By Patti Putnicki
When you think of female sports pioneers, you probably think of Wilma Rudolph, Nancy Lieberman or Billie Jean King -- women of the pre-Title IX age who made the road a little easier for the athletes who followed.
It's about time you added the name "Barbara O'Brien" to that list.
Still fit at 5'9" with twinkling eyes and a soft-spoken Southern drawl, O'Brien has rightfully earned her place in history. She was the quarterback for one of the original teams in the National Women's Football League (NWFL) in the 1970s, a featured athlete on a nationally televised sports competition show and an advocate for numerous human rights causes. But, despite her accomplishments, O'Brien doesn't think of herself as a trailblazer, but a person who filled a lifetime with extraordinary adventures because she wasn't afraid to pursue the things she loved.
Young, Athletically Gifted and Female
From the time she could walk, O'Brien had athletic ability. Her brother? Not so much. In an era where a woman's "place" was still the source of much debate, O'Brien's biggest source of encouragement was actually her mother.
"I can remember my mother throwing a ball to me when I was a little girl. She was from a big, sports-loving family, and encouraged me to play," O'Brien said. "The problem was, at the time, there weren't any sports options for girls in the public schools. The boys could play, but the girls weren't supposed to be athletic. So, I played softball, volleyball -- anything there was to play -- on the street or in the park, after school."
At the time, women weren't supposed to need a college education, either.
"I was from a lower middle-class family that could only afford to send one of us to college, so, of course, it was my brother. So, I left home at 17 to start my life," O'Brien said.
She got a job as a cost accountant at a Dallas-based publishing company, and started playing in a women's softball league after work. A couple of years later, O'Brien heard about an opportunity that ultimately changed the course of her life.
"We heard that someone started a pro football league for women, and two brothers were putting together a team in Dallas. So, a bunch of us from the softball team decided to go try out," O'Brien said. "I had big hands, for a girl, and figured that would work to my advantage in catching and passing a football."
O'Brien not only made the team, but was quickly named the quarterback of the newly formed Dallas Bluebonnets. That's when the adventure began.
Are You Ready for Some Football?
The Bluebonnets were founded by Joe and Stan Matthews, two Dallas-area brothers. To this day, O'Brien has no idea why.
"Physically, they were Ross Perot types -- not people you would think of as athletic. I think one of them had a job at Sears," O'Brien said. "I don't know why they did it or how they funded it, really. I do know that it wasn't a big money maker. A lot of the time, the brothers couldn't afford to pay the coaches, so the girls would donate the $25 we made per game."
Although the name is less-than-fierce sounding, the Dallas Bluebonnets were no powder puff team. Every woman on the team's 33-player roster was in it to win.
"We had players of all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities -- all playing together. We had single women with different jobs, students, housewives and moms. Even though the early 1970s was the era of Gloria Steinem and a pivotal time in the feminist movement, none of us were there to make a political statement or prove a point," O'Brien said. "We just loved sports and wanted to compete. We were all different, but we all got along. I made some great friendships along the way."
It never was about the money or the fame. There was no television coverage, and frankly, not many supporters of the NWFL in the press. But, no one could take away the thrill of running onto the field at Texas Stadium, and looking up in the stands at 2,800 cheering fans.
"Our first game was in 1973 against the Toledo Troopers. That one was a real eye-opener. Our team listed our weights as 20 pounds more than they actually were to intimidate our opponents. We figured the other teams did the same thing. Then, we saw those girls from Toledo -- they were huge. They definitely didn't lie about their weights," O'Brien said. "When you got tackled by one of those girls, you felt like you got hit by a tank."
The Bluebonnets lost that inaugural game 37-12. But, the loss couldn't erase the sheer joy of competition.
"I can't explain what a thrill it was to throw a pass and make a touchdown in front of that crowd. The sounds, the energy -- the looks on your teammates' faces," O'Brien said. "I don't know that there's anything better than that feeling."
Although eight states had teams, the NWFL never got enough traction to get a regular schedule going. The games were sporadic, played wherever the opposing teams could reasonably get to by bus. There were supporters, and there were haters -- of both genders -- who questioned the concept and wanted to get these young women off the field and back into the kitchen where they belonged.
From the Local Spotlight to National TV
Although the league struggled, O'Brien's notoriety continued to expand. She started getting recognized at area restaurants, appeared on a TV commercial for the local newspaper and participated in celebrity charity events.
"I started getting invited to speak at events, which was both a scary and amazing experience for me," O'Brien said. "I was very much an introvert, but decided to conquer my fears and do it. I had the chance to talk about how important women's sports are. I had a forum to let people know that every little girl isn't made to sit at home and look pretty -- that everyone should be allowed to use the talents they've been given. The message was so important, I couldn't let my own fears prevent me from getting it heard."
