Marcella Sanborn Smith was a pioneering star of women’s tackle football

November 17, 2018

Marcella Sanborn Smith was a pioneering star of women’s tackle football

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Marcella Sanborn answered a newspaper ad in 1967 and wound up doing something no one had done before: playing quarterback for a women’s professional football team.

The ad by Cleveland theatrical agent and promoter Sid Friedman sought players for his USA Daredevils of Cleveland, recognized as the first women’s tackle football team in history.

Coached by former Cleveland Browns great Marion Motley, and playing by NFL rules except for shorter quarters, the barnstorming team played semi-pro men’s teams and men’s pickup teams from TV and radio stations in its first season, then began to travel as Friedman built a women’s league that included teams like the Pittsburgh All-Stars, the Canadian Belles of Toronto and the Detroit Petticoats.

As the Daredevils’ quarterback, punter and safety, “Sanborn was the first true ‘star’ of women’s football,” writes historian Neal Rozendaal. “Sanborn was the first player hyped as a true star in the sport.”

Marcella Sanborn Smith died Nov. 8 at age 90 in assisted living at Brookdale Medina North.

“She was really tough. She could take a hit,” said her niece and receiver, Denise Pozderac. “She could throw a 35-yard pass straight at you. She nailed you right in the chest. You had no option but to catch it.”

The 5-foot-8, 141-pound Sanborn could also punt a respectable 40 yards. She was never seriously injured.

She was born Marcella Miller in Ury, West Virginia, and graduated from high school nearby. She moved to Garfield Heights in the 1950s and spent 30 years with Ohio Bell, rising from operator to supply supervisor, changing her name after marrying Richard Sanborn.

She starred in local softball and competed in national tournaments. She also played Amateur Athletic Union basketball.

When Sports Illustrated wrote about women’s football in 1968, it called her “the Josephine Namath who is expected to put the league on the map.”

“They play for keeps,” Friedman told the magazine. “It’s not a setup deal like wrestling. They can block and tackle and run.”

“She liked the challenge,” said Pozderac. “She was very humble about it. She did it with grace.”

In retirement, she liked to golf, bowl, swim and shoot skeet.

She outlived her husband of many years, Edsel Smith. Survivors include four nieces and nephews. Carlson Funeral Home of Brunswick handled private arrangements.

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