SOUTH JORDAN — Playing on her first football team at the age of 37 fulfilled a childhood dream for Hiroko Jolley.
The mother of four was prepared for the physical challenges offered by the game.
What she didn’t know is how transformative the experience would be for her and the other women who donned helmets and shoulder pads to compete in a sport many believe they shouldn’t — or couldn’t — play.
Jolley, now 42 and the owner of the semipro Utah Falconz football team, didn’t realize that as she came to know, understand and love her teammates who’d lived very different lives from hers, they were offering her unique insights that would help her deal with what she and her husband once viewed as “the biggest trial” they could face as parents.
As the country's struggle with the issue of gay marriage reached a fever pitch, the Jolleys were privately grappling with how to reconcile their LDS faith with the reality of having a gay son.
Dreams, adult lessons
Jolley grew up passionate about a sport she couldn’t play.
“I always wanted to play when I was young,” she said. “Helen Hunt was in a movie called 'The Quarterback Princess.' I always dreamed of that, playing football as a girl.”
Instead, the Salt Lake native played basketball for West High and satisfied her thirst for football as a devoted fan. It wasn’t until she was approaching middle age that she saw an opportunity to make her childhood dream a reality.
Jolley saw a TV report on a local semipro women’s football team. A couple of days later, a friend convinced her to try out.
“I joined the team and was a linebacker the first year,” Jolley said, a smile spreading across her face. “But I just didn’t have that killer instinct.”
A few weeks later, the team was preparing to play out of town and one of the offensive linemen couldn’t make the trip.
“Coaches threw me in, and everything clicked,” said Jolley, who looks more soccer mom than brutish lineman. “I thought, ‘Nobody touches my quarterback!’”
Jolley discovered a unique kind of camaraderie with women that she’d never experienced anywhere else.
“I got to know these women, and they were just incredible,” she said, glancing toward the women practicing on a field at Riverview Junior High in Murray. “They’re such a diverse group of women, not one type. On the field, I’ve never had a closer bond with women anywhere else.”
While she was learning how to block and tackle, she was also learning about lifestyles and experiences that were foreign to her. A devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, her only experience with homosexuality was from afar and in theory.
That changed when she began playing football.
Jolley estimates that 70 percent of her teammates are lesbian, and there are couples within the team.
“The NFL doesn’t have to deal with that,” she said, smiling. “It was such a different culture from being with all LDS and church and that community.”
As they shared details of their lives with her, she learned that their sexual orientation often meant being ostracized by their families. That, nearly always, sent them onto dark and painful paths.
“Some of them had just horrible lives,” she said. “They’d gotten into drugs and alcohol … a lot of self-destructive behaviors. The more I got to know them, the more I noticed a pattern that a lot of these women were kicked out by their families. They didn’t want anything to do with them.”
As her admiration and affection for the women deepened, so did her resolve. Despite her own fears and worries about her oldest son, she knew now she could never turn her back on him.
Troy and Hiroko Jolley didn’t need to hear their son Derek say he was gay.
They felt it.
But speaking to him about what they already knew in their hearts was too difficult.
“There were signs,” Jolley said of how she knew her oldest child was gay. “It was the elephant in the room.”
Their Mormon faith provided comfort, yet at the same time it created conflict. They saw his sexual orientation as a choice — one they felt could be altered through counseling, desire and prayer. It was only through the experiences she shared with her football team that she realized the most important choice wasn’t Derek’s. It was hers.
“When I first started playing, Derek was a junior (in high school),” Jolley said. “That’s when Derek was really struggling. We’re an LDS family, and I just kept thinking, ‘We’ll get this fixed.’”
They sought counseling for their son, but they were reluctant to discuss the topic with any specificity.
“If we ever talked about (homosexuality),” Troy Jolley said, “it was the angle that, ‘No, that’s not the right choice.’”
Derek Jolley, now 21, said he didn’t feel like he could express his feelings honestly until just before he graduated from high school.
“I knew since fourth grade” that he was gay, he said. “I kind of felt everything. There were times yes, when I wanted to talk, but other times I thought it would be easier not to.”
He said his LDS faith made it harder to discuss what he was feeling.
