UNITE: Nausicaa Dell’Orto On Playing American Football In Italy
The athlete, league founder and team captain talks about bringing women together through sport.
The UNITE stories go deeper on Jordan Brand’s new film series celebrating the power of basketball. UNITE is a rallying cry for inspiring and empowering the next generation to never fly alone.
Photos: VERYRARE AGENCY, Francesca di Fazio and Andi King
Words: Tara Aquino
Born and raised in Milan, Nausicaa Dell’Orto, who’s the youngest of four siblings, has always been independent. In fact, her mother intentionally raised her that way. “When I was eight, my mom left me in the middle of Milan and told me to walk home, while she followed me in the car,” says Nausicaa, who’s now age 26. “She told me that, wherever I am in the world, I need to know how to get back home.”
Nausicaa’s independence and groundedness helped lead her to the football field (and not the soccer one). As the founder of the first female American football league in Italy, Nausicaa built the supportive community of athletes that she was missing. 10 years later, Nausicaa’s league is still the only one of its kind in Italy. As the Captain and Tight End of the championship-winning Italian National Team, as well as Sirene Milano, Nausicaa has helped inspire expansion of the sport throughout Europe.
After helping launch the Air Jordan I Mid “Milan,” Nausicaa shared her story, how she got into football and the importance of uniting athletes everywhere.
Before you played football, you were a cheerleader for the Seamen Milan men’s football team. How did you decide to start playing and create your own team?
I couldn’t stand still watching the guys play. My dad used to tell me, when you find your passion, you find new people. Right next to me, there were so many girls who wanted to play; I didn’t even have to rally them. Some were cheerleaders, and some were on the sidelines recording stats. One of them was Valeria Vismara, our team’s co-founder.
When we told the president of the men’s team that we wanted to play, he laughed and said, “A woman will never wear shoulder pads on my field.” He really couldn’t picture women playing. He was born into a culture where women “can’t” play soccer. Why would they play football?
So we found another coach, Valeria’s father, who believed in us. We started with seven girls, and then grew to 25, because girls in the park saw us playing. Then we found out that another team was being created in Bologna, so we decided to play them. From that game, the owner understood how many people were invested in it, so he decided to invest, too.
How does the American football league work in Italy, and what’s the support base like?
Our league is composed of 14 teams and North and South conferences. We have a national team, as well. We play seven vs. seven, and not 11 vs. 11, because there are generally less women playing football. We’ve started with a lower number in order to have more teams. The league is supported by small sponsors, like bakeries and doctor’s offices, and we pay a little fee for the field, like a club contribution. It would be nice to be athletes full-time, but everyone also has other jobs. Some of us are teachers, some are doctors and some are musicians. At night, we suit up and become football players.
As team captain, how do you bring players together?
Football is a sport where you have to stand while people are trying to bring you down. So, how do you bring them back up? You tell them, “You’ve got this” or “The next play is the best play.” I do a lot of huddles. I hug them a lot, so they know that we’re in this together.
One thing that our coach always says to us is, “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is the little extra. You have put the little extra in everything you do.” I always tell them that football taught me not to run away from anything. In football, the only way is through.
In your opinion, how does football unite people?
Football is a very intense sport, so you have to protect the player next to you. If you don’t, she could get really hurt. You basically put your life in the hands of someone else. That unites people, because it humbles you, and at the same time, it makes you understand that you need another person. Football teaches you what solidarity means, what a brotherhood or sisterhood means.
How would you describe the culture of American football for people in Italy?
It’s truly a community. The players bring their loved ones, and it becomes a home for everyone. They bond over these games. We say that we play for pizza, not for money. I brought my 10-year-old cousin, Nour, to the field. She loves football, because she needs discipline, but she also needs teammates who can help take her mind off of other things like bullying, in order to make her feel strong. Football is a very inclusive sport, since there is a position for every type of body. The characteristic that has always made you feel like an outsider can become your strongest weapon on the field. There’s always space for everybody.
What advice do you have for women who want to bring people together through sports?
Like I said, when you find your passion, you find your people. One of my girls created her own team in another city, and another created one in another city. It spreads. The only way to spread it is to spread the values you learned on the field. Go out there, provide access and share opportunities by sharing your passion. If you have a dream, and you want to put the hard work in, you will find somebody to help you. It only takes one yes to make it happen.
On the occasion of the AJI Mid “Milan” release, what’s been your relationship to Jordan Brand and MJ?
MJ was my brothers’ idol, and I always wanted to be like my brothers. My brothers and I shared a room when we were growing up, and they had the poster of MJ with his arms spread like wings. My brother told me that he liked MJ, because he’s unstoppable, he’s the best, and he has no fear. I’d always wear my brother’s Air Jordans, because I didn’t have my own, and my mother could never find my size. When I was 16, I started wearing my size. They were Air Jordan 1s — white, black and red.
The Air Jordan I Mid Milan is available globally at select retailers starting February 22.