"You're gonna get killed."
That's what my mom said when I told her I was trying out for a women's professional football team. Not some pansy-ass flag football team, either. Full-contact football, played according to NFL rules with shoulder pads, helmets, the whole shebang.
She thought the idea was absurd. So did almost everyone I told. You, a 33-year-old shrimp who smokes a pack of Marlboro Lights a day and has been known to complain, loudly, about having to lug home a gallon of milk, playing professional football?
"No, really," I say. "I'm going to try out to be a professional football player."
They said I must be crazy. You'll get hurt, they said. Squashed. Nose bloodied. Laid flat. Knocked cold and sent to the emergency room. Dead.
I couldn't blame them. My 110-pound frame, all 5 feet 2 inches of it, doesn't exactly conjure up a gridiron image. Besides, women don't play football. Not in Texas, home of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and the Kilgore Rangerettes. The boys play ball. All the girls need to do is shake it on the sideline and smile real purdy.
Truth was, I thought the idea was absurd, too.
Initially, I had no plans to try out for the Dallas Diamonds, the newest member of the 4-year-old Women's Professional Football League. I didn't even know the WPFL existed until three days before the April 27 tryout at Birdville Stadium in North Richland Hills, the Diamonds' home field.
The Diamonds are an expansion team this year, joining the other 10 teams that make up the WPFL. The Diamonds will play in the American Conference against six teams, including the Alamo City Battle, the L.A. Amazons and the two-time reigning WPFL Champions, the Houston Energy. There are another five teams in the National Conference, including the New England Storm, the Missouri Prowlers and the Wisconsin Riveters. The season begins August 3 and consists of a 10-game schedule, followed by the playoffs.
The April 27 tryout, the second of three open to any woman 18 or older, represented a rare chance for area women to enter the hallowed realm of Texas football. To me, it was simply an amusing story. I logged onto the Internet and loaded the Diamonds' Web page, www.dallasdiamondsfootball.com. I guffawed at the sight of the team's logo: a gigantic sparkling rock planted in the middle of a capital D. How appropriate. Dallas women love big rocks, slipped on their fingers or implanted in their chests.
I scrolled onto the team's message board trying to find out what type of woman would try out for the Dallas Diamonds. The other women had the same question. One woman, who described herself as 5-foot-4, 115 pounds and a size "one," was particularly virginal.
"I heard about the football team and have been debating trying out," she said. "The reason for all the debating is that I am quite a petite female and I have never played football, in fact I hardly even watch it, so I do not know anything, but it is in support of women's rights and sounds like fun, so I want to try it."
I thought, "This woman is my size. Not only that, she sounds like the type who used to play with dolls. I could probably take her out."
I never liked dolls. But I loved football. Once, when I was growing up in Milwaukee, I had a Miami Dolphins helmet. Actually it was a generic helmet, but I painted the Dolphins' logo on it sometime after Bart Starr became the Green Bay Packers' coach. Back then, my dad and I made a habit out of goddamning the television every Sunday. After the games, I would strap on the helmet. I also had an NFL-regulation-sized ball, which was too big for me to grip. I would just tuck it under my arm and run around the back yard, sidestepping imaginary defenders.
My dad also told me that when I was 3 years old, I used to dress up in another helmet and shoulder pads and try to play football with my older brothers. "They used to let you play with them," he tells me. "They were careful not to step on you."
I realized that my interest in football was more instinctive than I had thought.
It also occurred to me that I would have tried out for football if I had been a boy or, alternatively, if there was a league for girls. But there wasn't. I played tennis and basketball instead. When my high school started a girls' varsity soccer program in my freshman year, I quickly developed a taste for the slide tackle.
The memories made my dad chuckle, which explains why he didn't sound surprised to hear I was trying out for a football team. It may also explain why he was the only person who didn't tell me I would get killed. He just wished me good luck.
During the first tryout, held April 6, it rained all day and the temperatures stayed in the 40s. Some women reportedly froze their panties off. None went home early.
