Women's Pro Football Star a Chicago Force as a Quarterback and Musician
EVANSTON — If Sami Grisafe was a man, she likely would be famous, a multimillionaire and an icon.
As quarterback for the Chicago Force women's professional football team, Grisafe has thrown for 2,582 yards, 32 touchdowns and three interceptions this season. Her quarterback rating in eight games this year — all wins — is a ludicrous 131.3, which would place her among the best in NFL history.
"Just an amazing arm," Force middle linebacker and Logan Square resident Darcy Leslie, said of Grisafe. "She can throw the ball so well, better than many guys I've seen."
But there will be no multiyear deals for Grisafe in the Women's Football Alliance, a 50-team league of which the Force is a member. Instead, the 28-year-old paid $700 for the right to play this season, which she said will be the last of a brilliant seven-year career with Chicago.
Grisafe's final game with the Force could be Saturday night in the first round of the playoffs against the Cleveland Fusion at Evanston Township High School. She also will suit up as the starting QB for Team USA at the Women's World Championship of American Football, which will take place in Vantaa, Finland, from June 28 through July 6.
"Many years of tackle football has taken its toll on my body, and I also have another dream," Grisafe said. "I think it's time to make a decision and start to live my other dream."
That dream is her music career. When Grisafe is not throwing bombs, screens and slants, she's quarterbacking another group: The Sami Grisafe Band.
Grisafe is the lead singer of the five-member group. Her instrument of choice is the ukulele. Her band, formed in 2011, already has performed at such notable venues as Whiskey A Go Go in Hollywood and at the Metro and Double Door in Chicago.
Grisafe wants more, much more, and she believes she has the talent to get there — and improve humanity a bit along the way.
"Her ultimate goals are about social progress," said Grisafe's manager, Kathy Kuras, who lives with her in Evanston. "She sees her music and her football as being an agent for that."
Said Grisafe: "I feel like I can change the world ... and have a good time doing it."
Falling in love with the pigskin
Grisafe's parents, Kim and Greg, used to joke their oldest child "came from the milk man."
"Neither of us have athletic ability, and we don't know where she got it from," Kim Grisafe said.
At age 10, Grisafe fell in love with football. That year, she was the only girl on the Redlands, Calif., Junior All-American Football team. She started at quarterback.
During the last game of the season, she said an opposing linebacker drove his helmet into her right humerus, fracturing it. As she lay on the ground in pain, she said he told her, "You shouldn't even be playing this game, b----."
"I was pissed," said Grisafe. She went on to play youth ball for three more seasons before playing her freshman and sophomore years at Redlands High School.
As a ninth-grader, Grisafe was elected a freshman team captain. Her center that year, Jake Thompson, said Grisafe was "an inspiration."
"She was always a leader, always the first one in drills," said Thompson, 28. "And that's basically what a captain should be."
As a sophomore in 2000, Grisafe made high school history by becoming the first girl to play quarterback in a varsity game in California Interscholastic Federation Division 1, which consists of the state's largest schools.
Jim Walker, Redlands' head coach since 1992 and who last year won his 200th game, said Grisafe "was never intimidated by the all-male world of football."
"She thrived in it," he said. "Football was in her blood. I haven't met anyone like her again. She was special."
Grisafe gave up football after her sophomore season because she wanted to play volleyball instead. She also was a softball and water polo varsity athlete, in addition to acting in several school plays and musicals. As a senior, she was named Homecoming Queen, and all of her former gridiron teammates presented her a signed football.
Perhaps her favorite memory from high school is grabbing a piece of turf off the field following her final football game. She still has the small collection of grass blades in a shadow box made by her mom.
The Force's hardest worker
Grisafe came to Chicago 10 years ago to pursue a theater degree at Roosevelt University.
She had no intention of playing football, but during her senior year, a Roosevelt administrator told her about the Force.
"I told him I was going to be the starting quarterback by the start of the next season," Grisafe said. "And that was the beginning of my career here."
Force defensive lineman Kimberly Marks, of Bucktown, joined the team the same year as Grisafe. Marks, 31, said no one on the Force prepares for games or works harder than its signal caller.
"Ability-wise, there's not a quarterback across the league who has the talent that she does," said Marks, a tax attorney. "Most people have a preconceived notion of what women's football might be. When they see her accuracy and how hard she throws the ball, it's a complete shock. That's what I've heard from most people."
In seven seasons, all as the starter, Grisafe has led the Force to a pair of WFA championship games. She has lost both of them.
Before she hangs up her cleats, Grisafe is guaranteeing a victory Saturday, as well as throughout the playoffs and in this year's final, set for Aug. 3 at San Diego's Balboa Stadium, the one-time home of the NFL's Chargers.
"We're going to win. There's no other option," Grisafe said. "If we don't, it will bother me the rest of my life."
Even if Grisafe comes up short, she won't return in 2014. She doesn't want to be one of those people "who end up waking up with a knee that I can't walk on or perform with."
Rock and roll ... with a ukulele
Grisafe's athleticism was a mystery, but her ability to perform on stage and her attraction to music is genetic.
In their younger days, Kim and Greg Grisafe were part of a band called Two Of Hearts, which toured southern California. Greg Grisafe still runs a professional karaoke booth on weekends.
Grisafe's parents bought her a guitar for Christmas when she was 10, and she taught herself how to strum. When she was at Roosevelt, Grisafe thought too many people played the instrument, so she picked up a ukulele, the guitar's little cousin.
"She wanted to be different," Kim Grisafe said. "She thought she was being this front-runner."
Ironically, Grisafe became a professional musician because the WFA asked her to record a theme song for the league in 2010. That led to the formation of her first band, The Wick, which lasted a year before Grisafe and Kuras created the band named after the star quarterback.
"That's what I strive to be like," Grisafe said.
Grisafe plays the ukulele, but her music is by no means "Hawaiian," and is closer to rock and roll.
"The best part of the song is the lyric that says, 'There's a million brilliant places we could go ... but there's no better city that I know ... for playing hooky than Chicago,'" Grisafe said.
But it's about more than just having fun.
"I want to create this climate of change and conversation," she said. "I want to perpetuate thought-provoking art … where you walk away and you don't forget the experience."
Her music career is starting to take off, but it's nowhere close to being profitable. Grisafe, who is gay, makes her real income by working as a bartender at The Closet in Lakeview. The establishment's website notes it's "Big Fun In A 'Lil Gay Bar."
"The people at the bar have been very, very nice about her trying to pursue her music, and the gay community has been very supportive of her," Greg Grisafe said. "She loves her job, and she loves her music.
"I'm just proud of her for what she's done, and what she's continued to do."