O'Brien's celebrity status kicked into overdrive when she was invited to appear on the first female version of Superstars in 1975. This nationally televised program was a precursor to today's reality TV shows, pitting well-known athletes from different sports against each other in a full cadre of competitions -- ranging from running, rowing and swimming to bowling, biking and obstacle course events, among other challenges. The men's version of the show was already wildly popular, fueled by the star power of Lynn Swann, Kyle Rote, Jr. and O.J. Simpson.
The first women's Superstars competition included 24 female athletes -- and, like the men's version, not a B-lister among them.
"So, there I am with Cathy Rigby, Janet Guthrie, Billie Jean King and Jane Blaylock -- can you imagine? They drove us around in limousines; everything was first class. As a small town girl from Texas, I had never experienced anything like that before," O'Brien said.
The competition was fierce, but so was Barbara O'Brien. She came in third in the first program, guaranteeing her a spot in the finals -- and her popularity continued to grow from there.
"I remember after our competition in the Astrodome in Houston (Texas), little girls came up to me and asked me for my autograph. It was awkward for me, but it was so cool," O'Brien said. "I thought, maybe, because they see women competing just like the men do, some little girl who aspires to be an athlete might actually follow her dream. I hope that's what happened."
Ultimately, O'Brien made it to the Superstars finals. She finished in 7th place, earning $6,000 in prize money.
In today's world, fueled by social media and specialized sports broadcast networks, her performance might have led to other opportunities. Back then, O'Brien was simply happy to have had the life experience.
"I didn't have any expectations. I knew that, as a woman in football, I'd never be at the other competitors' levels -- or have as big of an opportunity as I might have in tennis, like Billie Jean," she said. "Then again, Billie Jean was Billie Jean. There was nobody quite like her."
New Chapter. Next Adventure.
O'Brien knew that, if she wanted to make sports her career, she needed to find a new sport. So, a few years, three concussions and a bout with tendonitis later, she quit the NWFL and decided to pursue golf.
"I had strong legs, which is a real asset in golf. I was so inspired by Jane Blalock and Sandra Haynie that I went for it," O'Brien said. "I actually got to the point where I had a sponsor, but then, that company got into trouble. Then, my mother got sick and needed care. Life just got in the way and before I know it, the window of opportunity was gone."
Yet, O'Brien continued to use her skills and formidable connections for good by running charity golf tournaments for causes she cared about.
She ran the first tournament to raise money for the Genesis Women's Shelter, a Dallas-based organization that helps battered women and their children. She put on the first Life Walk for Aids in 1983, raising $186,000 -- a monumental achievement at a time when tolerance was not a part of the everyday vernacular.
O'Brien's charitable work earned her numerous awards and recognitions, most notably, the Black Tie Dinner Awards' 1996 Kuchling Humanitarian Award for individuals who have made "extraordinary gifts of their time and talents on behalf of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community."
"That may have been my proudest moment so far," O'Brien said.
Today, golf, not contact football, is O'Brien's sport-of-choice. Although she's not a tour pro, she's still carries a single-digit index and a killer drive that can smoke the competition half her age. For work, she manages royalty interests for an oil and gas company; and is director of operations for the company's quarter horse ranch outside of Fort Worth, Texas.
And life continues to be good.
"I am so blessed to have been given the opportunity to do all of these amazing things -- to compete in football on a national scale, to have the experience I've had," O'Brien said. "I don't know why all of this happened to me, but I'm thankful for every moment."
So what, really, is the secret of her success? The achievements, the transitions and inner peace that's so very evident when she talks about her life journey?
"You can do anything you want to if you have the drive and passion. If you're working in a job you don't like, make every effort to find something you look forward to getting up and doing every day," O'Brien said.
The message: go for it. Don't be afraid of failure. Don't be afraid of success. Just be open to the opportunities that life puts in your path.
"Life is short and we all need to make our best effort to enjoy it. Embrace the opportunities. Pursue your dreams," O'Brien said. "Just look at me. Look at what can happen in life if you're not afraid to do what you love."
And the crowd goes wild.
Patti Putnicki is a prolific freelance writer who has crafted every thing from humor books to articles, video scripts and song parodies for some of the most recognized companies in the U.S. Her sweet spot is storytelling, uncovering that universal connection between subject matter and audience. When this Texas native is not writing, she can be found on the golf course (probably in the wrong fairway), at the gym, at the movies or seeking out her next story. Follow Patti on Twitter: @PattiPutnicki