‘Don’t underestimate us Asian women’

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Jona Xiao represents Asian-American women on the screen and on the field as the star quarterback of the No. 1-ranked flag football team, She-Unit. 

Jona Xiao has dedicated her life to a noble cause: fighting against racism against Asian-Americans by increasing AAPI representation however she can.

When she’s on the clock, Jona is an acclaimed Hollywood actor. She portrayed Daisy as a recurring character in “Hightown” on STARZ, and she voiced Young Namaari in the acclaimed Disney animation, “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

But when Jona is off the clock, she puts herself under the pressure of the playclock. The 33-year-old is the founder and captain of She Unit, a Los Angeles-based flag football team. As a Chinese-American woman, Jona has found herself fighting against stereotypes about Asian-Americans and women on the football field, but she lets her game speak for itself.

Her game talked her all the way up to an exclusive sponsorship by Team Milk, who chose Jona and three other women’s football players to drive home the message that “football is football.” Jona and her Team Milk teammates drove that message home during a Super Bowl spot, showing Americans that women also play and excel in what’s been considered a male-dominated sport.

The reality is that there are many prospective football stars out there, but they don’t even know that leagues exist for women. While women’s football is still fighting for mainstream recognition, there are tackle and flag leagues that give lifelong athletes like Jona a chance to join the game.

“There weren’t many opportunities for us girls to play football, and so I think what’s amazing about this [Team Milk] campaign, is it really encourages women to get involved in male-dominated sports like football,” Xiao told FanSided. “I love encouraging other Asian athletes, girls and women to get involved. It’s a sport that’s changed my life for the better, and I want more women to have that experience. And so Team Milk is doing a great job of promoting female footballers, which I think is fantastic.”Jona’s football life began in adulthood, while she was an actor working and living in Los Angeles. The St. Louis native grew up playing lacrosse, becoming an Academic All-American and All-State lacrosse player in high school. The lacrosse-football connection is exemplified by the Belichick family, but it’s something that Xiao picked up on, too.

“In my early 20s, I showed up for beach football one day, and I didn’t know what I was doing,” Xiao said. “But I was like, ‘Hey, can I throw?’ And they said yes. And so I started drawing routes on my hands. And there were some people there that saw potential in me and kind of coached me up in the game. So it all started at beach football. I would have my smoothie or milkshake, bring it with me to the fields, play football. That was a lot of my weekends.”

Flag football often has the reputation of being “soft”, as Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman once put it.

“People like me look at flag football and see it’s missing several elements that make us love football—namely, the violence,” Freeman wrote in 2018. “Americans love violence, and we especially love it in our football. This is unfortunate, but it’s true… Maybe the lack of physical play makes the whole thing feel too soft for old football heads.”

Even though “beach pickup” sounds like a casual throw-around, Xiao clarifies that there was nothing casual about it. She began picking up snaps in co-ed leagues throughout the L.A. area, but there were no flag football teams for women. Xiao wanted to change that, so she created She Unit in a way to push back against the “soft” reputation of flag football and the “soft” reputation that’s sometimes ascribed to the “best coast”, as Xiao put it.

“It was very organized pickup beach football,” Xiao said of her initial step onto the field. “And from there, I started playing in co-ed leagues. I think I was the only female quarterback that was throwing in those leagues at the time in the L.A. area. And then I started a women’s team, She Unit, to show off the talent that the West Coast has, because the East Coast has a mentality that the West Coast is soft, and I’m like, ‘We’ll show you.’ We wanted to highlight the female talent on the West Coast as well.”

Soon, Jona’s flag football career resembled her lacrosse career, as she garnered national recognition on the preliminary 2020 roster for the Team USA flag football team.

“I was on the 2020 prelim roster for Team USA, which was such an honor to get to represent my country,” Xiao said. “That was an amazing experience. The level of athlete that I got to play with and against from all over the world… it’s amazing to see that in so many of these other countries, football is so huge, especially flag football. The love of the sport, it’s just unrivaled.”

“And Jo [Overstreet] is a baller,” Xiao continued, a fellow Team Milk athlete who also made the Team USA roster. “I think the last time I played with Jo, we were playing in Brazil. We’ve gotten to travel all over the world, and it’s awesome. Anytime I get to hang out with Jo, as a person and as an athlete, she is arguably the best receiver out there. She makes my job way easier for sure. She makes so many one-handed catches, and she can jump ridiculously high. I was thrilled that we were both on Team Milk together. I’m like , ‘Joooo!’.”

Overstreet is known as “Lady OBJ”, a nickname she first earned for her incredible one-handed catches, but Jo soon got the hair to match Odell Beckham Jr’s iconic blonde faux hawk. If Jona had to pick her NFL counterpart, it would have to be Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson.

“I love Russell Wilson,” Xiao said as she reflected on her favorite NFL quarterbacks. “I actually picked No. 3 because of him. So the way I see him is that he’s not the fastest. He doesn’t have the biggest arm. But I really respect him as a leader, and he’s smart. And he plays smart. And so that’s who I like to model my game after. And he’s a little shifty, and I can be a bit shifty myself. So I would say Russell Wilson. Hey, I’m a big fan of No. 3.”

