This story is part of Yahoo Sports’ She’s Got Next series, featuring women in sports on the rise who deserve their time in the spotlight.
Santia Deck has two sporting idols: Florence Griffith Joyner and Barry Sanders.
They couldn’t be more different. The late Griffith Joyner, still the fastest woman ever, was flamboyant on the track, with her long hair and longer nails complementing her colorful running uniforms. Sanders was the opposite with the Detroit Lions, never outwardly celebrating any of his 109 touchdowns and walking away on his own terms years before anyone thought he would.
Deck dreamed of making it to the Olympics, just like Flo-Jo. As injuries derailed her collegiate running career, Deck believed she was meant to be an athlete and spent several years bouncing between flag football and rugby. That led her to the Women’s Football League Association, a full-pads tackle league set to start in 2021.
The league announced in December she signed to a multimillion-dollar contract, the first for a woman in football.
“I was at the theater with one of my friends, we were in the middle of watching the movie and my mom called me and told me the [contract] offer, and I just ran out the theater screaming,” Deck said recently, laughing at the memory. “My friend thought somebody died, and I was like, ‘No, if you knew what my mom just told me, you would understand.’ And my life has changed after that.”
Deck isn’t just expected to be one of the WFLA’s best players, but her contract and the ensuing publicity also made her the face of the upstart league, founded by California businesswoman Lupe Rose. So far, musician Ja Rule is among those buying in, owning the New York team.
Exhibition games begin this spring, with eight scheduled.
Running like Flo-Jo
It’s been an adventure getting to this point.
Deck began running track at age 6, not long after seeing a cheetah in full sprint on television. She told her mother, Cynthia Robles, that she wanted to be a cheetah. Robles laughed and told her young daughter that wasn’t possible, but promised to put her in track.
“And then I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 12 years old and the doctor had told my mom that he recommended me never playing any sports because if I got hit the wrong way, fell the wrong way, that I could end up possibly paralyzed,” Deck said.
Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine that happens before puberty. While doctors now know that it can’t worsen with athletic activity, there was once that fear.
Robles considered pulling Deck from track but “she knew track was my life,” Deck said. “I had dreams of going to the Olympics since I was like 5 years old, so she knew that would pretty much destroy me. She ended up praying on it, and she ended up letting me go ahead and whatever God has planned is what He had planned.”
She kept running and drew inspiration from the iconic Flo-Jo.
“I was obsessed with her, from the time I saw her until now,” Deck said. “A lot of my style is [derived from] her. I used to wear my hair down. I used to wear full makeup. I got the mismatched socks and everything. I actually started running like her, as far as her coming out of the blocks, the little side-to-side she used to do, even though in real life, that didn’t translate well for me. I ended up developing that habit that to this day is still hard for me to break.”
Deck ran well enough to earn a scholarship to Division II Texas A&M Kingsville, but a series of back and hamstring injuries meant she didn’t see much improvement.
Despite that, Deck wasn’t ready to give up on track. After graduating in 2014, she kept training in an effort to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. She finally saw improvement, and then suffered another hamstring injury. She’d told herself that if she got hurt again, she was done with the sport and she reluctantly walked away.
A rugby detour
She turned to a sport she knew well: flag football.
“Growing up, I was a tomboy — I did everything my brothers did. I was out there running routes, doing cone drills. I even went to a few of my twin brother’s Pee Wee practices, and honestly, that’s why I think I have the edge that I do in football because I was doing that stuff,” she said. “A lot of girls, they don’t get that until they’re in high school or college. I was lucky in that way.”
As Deck’s flag football highlights spread on social media, rugby fans and coaches asked if she wanted to try that sport.
Once someone mentioned the chance to qualify for the Olympics, Deck was in.
She spent much of last year training and traveling overseas, playing with the Atlanta Harlequins, Stars Rugby 7s and the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union in New Zealand.
And then …
“I got injured again, unfortunately,” Deck said. “So, that slowed down my whole Olympic journey once again, and that was that.
“I went into a depression because I was so close, super close to making the team and I got that injury and I couldn’t come back from it. I was exhausted. I put my body through so much. I was going from Australia to New Zealand to London just to train, to get that experience because I was so new to the sport and I was literally running my body and my mind into the ground. So, when I got the injury, I didn’t listen to the doctors. I kept going until my body shut down.”
Not long after taking a step back from rugby, Rose asked if Deck would consider joining the WFLA. Deck had turned down the first offer earlier in 2019 while she focused on rugby.
Deck, a running back for the Los Angeles Fames, then turned to her second role model, Sanders, calling him “poetry in motion.”
Women’s football role model
Rose has promised WFLA players will be paid living wages, making it the first women’s football league to pay players.
With the rebirth of the XFL and the memory of the short-lived AAF in 2019 still fresh, Deck is hopeful the WFLA will thrive where others have failed.
“Knowing the owner and knowing who she is and the connections and who she knows and her history and how she has gotten to where she’s at, she has so much, not only pull, but so much passion for this league that there’s really no way that I could not see it happening,” Deck said. “She has really put in everything to make sure we are getting what we deserve. ... People ask me that all the time but honestly, I don’t [think it will fail]. If anybody’s going to do it, it’s going to be her.”
She excitedly points to the growing number of female coaches in the NFL and Central Methodist University safety Toni Harris, the first woman to get a football scholarship, as evidence that it’s a great time for women in the sport.
“I think having little girls who, before I even signed this contract were like, ‘I want to play football. I want to go out there and do what my brothers are doing,’ and to me it’s so fulfilling to know that they now have a home,” she said. “They can now dream just like their brothers when they’re 5 and 6 years old of going to the NFL and [taking care of] their family and things like that. These little girls now can have the same opportunity, and just knowing that I can really tell these children: If you want something, you can have it.
“I tell children all the time, ‘If you want it, go get it.’ No questions asked, no excuses. If you want it, you can have it but you have to go get it. And that’s what I live by; it’s what I’ve always lived by. If you put in the work, the time and the effort and keep yourself on a straight-and-narrow path and keep God first, you can literally have whatever you want to have.”