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Chickasaw woman preps for gridiron action

 

March 16, 2021

Justine McSwain's official Oklahoma City Lady Force photo.

OKLAHOMA CITY – It is not unusual to hear of a Chickasaw citizen excelling in a physically demanding, rough-and-tumble line of work.

However, it seems more extraordinary when it is a 39-year-old Chickasaw woman playing on the undefeated Oklahoma City Lady Force women's full-contact football team.

Justine McSwain enters her sixth season this year. The team is competing in a different conference in 2021, new teams are on the schedule, practice has been in full swing for a few months, and league play begins in May – if the pandemic cooperates.

"I still enjoy competing. I hope to be the competitor who shows young women there are no boundaries or limitations. They can succeed in all they wish to do with determination and a positive attitude," Ms. McSwain said. "If I can be a mentor or inspire others, it is an honor."

Tough Schedule

It is not just on the football field where Ms. McSwain excels. She has grabbed life by the horns and is working full time, playing and practicing football several times a week, and studying to advance her career with a full study load of virtual classes at Oklahoma City University (OCU).

The Tishomingo native graduated high school in 2000 and immediately embarked upon earning a degree as a physical therapy assistant at Murray State College (MSC), where she earned a full scholarship to play softball. Ms. McSwain was also a standout high school basketball player, but the scholarship was in the sport she most loved playing.

Ms. McSwain was offered a scholarship to play basketball for Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SEOSU) in Durant. "My real passion was softball though, so I accepted the offer from Murray State," she said.

Upon completion of her education at MSC, she began work at the University of Oklahoma (OU) Medical Center as a physical therapy assistant and later at Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Center, a part of the Integris Health network in Oklahoma City.

She decided to pursue a bachelor's degree in kinesiology online through Texas Woman's University. Kinesiology is the study of the mechanics of body movements, and for individuals wishing to provide care for sports-related injuries as well as trauma victims, the degree is a requirement. She earned that degree in 2008.

She now maintains a full class schedule to earn her master's degree in health care administration. That degree is roughly a year away. She is learning remotely but hopes classes resume soon if the COVID-19 pandemic is quelled.

Sandlot Gridiron

Yes, she did play sandlot football with the boys as a youngster.

Born in Ada but reared in Tishomingo, she laughs when answering the question about sandlot football participation.

"Are you kidding?" she said. "I'm from Tishomingo. Of course, I played sandlot football with the boys and even suffered a broken collarbone doing it, because I was better at it than them."

Her father, Donnie, confirmed it.

"Justine has always been a competitor. Yes, I was aware she played football as a youngster. I really didn't worry too much about it. She's tough. She can hold her own against anyone. I believe she was at her best athletically playing softball," he added. Her father's one regret is during her college career, he was on the road as a long-haul trucker and did not get to attend many of her games. The ones he did see, he enjoyed immensely.

"She was a very good athlete. So was her brother. Their desire to compete is fierce," Mr. McSwain said.

Justine was active in sports as was her brother, Joel, who played football and baseball for Tishomingo High School. Joel works for the Chickasaw Nation. Their sister, Luanna Akins, was focused on other activities aside from sports and is now an emergency room nurse.

According to Justine, her parents – Donnie and Suzette McSwain – were both competitors and excelled in high school sports.

When her collegiate career ended, Ms. McSwain continued working out in Oklahoma City gyms to "just stay in shape" when, five years ago, a friend approached her about trying out for the Oklahoma City Lady Force.

"I kept telling her I wasn't interested, but she kept up until I finally said, 'Okay, I'll go out and give it a half-hearted effort just to appease my friend,'" Ms. McSwain said.

Once on the field, however, that Chickasaw spirit kicked in.

"The athlete in me wasn't going to allow a half-hearted effort," Ms. McSwain said. "I tried out. I liked it, and I've been playing ever since." The Lady Force football team has been around a few years. It was formally known as the Oklahoma City Lightning prior to Ms. McSwain joining the squad. Additionally, it was 8-player football until this year.

The Force joined the Women's Football Association, which fields a full 11-player team. This year, it will face squads from Arkansas, Kansas, Colorado, Texas and Tennessee. A 10-12 game schedule commences in May with the caveat that COVID-19 is in check.

Ms. McSwain is a wide receiver on offense but fills many positions for the team. She plays defensive back and strong safety when the opponent has the ball. She also fills a slot on the Lady Force special teams during kick returns.

Wear and Tear

At 5'7" and weighing only 130 pounds, Ms. McSwain is one of the more petite ladies taking the field.

Hits are hard and fast.

Taking physical punishment has landed her in surgery with a torn meniscus, a thin fibrous cartilage between the surfaces of joints in her body, and a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

While recovery took time, she said it hasn't slowed her down, but she is unsure how much longer she'll be able to compete.

Justine McSwain shown with her brother, Joel, left; father, Donnie, right, and nephew Hudson during her first season with Oklahoma City Lady Force.

"I guess I can say I don't feel like the punishment is any worse on my body than five years ago," she observed. "But, yeah, if I take a good hit, I know it and usually feel it for a few days afterward. I like to be the one doing the hitting," she said laughing.

The team is structured so it plays when college and high school football are not underway. It assures the ladies have a field to practice and play games. Practices are held at Moore High School and Northwest Classen High School. Actual league games have been conducted at Spencer and Douglas high schools, before COVID-19 forced the Lady Force to scrap last year's season.

There is a dedicated fan base for Lady Force, but Ms. McSwain may be more interested in satisfying a need to be a mentor and leader to young athletes as she pursues her interests in football and physical therapy.

"When someone looks to you for leadership and as an example to fulfill their dreams, it reinforces the joy of competing for me," she added.

 

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