Oregon State Bar Bulletin — FEBRUARY 2010
Profiles in the Law
Gridiron Gal:
Shannon Wilson Finds Joy and Release Playing Football
By Cliff Collins

Bam! Smash! Boom!

It’s Shannon I. Wilson for the defense, aiming to lead a team to victory.

But this is no courtroom scene. Instead, Wilson is an intimidating linebacker who “goes after it,” as her coach puts it.

Wilson, a Portland lawyer, spends many of her off hours as a key member of the Portland Fighting Fillies, a women’s professional football team organized last fall. With Wilson anchoring the linebacker corps and pounding out yards as a fullback on offense, the Fillies’ inaugural season features a full slate of games from March through June. The squad, which until recently played home games at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, will face teams from California, Idaho, Nevada and Utah.

The Fillies, whose motto is “Empowering women, one yard at a time,” are members of the American Conference of the national Women’s Football Alliance. We are not talking about touch or flag football here: This is knock-down, drag-out, tackle football, what the women’s pro teams refer to as “full-contact football,” with helmets and pads.

“It’s risky, definitely a dangerous sport,” concedes Wilson, 30, who emphasizes that the women, who range from age 18 to 46, work hard to condition properly, to try to avoid serious injury. Still, there are broken bones and busted knees, just as on any pigskin squad.

Team members come from all walks of life, from high-tech managers to teachers, doctors to military veterans. But many have sports backgrounds similar to Wilson’s: They are athletic and always have loved playing sports, but had few or no opportunities to play organized football, especially beyond high school.

Soccer Came First
Wilson, who was born in California and raised in Las Vegas, concentrated on soccer in high school. Her parents split up when she was in her early teens, and Shannon’s mother raised her and her two younger siblings by working three jobs. Wilson knew that sports would be her “ticket to go to college. I felt it was important for me to go to college. I wanted to make her proud.”

Acknowledging that Las Vegas can be “a tough town to grow up in,” Wilson says: “I challenged authority as a child. Sports kept me out of falling into trouble.”

Beyond that, Wilson really loved soccer, though: “It was everything to me. I put a lot into it, and got a lot out of it.”

She received a federal Pell Grant and athletic scholarship to Washington State University, then returned after one year to her hometown, to a full-ride soccer scholarship at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. During school breaks, Wilson worked as a security guard in a hotel-casino. On that job, she single-handedly identified five felons, and helped the FBI and Las Vegas police apprehend the perpetrators.

“I was always interested in, and gravitated toward, notions of justice and fairness,” explains Wilson, who seriously considered job overtures from the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. She was inspired by observing a federal prosecutor and by classes she took in constitutional and international law, and she also became interested in representing youth in the juvenile justice system.

“I like to be able to be put into a position where I could effect change,” she says. Wilson took the LSAT in college, figuring that whatever career path she ended up following, a law degree would be valuable to have. During her year at WSU, she fell in love with the Northwest, so that is where she applied to law schools. She attended Lewis & Clark Law School.

She completed her J.D. degree there and obtained a certificate in criminal law, as well as winning the Justice Robert E. Jones Award for Trial Advocacy and Courtroom Performance. Wilson’s first law job after passing the bar was with the Juvenile Rights Project, which she found rewarding but emotionally draining. She did contract work with Portland landlord-tenant attorney Frank Wall, and then opened a sole practice last spring in Northwest Portland.

Her practice involves DUI and misdemeanor criminal defense, tenant-landlord disputes, general litigation and juvenile defense. She enjoys practicing on her own, but like sole practitioners everywhere, she quickly discovered that running a firm of your own requires lots of time and energy. “There’s no clock-in, clock-out time. You are responsible for everything: accounting, advertising, networking — it’s all you.”

She is a member of Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and Oregon Women Lawyers, is registered with the Oregon State Bar’s Lawyer Referral Service, and participates on the OSB’s Military Assistance Panel.

Wilson makes time for volunteer and community activities, many related to sports. One of her biggest influences was her high school soccer coach, Victor Arbelaez, a former star soccer player who achieved legendary status in his years coaching in Las Vegas, and taught Wilson to believe in herself. So she tries to give back by working in her spare time with disadvantaged youth. Last year, she organized and coached soccer at Rigler K-8 School, a public school in Northeast Portland attended mostly by low-income Hispanic students.

Nicole Levine, the school counselor at Rigler, said Wilson taught the children about teamwork and how to “communicate, cooperate and work well together with each other,” qualities Levine works to foster. “She has an unbelievable ability to have a sense of what a child is experiencing and how to connect with them. She’s a skilled people-person.”

Football Gives Balance
As part of her role as a board member and program manager for the Fillies, Wilson is trying to start camps and programs for girls’ football. “Whatever body type you have, there’s a place on the field for you,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to provide girls with this sport. Just because you’re a bigger person or a smaller person doesn’t mean you can’t be athletic.”

She has spearheaded community outreach for the Fillies in Hillsboro to gain sponsors and advertisers who want to affiliate with a professional sport. A financial goal of the team is to “significantly compensate” players and coaches by 2013, she says.

Meanwhile, after playing for the Portland Shockwave women’s team for a time, Wilson is diving headlong into making a go with the Fillies. “We’re in this for the long haul,” she says. “Everything seems to be falling into place.”

Also falling may be many of the opponents in Wilson’s path on the field, suggests Lyn Lumley, coach and general manager of the Fillies. “She is a very good player, more aggressive than a lot of the guys I’ve coached,” he says. “If she’s as aggressive in the courtroom as she is on the field...”

Lumley praises Wilson’s fund-raising efforts, too. “Not only is she an outstanding football player, she’s also an outstanding human being,” he says.

Wilson says playing football helps her release tension from the stresses of law practice. “I feel so good that I am doing this,” she says. “I think more lawyers should play football. It’s such an intense profession. I need that intense play to balance it out. I love it; I’m hooked.”

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

For more information about Fillies, see www.fightingfillies.com

© 2010 Cliff Collins

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