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Southmoreland grad passionate about her game

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Shelby Horak is the center for the Pittsburgh Passion, a women's professional football team.
Shelby Horak is the center for the Pittsburgh Passion, a women's professional football team. SUBMITTED
Shelby Horak
Shelby Horak

While high school graduation is naturally a major occasion to celebrate, the week following Shelby Horak's 2010 graduation from Southmoreland High school gave her even greater reason for a celebration.

And it was more than merely the fact that she turned 18 years old. It had been two years since she was able to drive. Now she could vote. But on her 18th birthday, there was a passion that swept over her.

At 18, she was eligible for the Passion. Pittsburgh Passion, that is — women's professional full-contact football.

Four games in four years, however, was the extent of Horak's athletic endeavors in high school — four games of Powder Puff football to benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Although she had played rec level softball, high school athletics were not a priority.

But watching football games on TV was different. College games drew her attention, but not as much as the Steelers.

Until she accidentally channel-surfed her way to a televised Passion game.

“We've always been a football family,” she said, referring to her parents, John and Tina, and brother John. “We've always followed the Steelers and college football. I played football with kids in my neighborhood, but that's all. I've always had a love for the game and found out about the Passion during my freshman year in high school. It was women's full-contact football, and it was exciting watching them.”

Discovering more about the national championship team on its website, “it sounded more like a family than a football team,” she added.

In her sophomore year in high school, her, ahem, passion, grew as she and her family acquired season tickets for home games. Her passion — OK, enough already — intensified with season tickets the following year and, as a senior, traveled to New York to see yet another game. Because of her age — she was not yet 18 — Horak's enthusiasm was limited to being a spectator.

But that changed shortly after graduation when she lit 18 candles on her birthday cake. But no sooner did the candle smoke clear than she tried out for the team in August 2010. Her successful tryout meant she was no longer a spectator. She made the team and was officially a member of the Passion.

“Shelby's dedication is amazing,” team owner and coach Teresa Conn said. “She never misses any workouts, in season or in the offseason. Shelby is a true student of the game. For being so young, she is a tremendous leader. All the other players respect her, regardless of her age. She came in eager and determined to learn and play. If she was nervous, it never showed. She learned to play each position on the entire offensive line, which was obviously to her benefit. But she performed best at center.”

As she prepares for her third season, Horak recalls her rookie season (2011), when she “was learning how to play,” she recalls. “I didn't play much my rookie year, but I became the starting center last year. I especially remember last season's opener against the D.C. Divas. It was my first game to start and I was definitely nervous, but the entire team was supportive and behind me. Winning that game helped give me more confidence. I'm out there to help the team as much as possible, and I've discovered playing for them is like being part of one big family.”

In her initial season as starting center last year, when the Passion went 7-1, noted Conn, who has gone from player to coach to owner/coach, Horak “took on a difficult role and did an outstanding job. She has been a great fit for our team. It usually takes several years of experience to take charge on the offensive line, but she's already done that. She knows how to recognize defenses and her leadership and attitude on the field are significant. Other players, regardless of how long they have been with the team, look to her for leadership. Shelby represents us very well.”

While playing in an eight-game regular season that extends from April to June, Horak and teammates visit schools to speak to young girls about playing football.

“We try to teach them life lessons through sports,” Horak said, “that they learn to communicate and have patience in whatever they attempt and when they have certain goals to work to achieve them. We want them to understand that they can play football. You can do this, we tell them. Football is my hobby, but there's more I want to accomplish.”

But it's a hobby unlike any of her former classmates, whose comments range from “do you really?” to “that's so cool” to “awesome” when they discover she's among the ranks of female professional football players.

Then come queries about what women's professional football is all about.

“It's just as physical, compared to men's football,” Horak said. “We are obviously smaller than the guys, but we play just as hard. We have a lot of players on our team, and there are so many players throughout the league who come in with outstanding athletic skills. I have teammates who played basketball or softball or who ran track and they are extremely athletic and they bring their skills to the football field.”

For Horak, who lives in Mt. Pleasant, playing for the Passion has enabled her to explore a career for when her playing days are behind her. After a year at Penn State, she is on her way at Westmoreland County Community College to earning a bachelor's degree in business. Once she has her degree in hand, it will be back to school for specialty training in zoology or biology, en route to a career goal of opening a big-cat sanctuary, “something I just want to do,” she said. When the Passion is on road trips, Horak, whose parents have been extremely supportive, uses the opportunity to visit animal sanctuaries and zoos, exploring the possibilities and making valuable professional contacts.

Until the Passion's 2013 season begins with a home opener April 6 against the Divas, it's off-season flag football workouts or various skills drills to get ready for the season. But there's no mistaking Horak when she arrives for those workouts.

“I often show up at practice wearing a lion or tiger T-shirt because that's my love, big cats,” she chuckled. “Because of my T-shirts and what I eventually want to do, my teammates call me ‘Big Cat.'”

Les Harvath is a freelance writer.

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