TACOMA – The long shadow cast on Cheney Stadium’s soccer field last week was symbolic.

The light that beamed across the grass and empty stands as the sun began to set during the Reign’s evening home opener represented the history made by Madison Hammond. The NWSL rookie was making her first start in the Cascadia derby against the Portland Thorns FC, becoming the first Native American player to notch a start in the league.

As the OL Reign’s season has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest that has bubbled over after the May killing of George Floyd and wildfires that blanketed the Pacific Northwest in smoke, Hammond’s accomplishment has shined through the dark shadows.

On Sept. 26 Hammond became the first to play in an NWSL match when she subbed on in the 76th minute against the Utah Royals FC. That game, which finished in a 2-2 draw, featured a smattering of fans, including Hammond’s mother and older sister, who cried at the sight at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.

“What?! That can’t be right,” Hammond, 22, said when asked about her initial reaction after being told of her place in history. The NWSL will close its fragmented season with two matches Saturday, one being the Reign (0-2-1) hosting Utah (0-1-2) at Cheney.

“You can see it both ways. That it’s a positive; that there’s the first Native American in the National Women’s Soccer League, but also that it’s 2020 and we only have our first Native American. For me I try to take it as a positive, and I don’t want to be the last.”

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Hammond wants the top level of the sport in the U.S. to reflect the diversity of her early days playing soccer.

Born in Phoenix, Hammond’s passion for soccer was ignited on the fields in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at age 5. Her mother, Carol Lincoln, is Navajo, San Felipe Pueblo, and Hammond’s father is Black, but she said he “has never been foundational in my life.”

Hammond played with a diverse group of boys until age 9 when her mother, who’s in the military, moved their family to Alexandria, Virginia. Hammond joined competitive girls clubs and lived near the military base.

“In the moment, I never felt like there were barriers for me to play,” Hammond said. “A lot of that is because my mom was willing to put in a lot of sacrifices for me to continue playing. Club soccer is so expensive, and it’s even more expensive than when I was playing seven, eight years ago. It’s gotten to a point where it’s almost ridiculous.

“For my mom as a single mother to be able to make those choices so that I would still have access, isn’t the norm. That’s where I want there to be more work done in the youth soccer system. … (Because) it’s not just Native Americans. It’s Black and brown girls in general playing soccer at the highest level. There’s a large disparity in how many girls make it to this level.”

Hammond almost didn’t make it to the NWSL. She graduated in December 2019 from Wake Forest, where she was a two-time team captain, so she could enter the draft. But she wasn’t selected and made a failed attempt to sign with a club in Spain.

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In March, the Reign invited Hammond to a tryout, but shortly after the league sent all players home when the coronavirus pandemic hit and postponed the planned start to the season in April.

After months of sports being shut down, the NWSL became the first team-based league to resume play in June with their Challenge Cup tournament in Utah. Hammond was invited to the Reign’s camp in Montana on May 31 and immediately signed to a two-year contract.

That moment made a mark within the Native community.

“She’s symbolic of not being afraid of circumstances,” said Hammond’s uncle, Notah Begay III, who is a four-time PGA Tour winner and current broadcaster. “Not being afraid to persevere in the face of different types of challenges. You can throw a blanket over the number of Native Americans in (sports), there aren’t that many. … What I appreciate about this window is that the NWSL has embraced her, her team has embraced her probably more so than the PGA Tour ever embraced me.

“They (NWSL) have taken this and they have run with it and it’s going to give more opportunities for girls from these types of backgrounds to look at soccer as a viable option. It’s going to enlighten people about Native Americans across the country. … For that, I can’t be grateful enough.”

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OL Reign player Madison Hammond. (Jane Gershovich / OL Reign)
OL Reign player Madison Hammond. (Jane Gershovich / OL Reign)

The limited number of Black and Indigenous women in professional sports is tied to sexism. When Hammond was born in November 1997, there weren’t any professional women’s soccer leagues in the U.S., only a semi-pro option in the USL W-League, which started in 1995.

For little girls, the aspiration was to represent the U.S. Women’s National Team until the NWSL sprouted in 2012 and showed longevity.

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The USWNT has featured at least one Black player since its formation in 1985. Kim Crabbe, who helped George Mason win the women’s NCAA championship that year, was the first Black woman to get a national team call-up. Sandi (Gordon) Yotz, a defender for the amateur Tacoma Cozars, was the first Black player to earn a cap when she started for the national team in their inaugural match in July 1987 in Norway.

Those Black players helped inspire Temryss Lane, who’s from the Golden Eagle Clan of Lummi. Lane graduated from Sehome and earned a scholarship to play soccer for Arizona State (2000-04) before playing professionally in Sweden.

After a third knee surgery in 2011, Lane accepted she wasn’t going to be able to play top-level soccer in her country. Instead she funneled the passion into a decade-long soccer broadcasting career, a stint as an N7 Nike Ambassador – the company’s Native American initiative – and obtaining her master’s degree in Native American studies.

“This story is all of the things I’ve wished for,” Lane said of Hammond.

Lane’s research confirms financial costs and accessibility to programs in rural areas are what inhibits more Black and brown U.S. youth from playing soccer. The U.S. Soccer Federation is doing work to minimize the pay-to-play format, and elite youth programs offer scholarships.

Securing a college soccer scholarship on any level means needing to be seen by coaches, and those opportunities require travel to tournaments and training. Begay, who built a soccer field on his reservation, which is located 30 minutes outside of Albuquerque, as part of his foundation, admired his sister’s commitment to driving Hammond “thousands of miles to have her compete.”

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“There has to be some sort of elimination of the cost,” Lane said. “It can’t be about money. It can’t be about transportation. There has to be a breaking down of barriers.

“So Native girls just being able to see themselves in someone like Madison is crucial for their desire to pursue being a young, Native footballer. Then someone to show them and tell them and remind them that they deserve to play. It’s their right to play.

“Because, for me, it’s very uniquely an Indigenous sport from around the world. If you look through history, there are football games that exist in a multitude of cultures across the Americas and the world.”

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OL Reign player Madison Hammond. (Jane Gershovich / OL Reign)
OL Reign player Madison Hammond. (Jane Gershovich / OL Reign)

For Hammond not to be the last, she also has to remain in the NWSL.

Off the field, the truncated season has been marked by historic firsts and celebrity shout-outs from Gabrielle Union and Billie Jean King. But Hammond’s time on the field has been limited.

Hammond appeared in three Fall Series matches, totaling 105 minutes with one start. She’s available for selection for Saturday night’s finale. But that hasn’t stopped CEO and co-owner Bill Predmore and first-year coach Farid Benstiti from heaping praise on the first-year player.

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“Madison is the future of OL Reign,” Benstiti said. “She has great qualities, and if she trusts in her capacities, she will be a very good player.”

Hammond’s back-line teammates agree.

“She plays like she’s a third- or fourth-year player,” midfielder Dani Weatherholt said.

Hammond is already starting to plan her offseason regimen to return stronger in 2021. And hopefully it’s a more traditional season with fewer shadows overhanging.

“Overall, this year, I’m so excited we had the opportunity to play,” Hammond said. “With COVID and everything, that was not guaranteed. (Now) I’m excited to use this time to settle down from the craziness that this year has been and really focus on me.”