” says Hutch, 60, standing up from his crouch and smirking.“You do not tackle the coach.”

When he straightens his ball cap, it’s not a Steelers cap, but that of the Pittsburgh Passion.

At the George K. Cupples Stadium on Pittsburgh’s South Side, he coaches the defensive line for the full-contact team in the Independent Women’s Football League.

He’s taught boys donning pads for the first time, played semi-pro ball and coached for a fledgling German team while working the border between East and West Germany as a military policeman.

But for many on this squad, he’s the first coach in a sport they haven’t played before.

“They’re like a sponge,” Hutch says of the Passion players. “They want to learn everything, you know?”

In a home opener against the Montreal Blitz, the team won 35-0. Hutch had three roles: coach, team photographer and Dad. He’s the father of Jesse, a one-man spirit squad, racing down the sideline in a number 42 Passion jersey.

Jesse, 19 and a football fanatic, has cerebral palsy, a disorder that impairs his motor functions, and autism, which affects his social and communication abilities.

But they don’t slow him down.

Just minutes after kickoff, he chases Passion receiver Rachel Wojdowski along the sideline as she strides deep into Montreal territory. When she crosses the goal line, he does a somersault on the artificial turf.

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Photo by Martha Rial / PublicSource

Jesse Hutchinson celebrates the Passion's fourth touchdown against the Carolina Phoenix at Cupples Stadium in Pittsburgh.

An extended family

It’s through Jesse that Hutch joined the Passion.

Since seventh grade, Jesse served as team manager for the Kiski Area High School football team. The players took him in, and Jesse’s mom Marla Hutchinson says he attached himself to them like a magnet.

When Jesse was nearing his senior year in high school, Shelley Victor, a family friend and then a rookie with the Passion, recommended he get involved with the team.

Passion head coach and co-owner Teresa Conn welcomed Jesse to the team, and with years of coaching experience, Hutch was quickly brought into the fold as a volunteer defensive line coach.

The Hutchinsons are an “amazing family.” Conn said. “They’re super supportive, and they all get involved. You get the whole package.”

Now, Hutch, Marla and Jesse drive about an hour from their home in Vandergrift, Westmoreland County, several times a week for practices and games. They road trip to away games and treat them like mini-vacations, Marla says.

Over three seasons, the team has become an extended family.

“What they do for my son is like out of this world,” Hutch says as Jesse greets players before practice.

Jesse has a hug or fist bump or hand slap for everyone on the field. He has his jersey for games and a Passion shirt with his name on the back for practice.

Jesse rushes from huddle to huddle during drills before Montreal game.

“Not bad for a kid with cerebral palsy,” Marla says as Jesse runs down the track to give moral support. “Look at him run. He’s fast.”

She calls him the team’s social butterfly. The players welcome him like they would a little brother.

No matter how the day is going, Victor says, Jesse almost always has a smile, and his love for the team is nearly unconditional.

“He’s always happy,” says Victor, who’s out for the season with torn knee ligaments. “Well, if we’re winning.”

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Photo by Martha Rial / PublicSource

Hutch instructs Kendra Galbreath during Pittsburgh Passion practice at Cupples Stadium.

Barriers and balance

Jesse has been blessed with a good team. Deep into the season, the Passion has a 5-0 record.

Hutch compares the team’s speed and athleticism to men’s football.

“We’re doing everything that college and pro teams are doing,” Hutch says. “It’s just women.”

While many boys suit up before they hit their growth spurts, most of the women never had the opportunity.

But the desire was there.

“I was a cheerleader because that was the closest I could get to the football field,” defensive lineman Joei Nocito says.

Nocito is not bashful about the joy she gets on the defensive line.

“I like to hit people,” she says, laughing.

In a football town like Pittsburgh, fans are eager to attend games so long as the play is good and the hits are hard -- and the Passion is one of the most successful organizations in women’s football.

On game days, they can draw more than 3,000 fans, and for four seasons, they’ve also had backing from Steelers legend Franco Harris.

Watching the team he’s co-owned since 2011, he points to the speed and intensity of the athletes. He challenges people to watch a game and see how exciting it is.

But the women face challenges beyond getting the public’s attention.

