Trish Harper is coaching for the first time everat Loyola University, where she earned a master's degree in organizational and counseling psychology and where she did her clinical practicum at the school's career development center.
Harper has an extensive sporting resume, dating back to South Fork High School in Stuart, Fla., where she played volleyball, basketball and softball. She then went to Stetson University and was a rower for a few years.
Harper, 28, who lives in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood, has played tackle football for the Chicago Force for four years, including the team's national championship runner-up season that ended in tears this past August.
The Force is Harper's direct connection to the new Ramblers' team, a men's club football team, which hasn't been played at the Chicago school in 40 yearsand the last time Loyola had a true school-sponsored team was in the 1930s.
"It was a perfect storm of past coaches and Force connections," Harper said. "John Clarke is the [Loyola] head coach; he coached with the Force on defense a few years. He selected Al Maldonado to be his offensive coordinator; Al has been the receivers' coach for the Force for years. He offered me the chance to come in and help with the receivers on the Loyola team."
Harpera wide receiver for the Force, who also has played cornerback, safety and some defensive endjumped at the opportunity. Harper and Kelly Biel (defensive line) are female coaches on this men's team.
"Being a receiver is all about the little things," Harper said. "I've been lucky to have really great coaches and teammates work with me on the Force and they have built up my knowledge of the parts that go into being a [receiving] threat. So I am able to break it down for others, [including the] little things, such as, getting the most power out of that first step [from the line of scrimmage], where to look, how to get into the right spot on a route," and more.
"The guys have been great and respect what I have to say. I think it also says a lot about the other coaches on staff as well that they made it very clear from the get go that our gender has nothing to do with our knowledge; they trust what we say.
"I don't think I would be able to be competent at this gig if it weren't for the Force. Playing for such a program and under the coaches I've had are the primary reasons I know what I'm talking about. The Force is a program that you only get to be on if you are willing to give your absolute best and to keep working at making your best [even] better. The coaches will break down your mechanics and give you the tools to get better.
"The teammates I've been lucky enough to watch and learn from are such amazing athletes that you just want to emulate them and pick up what they do better than you. Everything I've learned through being on the Force I'm using in coaching, so, without [the Force], I probably wouldn't even have the gig or really be able to understand how to break down the position."
Harper said the Loyola position "is an amazing opportunity, regardless of the record at the end of the [season]."
"I wasn't sure how the guys would react to having a girl yell at them and correct what they were doing [wrong]," Harper said. "Most of the guys played in high school, so sometimes the biggest hurdle is getting them to realize that there's a different element than in high school and that this is a different place. The players are all invested, eager to learn and play; that makes my job pretty easy to do. The coaching staff has been great, too, and extremely collaborative. Having had Al as a coach, I know his style and find that I tend to emulate it now. He can get intense, yell, tell you the truth even if it's not what you want to hear, but he always makes sure you know he believes in you and I respect that both as someone he's coached and now coaching myself.
"I want the team as a whole to be dominant, of course, but specifically, I want the receivers to be topics of conversation. I want other teams to walk away saying, 'Did you see that catch?!' I also want our guys to be saying, 'I knew you had it.' The Loyola players have great skill and sometimes people think being a receiver has to be pretty simplesomeone throws a ball and you just go catch it. They miss the fact that you have to be at an exact spot in mere seconds, have to peel someone off of you to get there, and have to put making that 'simple catch' above the safety of your body. You may get nailed by [a defender] going top speed when you're in the air completely exposed and have to hang on to a ball. Tell me then how 'simple' the job iswhen you get the air back in your lungs, that is."
Harper works four days a week in the human resources department at a local credit union. She also teaches two business classes that deal with issues related to job/internship preparedness.
An open lesbian, Harper is in a relationship with a Force teammate.
"I don't know if I could pick just one [Force career] highlight," Harper said. "I think each year there's something that stands out, whether it's making a big play, taking a good hit, or any of the antics that take place off the field. Every time I'm with these girls, in pads or not, there is always something I take away. I think for this year the highlight was the Boston [playoff] game. Coming down to one point in any game means that every play matters. Every catch, every run, every tackle, it all needed to happen. That game showed that it takes every person to do their part.
"I don't know if I've ever done just one thing that I could hang my hat on [as my personal career highlight]. It's an overarching athletic theme that I push to outlast doubt. Whether it's personal [doubt], from a coach, from opponents, anything. I think that is a part of all of our mindsets or we wouldn't be playing this sport. For me, it's always a highlight when I come down with a ball no one thought was reachable, [or] do more than my coaches or opponents think I can, and outplay even my own expectations."
Linda Bache, the team owner and a former Force defensive standout, said Harper is one of her favorite players. "She works extremely hard and is a great teammate," Bache said. "Trish is a wide receiver [whose] height and speed makes her difficult for opposing defensive backs to cover. She made some great catches this year, particularly during the playoffs."
So how will coaching Loyola help Harper on the Force in 2013?
"Being on the other side is tremendously helpful," she said. "Everyone has a different style that they like to be coached in. Some people want you to yell and scream; some people need you to remind them that you believe they can do it; some people are going to be harder on themselves than I could ever be and need space. Having to tailor my style to each player really sharpens my understanding of how I like to be coached. Past that, I think when you have to break down the mechanics to someone else, it's an opportunity to remind yourself how to do it properly. Plus, I think watching these guys elevate their game is only going to make me want to elevate mine."
Harper added, "The investment that everyone is makingthat's coaches, players, alumni and staffis so impressive to watch and an honor to be a part of. The team is hungry to learn; the coaches are excited about all the talent on the team; the alumni are so supportive, and the staff is there to make sure everyone has what they need. No one is in it for the glory or the chance to be a superstar.
"Everyone is out there because they love the game and just want to be a part of it. To me, there's no better reason to do something than when it is simple, pure, and true unbridled passion. These guys might never make it pro; football might never make it back to being a NCAA sport at Loyola, but then again, no one thought women's tackle football would ever be seen on an ESPN network either. Always outlast doubt."