When Amelia McCarthy was in junior high in the early 1980s, she ran home from school one day “so excited I couldn’t stand it,” she recalls. After watching her toss a football in gym class, the boys’ junior high coach had asked her to quarterback the team. But at home her enthusiasm ran up against years of social conditioning.
“Girls don’t play football,” her mother told her.
“Believe it or not, I had to wear a dress every day in grade school,” says the 35-year-old trial attorney for Gass Weber Mullins in Milwaukee, who adds that her mom had the same rule for her sisters. “It wasn’t until junior high that I got to wear pants, and that was once a week, on Fridays. I love wearing dresses, but the problem is — try playing football in a dress.”
A pair of shorts under her skirt solved the adolescent McCarthy’s lunchtime tackling concerns, but it would be another 20 years before McCarthy had another shot to play quarterback — this time for Wisconsin’s first-ever women’s professional football team, the Kenosha-based Riveters, formerly of the Women’s Professional Football League.
“It was magical, to have the privilege to be the starting quarterback for the first women’s professional football team in Wisconsin and to go undefeated in [my] first season,” McCarthy says of her 2002 season with the Riveters. “What came from that was a recognition that for the first time in my life, I was really a pioneer.”
Balancing the law and professional football seems an exhausting task. McCarthy made lengthy trips several times a week from her Milwaukee law office to her job with the Riveters. After two- or three-hour practices, she would frequently head back to the office, where she might work until sun-up. Rather than exhaust her, football energized her.
“You can’t imagine how incredible it was to be on the football field,” McCarthy says. “We talk about the passion of being a trial lawyer and the competitive hunger. [Football] pushed me to greater lengths and depths in my work because it made me that much more competitive.”
It helped that this time her mother supported her. Lori McCarthy was easy to spot on the Riveters’ sideline — she wore McCarthy’s No. 14 jersey to every game.
“The roles have kind of reversed,” McCarthy says about her parents and their attitudes toward her football career. “My dad has always been very supportive in athletics, but when I told [them] I was playing football, my mom was ecstatic and my dad was ecstatic for the opportunity, but more apprehensive. He doesn’t want to see his little girl get hurt.”
The rigorous time commitment forced McCarthy to hang up her cleats after her first and only season with the Riveters, but she continues to be a pioneer. Along with fellow attorney Bridget Hubing, and Elaine Gonya, the head athletic trainer at Milwaukee’s Alverno College, McCarthy has created Shatter the Ceiling, a company comprising two divisions: the Milwaukee Momentum, the city’s first women’s professional football team and a member of the National Women’s Football Association, and a mentorship program that will pair inner-city female high school athletes with women collegiate athletes.
“She’s a great role model for me as a young lawyer,” says Hubing, an attorney with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren in Milwaukee, where McCarthy worked while playing for the Riveters. “She cares about her clients, and that really shines through in her work. She’ll do what it takes to do the right thing in all of her cases.
“I’ve seen her interact with people of all ages, and she’s just got something about her. She’s somebody you look up to.”
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Cameli, who also worked with McCarthy at Reinhart, couldn’t agree more: “Amelia is, without any expectation of a return or acknowledgment, and at great expense to her in both time and money, involved with projects that will help women realize their dreams.”
“I never knew I would be in a position to give back,” says McCarthy, who was named managing member of Gass Weber Mullins in July. “To be in that position, and hopefully break some barriers for other people, is incredible.”
The youngest of four children, McCarthy grew up in Naperville, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago recognized for its affluent neighborhoods and excellent school system. Although the McCarthy kids were able to take advantage of the schools, the family was not wealthy. McCarthy says she learned to work hard from her mom, who “has worked two jobs as long as I can remember,” as a CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) instructor and a high school English and drama teacher.
Taking their cue from Lori, the McCarthy kids were theatrically inclined, participating in dinner theater productions and choirs, but Amelia’s passion was always for sports. Although her mother cut short McCarthy’s junior high football dreams, she never discouraged her from participating in more traditional female sports — volleyball, basketball and softball in high school, and basketball and softball as an undergraduate at Carthage College. McCarthy herself thought she left team athletics behind for good when, in her senior year of college, she opted out of competitive sports for a seat as president of student government. There the international business major encountered a new set of obstacles.
“I worked with several company executives on different projects to better the general environment on campus,” McCarthy says. “We would come up with these great ideas only to find out later, ‘that’s great, but you can’t because of this regulation or law.’
“I wanted to have the knowledge so that when I went into the business world, nobody could say, ‘You can’t make this happen because the law restricts you.’ [So] I went to Marquette, and got involved with moot court and fell in love with the courtroom.”
McCarthy also volunteered in the inner city and witnessed the lack of resources people there face every day. She had never fully realized the difficulties many young women in particular have to face — including a lack of role models and mentors. Although McCarthy worked multiple jobs to put herself through Carthage and Marquette Law School, after her experiences volunteering she knew she was fortunate just for the opportunity.
“If it was hard for me in high school,” she remembers thinking, “I cannot imagine what it must be like for these girls in inner-city schools. If it was difficult for me, how are we expecting people [to do it] with much less of an opportunity, much less mentorship?”
McCarthy knew she wanted to give back; she just didn’t know how. Football seemed an unlikely means for addressing the serious situation McCarthy saw in Milwaukee. But her season with the Riveters gave root to the seed that had been planted in McCarthy’s mind during law school. She worked with Hubing and Gonya to create Shatter the Ceiling. The three women are ideal for the task, all having played professional football: Gonya played with McCarthy on the Riveters, and Hubing played for Kenosha’s Northern Ice after McCarthy recruited her to Reinhart.
“Amelia is acutely aware of the way that participation in sports has helped her as a person and a professional,” says Ralph Weber of Gass Weber Mullins, who also worked with McCarthy at Reinhart. “She’s also a very generous person and wants to create the opportunity for young women to receive the same sort of benefits.”
As the Momentum (which drew about 500 fans to each game at Charles Hart Park in Wauwatosa) wrapped up its first season with a 4-4 record, the work had only begun for McCarthy, Hubing and Gonya, who hope to have a pilot mentorship program in place before the end of the year — all the while gearing up for another football season.
McCarthy admits she would love to play this coming season. But her new responsibilities running the firm as a managing member — not to mention her work with Shatter the Ceiling — may prohibit that. “But on the sidelines not only did I get to be a part of the game, I got to watch an entire community embrace a new women’s sport.”
Although the plan for the mentorship program is to start small with just a few high school and college athletes initially participating, they have hopes of extending the program into other educational areas, such as fine arts and government, all with the goal of putting college within the grasp of inner-city kids. “The reason football really complements [the mentorship program] is it’s not just lip service,” McCarthy says. “We’re saying, ‘No, we really mean it, you can do and be anything you want to be.’ Football being one of the last uncharted territories for women, it’s great to be able to point to them [and say], ‘Girls can do everything the guys can do. Come with me to a football game and you’ll see.’
“Our number one accomplishment will be when one mentee goes to college and becomes a mentor for somebody else. Once that happens, then it will have been a success. I’m hoping that will happen tenfold.”