For one, they aren’t paid. And they dedicate countless hours and risk injury for the love of the game. Practice is 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. twice a week, and the women sacrifice many Saturdays to game day and even more of the weekend for out-of-town trips.

Many juggle families and full-time work as well.

Kim Zubovic arrived on game day wearing her Pennsylvania State Trooper jacket. Victor is a nurse, and, among other occupations, the roster includes an embalmer, a bartender and a CPA.

“This is the old-fashioned professional football where you had to balance so many other aspects of your life with football,” says Harris, standing off on the sideline. “And also where you really can’t make a living at it.”

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Photo by Martha Rial / PublicSource

Hutch instructs Samantha Simeone during Pittsburgh Passion practice at Cupples Stadium.

Football and music

There’s much more to Hutch than football.

He spent years as a military policeman and as a corrections officer at Western Penitentiary. Now Hutch, who also has a grown son in the Dallas area, dedicates his time to coaching and recording music in a home studio. He plays percussion at Monroeville Assembly of God and -- when the money’s good -- performs in a reggae band called the Dub Squad.

Marla, his wife of 27 years, attributes his reserve to the years he spent as a police and corrections officer.

“Hutch is quiet,” she says. “He observes.”

Hutch, who retired in 2003, spent 17 years as a guard at Western Penitentiary -- then a maximum security facility -- before transferring to State Correctional Institution, Pine Grove, which houses juveniles convicted as adults.

While the lifers at Western were difficult to reach, Hutch says he had a chance to mentor the younger inmates, many of whom would eventually leave Pine Grove and have a chance to turn their lives around.

The juveniles frequently suffered abuse growing up, Hutch says, and lacked basic life skills when they were locked up.

“A lot of these kids didn’t even know how to brush their teeth right,” he says.

To connect with them, Hutch talked about how he’d come from the same streets some of them had, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and Homewood.

All along, there’s been football and music -- mostly original material with the Dub Squad, along with the standard Bob Marley covers. In high school, he also was interested in photography, though the smells of the darkroom chemicals turned him off.

Digital cameras renewed his enthusiasm for the craft.

On game days, he lugs around various cameras and snaps photos of the action between sideline huddles. Players hassle him for posed shots.

As a student at Pittsburgh Filmmakers (the fiscal sponsor of PublicSource), Hutch photographed Passion players in their pads and contrasted them with images of the women in their street clothes.

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Photo by Martha Rial / PublicSource

Hutch laughs with running back Sarah Niedermeyer during Pittsburgh Passion practice at Cupples Stadium.

Desire and hunger

Several games into the season, the team is still coming together, Hutch says.

Coaching new players is a matter of teaching the basics.

For the defensive line, the fundamentals are simple.

Stay low. Explode off the line. Get the ball.

Too much else is getting fancy.

But football is also about life lessons, including that for a woman to play football, she needs to have a thick skin.

Hutch is quick to point out how negative people can be about women playing a sport perceived by many to be exclusively for men.

One day, Hutch says he expects women will be able to play from the youth level up to the pros. That, he hopes, can eventually lead to a paycheck.

For now, only a handful of female players had a chance to play before joining leagues like the IWFL.

Hutch calls the women of the Passion his heroes, not only for what they’ve done for his son, but also for what they do for themselves.

“They’re out here playing for the love of the game,” Hutch says while players file toward the locker room and come out in bulky pads. “You can see the hunger in their hearts and the desire for the game.”

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Photo by Martha Rial / PublicSource

Pittsburgh Passion Ciara Chic, a running back, holds on to the ball while tackled near the goal line during a recent game against the Carolina Phoenix.

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Photo by Martha Rial / PublicSource

Pittsburgh Passion defensive lineman Joei Nocito on the sidelines.

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Photo by Martha Rial / PublicSource

Pittsburgh Passion wide receivers Amanda Haeg (left) and Rachel Wojdowski (center) join hands with their teammates for prayer in the locker room before their game against the Carolina Phoenix.

Reach Jeffrey Benzing at 412-315-0265 or at jbenzing@publicsource.org

 

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PublicSource is an investigative news group in Western Pennsylvania. Learn more at publicsource.org.

 

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