“I felt bad about it,” he said. “I felt I could change it. I tried changing it. I just tried liking girls, I tried dating them.”
Troy Jolley knew his son was struggling, and he and his wife were desperate to help him.
“It was really all of us struggling,” he recalled. “Maybe it was more us struggling as parents than him. So any time it would come up in conversation, it wasn’t necessarily in a pleasant, peaceful conversation like this. It was more emotional, tense. This is what we perceived, what we thought was best. When he didn’t make choices in accordance, or wasn’t following the path we felt he should, I guess, then we were stressed about it.”
His mother felt that Derek’s depression was caused by a choice that violated his faith.
“We knew (he was depressed), but our way of thinking was that it’s because he’s liking boys,” she said. “We just had to get him on the right track.”
“And then he’d be happy,” her husband added.
Hiroko Jolley pauses before adding, “That was our thinking then.”
Owning the dream
Jolley found her place on the football team but struggled with the ownership and head coach.
“A lot of technique wasn’t being taught,” she said. “There were financial issues; the books were closed. Nobody knew where the money was going.”
Unfortunately, off-field issues meant the team couldn’t excel on the field.
“I just kept thinking, ‘If they had the right conditions, under good ownership, under a good coaching staff, it could be a team that would be unstoppable,” she said. “I would come home upset, and (Troy) would say, ‘Just quit.’ I said, ‘I can’t quit. We have all of these other women, and we’re all just there for each other.’”
Quitting, she felt, would be to abandon women who, like her, were finding more than just an athletic outlet. They found confidence that propelled them in their lives off the field. They found friendship that enriched and changed them as human beings. They found that discipline and teamwork required by a sport like football made them better in the rest of their lives in almost every way.
Knowing how much his wife loved football, Troy Jolley said something that would change their lives — and many others.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you start your own team?’ I said, ‘Really?’ He’s not big into football, and my kids are big into football. But that was kind of the beginning.”
Hiroko Jolley’s first phone call was to her former team’s offensive coordinator and Utah Falconz head coach Rick Rasmussen. The three came up with a plan to start their own team after their former team’s owner declined an offer to buy that team.
“It was a lot of work,” she said. “We had no idea.”
The Jolleys sunk $40,000 of their own money into starting the team in 2013. While Hiroko Jolley managed the finances, travel, uniforms and league relationships, Rasmussen recruited a staff of experienced, enthusiastic coaches and the Falconz went undefeated its first year as an independent team.
“I wouldn’t have done this without Rick as my head coach,” Jolley said. “He’s a great leader, and he teaches great leadership skills to the women.”
In 2015, the Falconz played in the Independent Women’s Football League, and in July, they capped an undefeated season by playing for the league championship in South Carolina.
They lost that game, but have always been committed to more than winning football games.
“We wanted to build something good in the community,” Hiroko Jolley said. “I’ve seen this change a lot of lives.”
The experience has changed her.
“It’s helped me a lot,” she said smiling. “I used to be really timid. I was the person who sits in the back, and I don’t say anything. This has really brought me out. I have to be in the forefront. I have to be a leader.”
Many of the women she played with struggled to find a sense of family. Over and over they shared stories with her of rejection and pain caused by families that they said refused to accept them because of their sexual orientation.
“I got to know some of the lesbian women on the team who’d had just horrible lives,” she said. “They’d gotten into drugs and alcohol … had a lot of self-destructive behaviors. The more I got to know them, the more I noticed a pattern that these women were also kicked out by their families.”
At the same time she was learning to love and support her gay teammates, she began to openly deal with the reality of her own situation at home.
“As I’m watching this, I go home to Derek and the family, and I would think, ‘I can’t do that,’” she said. “I couldn’t imagine not knowing where he is and what he’s doing. It would kill me. I felt like I’ve got a choice as a parent, and I’m going to keep my relationship with my son because that’s the most important thing to me.”
Before Jolley ever started playing football, she and her husband had numerous conversations about homosexuality.
“We’d talked about what happens if one of our kids tells us they’re gay,” Troy Jolley said. “What would we do? We both, for whatever reason, had decided that would be one of the biggest trials we ever faced. That would be the hardest thing we’d have to deal with.”