Funnily enough, both Wilson and Xiao are 33-year-old quarterbacks sharing the No. 3 jersey, and both have led their teams to world championships: Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowls, taking home the ring in 2013. Xiao’s She-Unit is currently the No. 1-ranked flag football team out of 876 men’s and women’s teams, according to the Flag Football World Championship Tour. They’re also two-time world champions, and a large part of that is due to Xiao’s shiftiness in the pocket and ability to withstand pressure. She-Unit’s No. 3 certainly launches it like Denver’s No. 3.

Even though Wilson is starring in Subway commercials these days, Xiao balances football with acting as her full-time job. After a full day of shooting, Xiao will often head to the fields, sometimes even heading straight into games from the studio.

“Luckily with acting, I’ve gotten to be part of a lot of really cool projects,” Xiao explained. “Usually, I film during the day for acting, but football is in the evenings and weekends a lot of times. And so sometimes, I’ll be filming, and then I’ll go straight to a football game or playing a tournament over the weekend. I am always on the go, which is why nutrition is so important to me and packing snacks and beverages that really fuel my performance. Milk is really important for me to sustain my best work in acting and also in football.”

Xiao is acutely aware of what her presence means to her teammates. Yes, Xiao is the star quarterback of the nation’s premier flag football team, and she made the Team USA prelim roster, but she is also a Chinese-American woman who has experienced racism and discrimination. In 2017, Jason Pham interviewed Jona for NBC Asian America, and the actor discussed how diversity shaped her life. Long before she taught Jon Hamm Mandarin and befriended Marisa Tomei, she bore the brunt of racist slurs at her St. Louis high school, where she was one of only five Asian-American students in her graduating class.

“Growing up, I did face a fair bit of racism,” Xiao told NBC News. “What it did was I had this chip on my shoulder where I had to prove people wrong.”

Xiao has been battling stereotypes about Asian-Americans and the “model minority myth” her entire life, but when she steps onto the football field, she faces more adversity: being a woman in a game that has long been reserved for men. Although women have been playing American football for over 100 years, many are still fighting to garner the respect they have spent years earning on the field. While many co-ed teammates enjoyed playing with Xiao as their quarterback, some underestimated her capabilities.

“I think every time I step on the football field, I put a little pressure on myself to perform because I feel like I’m representing women,” Xiao said. “If I do poorly, then people could make that comment, although it’s not fair. Like, ‘Oh, see, women can’t play football.’ And so I think it’s a really big job of mine to be one example of what females are capable of on the field.”

“I remember one of the first times I was throwing at Beach, this male quarterback was on a team. The first game, things were going well. He didn’t really say much. The second game started becoming like a tight game. I was about to call a play, and he just snatches the football out of my hands and he goes, ‘I’m throwing now.’ It was like, ‘Whoa.’”

“If he had asked nicely, I probably would have said yes, but that was so inappropriate. And I think I said, ‘You can leave.’ And he decided to stay and play receiver and I think we won anyway. [Laughs] So yeah, there’s definitely been some ups and downs. I’ve also played in a men’s league. And it was a really fun challenge. I had a couple of my female She-Unit teammates with me on that team. And so I love that challenge and breaking stereotypes for both women and Asians. It’s a challenge that I welcome.”

“We have a lot of stereotypes to overcome,” Xiao continued. “And I know a lot of people who still feel like, ‘Look: football, because it’s so tough on the body, it should just be for men. It’s not for women’s bodies.’ But I obviously strongly disagree. I think there’s no sport that’s just for one gender. There’s nothing that a male can do in the sport that a female can’t.”

“Yes, football takes a toll on your body, which is why I think it’s really important to focus on your training, your recovery. I think it’s just taking care of yourself, so that is for men and women, it is not as harsh on your body, because it is a tough sport. But I think women are more than capable of handling it and dominating it.”

Although Jona’s starpower sheds more light on what She-Unit and women’s flag footballers are accomplishing — Xiao has over 87,000 Instagram followers — she is quick to give dues to those who came before her. Vanita Krouch played quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker, safety and defensive back during her ten-year career as a flag football player. She appeared in seven national tournaments during that time and won eight national championships. When she retired from the game in 2016, she was enshrined in the National Flag Football Hall of Fame. To this day, quarterbacks like Xiao look to emulate Krouch.

“One of the world’s best quarterbacks is named Vanita Krouch,” Xiao said. “From what I know, she was one of the biggest influences and a pioneer in the sport. She’s been doing it longer than me. And I love that there’s more and more female quarterbacks out there, and I think we need more of them still, so I’m always encouraging girls and women to try the position. It can be a little stressful, but it can be very gratifying. And it’s awesome to get to step into that leadership role.”

Aside from perfecting her form, Xiao’s role at quarterback includes being a leader to her teammates. For Jona, a person who has persevered in a Hollywood landscape has been criticized for its issues with diversity, positivity is key. She encourages what her teammates do right in order to get the best out of them, and her teammates appreciate it: she is currently a team captain for She-Unit.