The weather is similarly bleak when I get to Birdville Stadium in North Richland Hills at 7 a.m. sharp. A flag-whipping wind whistles through the stadium, followed by the rumble of an approaching storm.
"I've already had four people call and ask if it'll be canceled for rain," says Diamonds owner Dawn Berndt, shaking her head sadly. "I tell 'em, 'We play football in the rain.'"
The prospect of rain does not scare me. What does is Berndt's announcement that the tryout will begin with an aerobics session. It's a good thing cancer is not contagious; I wouldn't want to give some innocent woman a death sentence when I start hacking up pieces of my lungs.
After forking over my $55 one-time tryout fee, I sit down at a table with my registration form. It's really a legal release by which I agree to pay for any medical bills should I get injured during the tryout. It also makes me swear that "to the best of my knowledge" I am not pregnant. I'm sure Troy Aikman never had to answer that question.
The form also asks me what position I want to play. The question catches me off guard. Despite my daydreaming about taking out Little Miss Plays With Dolls, I didn't seriously entertain any notions about making the team. Still, I couldn't help but smile when someone handed me my practice jersey. It was No. 9--the same number I wore as captain of my high school soccer team.
Out on the field, the women begin to gather along the sideline. Some stretch and others jog in place, but most just stand around and silently size each other up. They are a bizarre collection, a witch's brew of race, bodies and personality types.
Mullet heads trade looks with roly-poly girls. Some arms bulge with muscles, while others jiggle like Jell-O. A number of legs display varicose veins. Quite a few more sport tattoos. Most of the women appear to be twentysomething, but there are older women present. One looks like she could peddle Jiffy to Oprah Winfrey's target audience. When I sit down to lace up my sneaks, I notice a meaty, bowlegged woman walking straight at me. She's wearing NBA-style shorts that hang past her knees and she's hiked up her socks like Nick Van Exel.
"Hi," she says, offering her hand and a smile. "I'm T."
T plunks down next to me, her weight causing the bench to vibrate. I ask her if she came to the first tryout, and she shakes her head.
"This is all new to me," she says, adding that she hopes it rains.
She points to the towering stadium seats and says she just heard that if it doesn't rain, we're going to have to run those things. Ten times.
I'm too shocked to speak. One woman, who has been eavesdropping, says, "Is that 10 times up and down or five times up and five down?"
At 8 a.m. head coach Daniel Alexander, a seven-year veteran of the peewee ranks, orders everyone to follow him. The women stop gabbing and fall in line behind Alexander, who jogs out to midfield. The women, 62 of them in all, gather around in a circle.
Alexander says he doesn't know what our beliefs are, but he insists on starting every practice with a prayer. I roll my eyes. I detest mandatory prayer sessions, but what the hell? I get down on my knees along with everyone else and listen as Alexander asks God to give us a good practice and protect us from injury.
God and football. I must be in Texas now.
The Birdville Stadium is the kind of oversized monument to boys' football that has always given me the creeps about Texas, especially when I see Dallas schoolchildren attending class in portable buildings that make the city's public schools look like shanty towns. Just 3 years old, the $12 million complex seats 12,000 fans. The home to the Haltom-Richland high school rivalry, the stadium draws between 5,000 and 7,000 fans during regular-season games and 10,000 during the playoffs.
Diamonds owner Berndt is hoping to draw a fraction of that--some 2,000 fans to every home game--just to break even. Berndt, an American Airlines mechanic and a former state curling champion from Wisconsin, decided to buy a team after reading an article about the WPFL last year. To fund the venture, she took a loan out against her 401(k). So far, her investment would buy a Honda Civic.
"I'm a one-woman operation," she explains.
The WPFL is a professional league, rather than a volunteer organization, à la Little League Baseball, because its founding mothers still have faith in its potential to capture the oh-so-tempting dollar Americans shell out for sports entertainment. Houston Energy owner Robin Howington has already discovered how elusive that dollar is. In her first season, Howington says she lost $60,000. Last year she lost $20,000--the same amount she spent on advertising that ultimately failed to attract a crowd.