But playing with many gay teammates changed the Jolleys, including how much they feared that reality. They knew how much their own son had to offer and cringed at the idea that he could be reduced somehow because of his sexual orientation.
“I think what the team did is knowing some of these girls who are just good people,” Troy Jolley said. “Being gay is just one aspect of who they are. It’s not a flaw or anything like that. Who they are is a much bigger picture.”
The struggle was over how they could embrace their son and still feel like they were remaining committed to their LDS faith, which teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin, but acting on it is.
“At the beginning, it was, ‘Do we let Tyler (Jensen, Derek’s boyfriend) come over? Do we not? How much time? Do we allow our kids to be exposed to this?′ All the while, I’m having these amazing experiences with so many women on the team, which is 70 percent lesbian,” Hiroko Jolley said. “It just boiled down to, I love my son. There is nothing in the church doctrine that says what to do and what not to do if you have a family member who is gay.”
The turning point for Jolley was after her daughter Annabelle, 19, graduated from high school. Rachel, now 15, was lonely and asked to sleep over at Derek and Tyler’s house.
“I was really reluctant,” the mother said, choking back emotion. “Then I let her go, and she came home the next day sobbing, ‘I miss my brother.’ I thought, ‘I’m doing a disservice to the siblings by not allowing them to have a relationship with each other.′”
About six weeks after her son moved in with Jensen, Jolley invited her son to Sunday dinner. She asked him not to bring his boyfriend.
“I remember my mom said, ‘I don’t know if we’re ready for Tyler to be over here,’” Derek Jolley recalled. “‘It’s probably going to be awhile.’ And then two days later, it was the 24th of July, they were having a barbecue and they were like, ‘Hey, why don’t you guys come over.'”
The family erupts in laughter at the memory.
“It was like, we love him, but we don’t want to support it, and it was such new territory,” Jolley tried to explain as her children continued to joke. “We were just trying to figure out what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
Troy Jolley said he and his wife reconcile their decisions by always trying to choose the most loving option.
“It just boils down to, as parents, true religion, what we believe it is, the first great commandments are love God and love (each other),” he said. “True religion is love, regardless. I make mistakes everyday and God still loves me. … True religion just extends; we love all, no matter what, and that’s what we live by.”
Honest and open
That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues. But now they discuss them, and always, they offer each other understanding and support — regardless of whether there are disagreements. In fact, Hiroko Jolley said if she could go back and change anything, it would be to really talk to her son and try and understand his feelings.
She remembers struggling to be happy for her son as he and Jensen celebrated an anniversary.
“They had their one-year anniversary on Facebook, and they were posting things. I’m still struggling,” she said looking at Derek. “I mean, this is my son, and the women are not my kids. It was a lot easier (with them). I couldn’t like the posts on Facebook. I’m not there. Derek got a little bit hurt by it. And he talked to me about it. He said, ‘I just want you to be happy for me.’ I told him, ‘You have to understand, this is a process for me to get that.’
"Because since he was born, as a parent, you just see their whole life in front of you. He’s going to grow up, he’s going to go on a mission, come home, get married, we’ll have grandkids — it just all changes. I had to go through a period where I just had to let that go.”
Troy Jolley jokingly tells his daughters not to ruin his plans for their lives and laughter rocks the room again.
His wife says the honesty, the trust, the compassion and the humor would not have come without her experiences with her football teammates.
“No,” she said. “I think it would have taken me a lot longer.”
Troy Jolley said their experiences as a family have given him unique insights as the issue of gay marriage has weaved its way through the courts and has now become legal.
“Having been on both sides, I get it,” he said. “With the new (rulings) that were just passed, I can see both sides of the argument. I understand them and where they’re coming from. As for me, I believe in the traditional definition of marriage. It doesn’t mean I love any less.”
And if their son should choose to get married, would they participate?
“Yes,” Hiroko Jolley quickly said.
Her husband nodded in agreement and then recalled going to dinner with the parents of a woman who played on the Falconz. They discussed their respective struggles and feelings.
“More than anything, we came away feeling like there was hope to have a good relationship,” Troy Jolley said, glancing from his wife to his son, who sat next to Jensen. “That all we needed to do was love him.”