“I think one thing I’m very good at is recruiting,” Xiao said of her leadership qualities. “My receivers make me look good, which is very helpful. Also, just being positive and encouraging on the field. Everyone plays sports differently. For me, if a receiver drops the ball and I yell, ‘Catch the ball,’ they already know that, and I don’t think that’s helpful. I think it’s really seeing potential in people and seeing them at their potential and holding them to that, holding them accountable to that vision, and doing it in a supportive way.”

“And also, just encouraging us through the tough times. You’re going to have challenging game situations. You’re going to have rough calls that don’t go your way. Something that my fellow captain, Kim [Phifer], taught me was, if we’re getting frustrated at the refs, to bring everyone in. Here’s one example of that leadership, of saying, ‘Hey, look, the refs will do what they’ll do. But this game is in our control. We have the power to win this game. So let’s do that.’ I think those qualities are so important, especially at the quarterback position, because your confidence will have such a big impact on the team’s confidence.”

Xiao mentioned that Tom Brady is another quarterback she admires for how he uplifts his fellow teammates in impossible moments, such as facing a 28-3 Super Bowl deficit.

“I really look up to his focus on his body, his health, his nutrition, his mind game are part of the reasons why he’s so great,” Xiao said.

Jona’s fight for recognition and respect on the field makes sense in the context of the battles she’s fought over her lifetime. Born in Changsha, Hunan, China, Xiao and her family moved to Ithaca, New York when Jona was an infant. Jona describes herself as coming from “humble beginnings”, as she grew up in a trailer park in Ithaca before moving to St. Louis.

Jona has discussed how growing up as a first-generation Chinese-American was difficult for her because she wanted to pursue a career in acting. Her dad once told her that there were no opportunities for Asian actors, to which she pointed out Lucy Liu, a trailblazer who has inspired a generation of Asian-American women to follow in her footsteps.

There was no space to be an Asian-American actor, and there was no space to be an Asian-American athlete. Jona, like many Asian-Americans, was expected to excel academically, which she did.  Xiao majored in business and cinematic arts and minored in theatre arts at the University of Southern California, one of the most prestigious universities in the nation. Jona is brilliant, but her shine stretches beyond the confines of a classroom. She’s become a leader in Hollywood championing diversity, and she’s led She-Unit to becoming a top-ranked team.

“Growing up, I would always get made fun of for ‘eat, sleep and breathe education,’ because I got good grades, but I was in St. Louis, Missouri, at a high school and primary school that didn’t have many Asians,” Xiao said. “And so I felt like I was constantly being stereotyped as the nerd, the dork. And even though I love sports, and was doing pretty well in sports, people didn’t really see Asians as athletes. And so that’s why I think this is so important, that whatever your ethnicity is, that you’re not confined to a certain stereotype and to help break those stereotypes.”

“And for me, as an Asian woman, that Asian women can compete in sports. Asian women can make a huge impact in sports. And I think it scares a lot of little girls growing up if they don’t see a lot of that out there. And so being part of this [Team Milk] campaign and getting to represent in some way, at least Asian women, is a huge honor. So I hope that more people can really see the power that a female Asian athlete can have.”

“I remember a game where I was playing defense, and I was the only Asian I think, maybe in the entire league out of a few hundred women and the coach in front of me was like… He looks at me, and he looks at the receiver and he said, ‘Go to your quarterback and tell her to throw you the ball. Look who’s lined up over you.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, this should be interesting. I’m ready.’”

“So I ended up playing man [defense] on that girl, and then the quarterback tries to throw a post route, and I’m just covering her really well. And the quarterback’s like, ‘What happened?’ And she was like, ‘I don’t know. She was on me.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, don’t underestimate us Asian women.’”

“Yeah, being short and Asian was the reason for that,” Xiao laughed. “I actually really enjoy, in some ways, being underestimated. I encourage girls and women out there that if someone says you can’t, prove them wrong. You know they’re wrong.”

Even though others have tried to make Jona feel like she didn’t belong, that’s not the feeling Xiao gets from sports. Overall, flag football has been a welcoming place for Xiao, allowing her to embrace a role in which few Asian-American women have been cast.

“Growing up, I was always underestimated,” Xiao said, summarizing her journey. “People didn’t assume that I was athletic. At all. So for me, sports has always been a refuge and feeling a sense of belonging.  I always put a lot of effort into training and to being the best athlete I could be. In lacrosse, for instance, I ended up being an All-State lacrosse player while being one of the very few Asians in that sport as well. I was always feeling this responsibility to prove people wrong and to show what Asian athletes are capable of. And so it’s really cool that decades later, I’m still doing that, which I’m really grateful for that opportunity.”

Interestingly enough, Rose Low, another first-generation Chinese-American Angeleno, was the starting quarterback for the NWFL’s Los Angeles Dandelions in the early 1970s. Fifty years later, Jona is continuing that tradition in a new era, becoming one of four faces representing women’s football with Team Milk. Across Los Angeles, Jona represents what Asian women are capable of, reminding onlookers that they should never dare to underestimate Asian women.

Original artwork for this article was provided by Elliot Gerard. Follow him on Twitter (@elliotgerard) and Instagram (@elliotgerard), or check out more of his work at Heartlent Group. 

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