"We've won back-to-back championships, and I still meet people every day in Houston who have never heard of us," Howington says. "We've learned how to stretch a nickel into a dollar like you've never seen."
To her surprise, Howington says, she encounters few people who say women shouldn't play football. In an era when high school girls play sanctioned ice hockey and the U.S. women dominate world soccer, Howington says people are no longer shocked by the idea of women playing contact sports.
The United States may be a leader in the world of women's sports, but it is foremost a capitalist society. And in this country, no audience means no sponsors. The WPFL, which began play in 1999 with a series of publicly embraced exhibition games between the Minnesota Vixens and Michigan Minx, has successfully captured small sponsors and a few bigger ones, including Coca-Cola and Nextel. But it is still waiting for a Nike or a Reebok to show up.
No sponsors and thin audiences also mean the teams have no money to buy advertising, which, in turn, is needed to build an audience. It's a chicken-or-egg riddle, which Berndt hopes to solve by charging $15 at the door. Her target audience is parents who can't afford to take the family to Texas Stadium or the American Airlines Center.
But Berndt will be lucky to cover her operating expenses, $50,000, including the cost of an ambulance service. Berndt will foot the players' medical insurance, but the women will have to buy their own pads and helmets. For now, the coaches are volunteers.
Ticket sales, however, are only part of an equation that Berndt says has one simple solution: In order to create and maintain a steady fan base, she must put a quality football team on the field. Right now, she's got just three months to do it.
I do not possess the vocabulary required to describe the pain I felt in my gut when the aerobics instructor made us put our legs in the air and do crunches. Unable to make it through the entire drill, I laid back and felt my T-shirt soak up the rain that had come and gone. I did, however, keep my legs in the air, hoping nobody would notice.
After that, we broke up into groups of 15 and scattered to the four corners of the field for drills. My group started with the 40-yard dash. As we formed two lines, an assistant coach reminded us that we were racing against the clock. The time to beat was 5.1 seconds--a record set by a woman during the first tryout who could also bench-press 10 pounds more than her body weight.
When I got to the line, I heard the whistle go off. An eternity passed before my brain sent the appropriate signals to my feet. As I ran, my muscles and ligaments sounded like long-lost cousins reintroducing themselves at a family reunion.
In line, the women quizzed each other about their times while they waited for their second turn. They said "way to go" and "good job" a lot, leaving the impression that they were just being supportive. But I suspected they were ranking themselves. I know I was. On my second run, I finished in 5.4 seconds--among the fastest in the group.
The time gave me hope of being able to drive myself home as we jogged over to the endurance test. It involved two laps around the field, followed by a trip through four sets of tires and the requirement that we hop on one leg over two tackling dummies laid on their sides.
We used to do drills like this back in high school and, later on, in college. Next to scrimmages, they were my favorite. The longer they were, the more distance I put between my teammates and me. Memories of those days came flooding back as I started around the field. When I finished the first lap, my lungs reminded me that my days of being in peak physical health ended 10 years ago--the same time I started smoking.
I managed to make my way through the tires and over the dummies without kissing the turf, but I couldn't hide my disappointment at the end. It wasn't my time so much as the realization that I no longer have the body I once had. Thank God Monique came around, joining me with palms on knees for support as we stood there gulping like Mississippi catfish coming up for air. I had never met Monique, who says she is 31, but we might as well have been high school teammates. She looks at me and says, "We have gotten old."
Earlier in the morning, coach Alexander had established his ability to corral the group's spirit by instructing us to answer, "I've got your back," whenever he shouts, "Who's got your back?" There at midfield, the women had eagerly piled on top of one another and answered his call with game-day enthusiasm.
That spirit resurfaced when Big Teresa, a 240-pound woman who bears a shocking resemblance to the late comedian John Candy, began walking midway through her run. The Jiffy mom suggested we run with her. And the group did, persuading Big Teresa to keep running. Last time out, she could only complete one lap. Today, she finished the entire drill and improved her time.
