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Legendary female footballer still blazing trails for women

You might not have noticed something very different and unique before the kickoff at Redskins home games this season.

After all, you were probably among the thousands making your way to your seats, focused in part on the players on the field warming up in their uniforms and in part on the guy behind you who almost spilled his beer down your back. It would have been easy to miss the woman on the field taking notes about how those players looked as they represented the NFL.

But Donna Wilkinson is something the league hasn’t seen before — a female uniform inspector.

Breaking down barriers for women in football is something that’s become old hat for Wilkinson, a pioneer of women’s tackle football, a member of the Women’s Football Hall of Fame and a legendary player on the field for the D.C. Divas.

“I’m not too tied up in being the first woman,” Wilkinson said. “There are a lot of women doing firsts right now. But it’s good that the NFL is bringing in that diversity and being more inclusive, balancing their masculine energy with some feminine energy.”

It was that energy — that passion for the game — that caught the attention of Jon Runyan, the former NFL offensive tackle and New Jersey congressman who now works as the league’s vice president of policy and rules administration.

“I think that anyone that knows Donna knows she is all about football, all about physical training,” Runyan said. “She loves playing the game and sharing her passion for it. That was a big reason I reached out to her — I know her passion for the game and to be around it.”

Runyan knew of that passion from taking part in the congressional flag football game when he was on Capitol Hill. Wilkinson volunteered to be part of the game several times. “I got to know him, and then at the (women’s) Team USA tryouts in Orlando about a year ago, I ran into Jon,” she said. “I told him I was retiring soon, and he said let’s connect, so I gave him my card.”

For years, if you were paying attention, former Redskins defensive end Tony McGee was one of the uniform inspectors before games, and was joined several years ago by former Redskins running back Ricky Ervins. McGee lives in Atlanta, and would commute up to FedEx Field for the games. When an opening surfaced in Atlanta for a uniform inspector, he asked to transfer there, opening up a slot at FedEx Field.

They typically use former NFL players for those jobs.

“Part of the problem replacing those guys is they don’t want to tie up their Sundays doing that,” Runyan said. “I had five or six guys that I talked to who said, ‘The wife said no, I got one kid in college and two in high school, so no.’ When I asked Donna, she committed on the phone. She didn’t think twice about it.

“She has been awesome,” Runyan said. “It’s kind of a thankless job because you’re the bad guy. She is our first female. She is our eyes and ears down there.”

In the job, Wilkinson, who inspects the visiting team, doesn’t actually have to interact with the players. “I just hand a list to the designee who is responsible for the uniforms for that team,” she said. “They work it out with their guys, what they need to fix, what they want to fix, whether it is a violation that has to be fixed before they can come on the field, or is it something they can just be fined for. I don’t have to be accepted by the players, but by the staff and security and everyone else around. I’ve felt more than welcomed. I felt like I’ve found a home with the people there.

“My first duty is to observe the players and coaches on the visiting sideline and look for NFL compliance on what they wearing, their uniform and logo policies are being followed,” Wilkinson said. “I make sure their uniforms are on properly and that they don’t have any external messages or anything that would be inappropriate. That they have their pads in place, that they have the proper visor if they have a medical clearance to have tint. So I am looking for all the specifics of what the NFL wants enforced at their games.

“Some of these guys just want to feel comfortable out there or express their creativity, and they don’t care if it is a violation or a fine,” she said.

Wilkinson has loved football since she was a child watching the Los Angeles Raiders in her grandfather’s living room. “I told my family that I wanted to be big like my grandfather so I could play football someday,” she said. “They looked at me because I was a girl and said, ‘That’s nice sweetheart.”

But after a standout high school and college athletic career, Wilkinson found her chance to play football with the start of the D.C. Divas in 2001. She became a star in women’s football as a running back, tight end and linebacker, leading the Divas to three national championships and multiple division titles. After a 17-year playing career, Wilkinson was inducted last year into the Women’s Football Hall of Fame inaugural class in Las Vegas, along with six other Divas.

Like NFL players, Wilkinson’s body took a beating over the years, and she suffered from the effects of concussions. But she underwent neck surgery to clean up scar tissue that had affected the nerves in her spine, and she said she feels strong and clear-minded. She still works with the Divas, doing color commentary and other duties. She does training and treatment sessions with clients and other work. And now, she is the NFL’s only female uniform inspector.

“We usually use former players for these jobs,” Runyan said. “She was a player, just not in the NFL.”

And Wilkinson can relate to how players want to look on the field. “My uniforms were always clean and looked good,” she said. “I would have passed any uniform inspection. I wanted to look good out there. I knew I was representing an amazing game. I was someone that people looked up to, and embraced it. I felt good about being tight and looking good out there.”

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