The Cost Center is never empty at midnight — at least not if Alyson Kornberg can help it.
The rhythmic sound of shuffling feet fill the indoor field, as each movement requires precision and repetition, while each breath fuels the contractions of tired muscles and joints as Kornberg and her club football team run drills and plays.
This is the scene of a typical Monday night for the team. A few vigilant souls running through drills in helmets and shoulder pads, sweat trickling down their face masks, hoping their efforts will pay off come game day.
When they aren’t playing another team, the club football team practices indoors, working on plays and conditioning, with the occasional friendly bantering on the side. This usually means the team shares the turf with the club baseball team during odd hours of the night, but the sound of cracking bats doesn’t steal from their focus.
That’s especially true for Kornberg, sophomore, head captain, president, founder and only woman on the club football team, who is attentive and eager to improve herself and her team. Standing at 5-foot-7, she moves like Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu, though with straighter and lighter hair.
“The other guys like to say I’m the mom of the team,” Kornberg says with a grin.
But Kornberg’s journey to the line of scrimmage as Pitt’s only female football player was hardly smooth.
Since coming to Pitt in the spring, she wrote a constitution for the club and gained approval from the University to start a gridiron, tackle football team, the whole process nearly seamless.
Both on and off the field, Kornberg has a lot of responsibilities. She handles the scheduling of games, practices and other administrative work to run a club by herself. On the field, she is one of the player-coaches that creates the offensive and defensive plays that the team runs.
But Kornberg’s passion for the game was put to the test at an early age. While she was playing football in the peewee and modified levels, there was backlash from other parents about whether a girl should be playing in what is considered a predominately male sport, even though her father was her coach.
Many parents at Kornberg’s school weren’t comfortable with a girl playing alongside boys. Josephson said the players’ parents didn’t mind, but other parents that heard of the situation weren’t particularly fond of the idea.
“They would say ‘Isn’t that kind of dangerous?’ and ‘Why do you let your daughter do that?’” Josephson said.
The discontent of Kornberg playing football, at the time, was directed to her parents — mostly. Some parents who didn’t have a kid on the team were disapproving of girls playing football, causing some of Kornberg’s friends, who were initially interested in playing football, to be dissuaded by people saying it was unladylike.
Once she entered junior high, many people thought it was the end of the road for her football career, she said. The other parents wrongly assumed she would stop playing because her dad was not her coach anymore, according to her mother.
Despite the assumption, Kornberg trudged onwards. She would continue to play football throughout junior high and make her way to the varsity stage. It was also during those times that she took on a heavy burden to advocate her position on the team. One of the biggest issues? Kornberg needed a place to change for practice.
Kornberg changed in a supply closet next to the football locker room while her parents and administrators found a separate locker for her. But that struggle only added to the discontent surrounding Kornberg playing at all.
“People told me to kill myself. A lot of bullying and other issues,” Kornberg said.
It wasn’t easy for Kornberg as she transitioned to the varsity level. The backlash that her parents faced, now that she had come of age, was directed towards her. The bullying affected her on the field, in the classroom and even within the sanctity of her bedroom in the form of cyberbullying. Classmates accused of her playing football just to “get with the guys,” others told her she shouldn’t be playing because it was a “man’s sport.” She ended up changing schools to avoid the bullies.
Kornberg would still play football in Edgemont High School, but she went to the neighboring school, Karafin School, for academic purposes. Once the transition was made, previous tensions seem to be alleviated.
“When she changed schools, it seemed like everything got better. It was as if no one cared anymore,” Josephson said.
Although Kornberg went to a different school for academics, she was still allowed to play football.
The fact that there was so much pressure against her playing only added to her desire.
“It’s always the thing when someone tells me I can’t do something. I always want to prove them wrong,” Kornberg said. “I could be playing flag football, rugby or soccer, but something about the contact, it makes me a better football player. Whenever I hit, whenever I put my helmet on — it’s just the most amazing feeling, to take out aggression. And it’s a release of energy. It’s something I always look forward too.”
When Kornberg hung up the blue, black and white helmet for her last high school football game, she knew she wasn’t done with football. After being accepted to Pitt for their following spring semester, she decided to go to George Mason University for the first fall term and join their club football team.
“That was the first time that I was wanted onto a team,” Kornberg said. “I expected a fight or that they weren’t going to take me seriously.”
To Kornberg’s surprise, the team let her on without a second thought, and she soon became the starting linebacker for George Mason’s club football team. When the time came for her to leave, she was reluctant to give up the helmet and pads.
“I couldn’t accept the fact that after I left George Mason it was going to be my last time playing football,” Kornberg said.
After moving to Pitt in January for the spring semester, Kornberg looked for ways she could continue to fuel her passion. She came into contact with the National Club Football Association and began the tedious process of bringing a club program to Pitt.
“When I came here, there was no opportunity to play football” Kornberg said. “So I made an opportunity.”
The club program was recognized by the University a few weeks into the semester and Kornberg drew up the constitution for it — minus one important detail.
“When writing the constitution, I completely forgot about Title IX until the administrators at Pitt sent it back to me and said, ‘You need to include it or you can’t play,’” Kornberg said. “I was so focused on other aspects of it that gender merely became an afterthought.”
Title IX states that no person should be denied participation on the basis of gender, thereby allowing Kornberg to play on a men’s team.
Initially, players were wary of the club, as some thought it was women’s club football or powder-puff. But Kornberg reassured them that it was full-on tackle, and they were playing in a men’s league.
Most of the members never played with a girl before, including the starting quarterback for the club team, Matt Henry, who played quarterback in high school as well.
“I was curious at first because I never played with a girl, and football being such a predominately male sport — it was strange at first,” Henry said. “But after a while we all got used to it, and she’s doing a great job as well.”
Currently, the team has 27 members on the roster, with hopes of expanding. There are also a few managers and photographers helping the team out. One of the managers, Sam Land, a good friend of Kornberg’s, tends to the players and helps out with any duties during practices or at the games.
“I really like watching the game and the growth of these players,” Land said. “I think what Alyson is doing is great. To put it bluntly, she has a lot of balls to be out there. She leads these guys, and she does an amazing job at it.”
Although football is Kornberg’s first love, she knows that she’s eventually going to have to say goodbye to the sport that has brought her both joy and pain.
Luckily, Kornberg has other passions that she aims to focus on while at Pitt. Currently, she is majoring in biology at Pitt, hoping to become a veterinarian in the future.
But until then, Kornberg’s focus is stepping on the turf and punishing anyone foolish enough to cross that line of scrimmage on game day.
“It’s some kind of beast mode when I’m out there,” Kornberg said. “Everything changes. I kind of get into a hyper focus. When I get in the zone, it’s an amazing feeling.”
The journey Kornberg embarked on at the age of seven has left a few scars, but she created change, making it easier for others to do what she did. Kornberg has a 12-year-old sister who is also playing football.
“It was so much easier for my younger daughter to do it now because of what Alyson has done,” Josephson said. “She broke the rules for women in sports.”