Big Teresa, I later learned, is a 40-year-old grandmother who had impressed Alexander with her hitting ability during the last tryout. "She put three of my coaches on their butts," Alexander says. "We just died laughing."
The last one in line for the endurance test, Big Teresa was first in line at the bench press. After matching the 100 pounds she lifted last time, Big Teresa called for 10 more. Her friendly brown eyes adopt a homicidal gaze as she pushes the weight up once, then twice. Like husbands at a maternity ward, the group closes in around her again and starts screaming "push" during the third lift. Despite the encouragement, the bar stops in midair and falls, prompting the spotter to intervene.
It was 5-foot-3-inch Monique who proved to be the group's strongest. With her Rocky Bleier build, she lifted 110 pounds and smiled as she did it. That smile was still there when I humbly put my 65-pound bar back in its place. Monique tosses her head back, sticks out her chest and says, "You run behind me." She then hikes her thumb at Big Teresa and adds, "We run behind her. That's the way it works."
During the break, some women drove off to the local Whataburger. Others came prepared with packed coolers, and they eat in small groups, some with their children. I swallow a protein bar and light up a cig.
The time-out was my chance to find out more about the group. One woman, Susan Horton, looked at me like I was crazy when I asked her why she wants to be a professional football player. She already is one. Last year, she was willing to commute to Austin from Fort Worth three times a week just to play cornerback for the 2-year-old Austin Rage.
Horton, who wears a fresh surgical scar on her knee, wants to play for the Diamonds because the three-hour commute to Austin is more treacherous than the prospect of reinjuring the ligament she tore last year.
Like many of her teammates, Charity Warren says, she's wanted to play football ever since she was a kid. She used to play with her brothers, one of whom became an All-American. She remembers showing up for peewee tryouts, only to be told girls couldn't play. Thereafter, she tried to play with the boys at recess.
"After three or four times, the school made a rule that girls couldn't play with the guys under any circumstances," Warren says. "They thought the girls were going to get hurt. They thought we were frail things. But at that time, we were all equal."
While Horton argues that girls can match the boys at the peewee level, she doesn't believe the same is true in high school or beyond. By then, the physical differences are too great. Horton also doesn't hold any illusions that the level of WPFL football will match that in the NFL. That's not the point.
Maybe one day the WPFL will give little girls a career to dream about, just as the NFL does for little boys. But for Horton, the WPFL has already allowed her to realize her dream--not of being a professional football player, but of being able to play in a real game of football. Still, Horton says it was fun last year taunting her brother, the All-American, with the news that she made the Rage. "He said, 'Well, I never thought my sister would be the first one in the family to go pro, but go for it."
It's that simple chance to play, precious now for its rarity, that coach Alexander says makes these women different than the men he played with in college. With a few exceptions, none of the women here has ever played tackle football, and, as a result, they aren't equipped with many skills. But they have more desire than Alexander has ever seen.
"They're like, 'I want this bad. I don't care what position it is; I want to play,'" Alexander says. "These women come out here and say, 'Teach me, coach.' They are just like sponges."
Like the men who typically show up at minicamps, Alexander says, the women here will need to get in better shape. But so far he's been impressed with their athleticism. He is, nevertheless, disappointed with the size of his crop. The women are not as big as he had hoped, and, with just one tryout left, his hope of building a line of 250-pounders is growing increasingly dim.
But Alexander is already devising a solution to that problem. He's spent hours watching last year's championship game, in which the Houston Energy relied on their running game to trounce the Rage. He claims to be cooking up a few new tricks the league hasn't seen so far but says his playbook is confidential.
The WPFL is "more of a conservative league. There's not a lot of blitzing, and they don't do very much passing," Alexander says. "I'm going to revolutionize this league."
After the final tryout, set for May 11, Alexander says, he'll invite a maximum of 100 women to a two-day minicamp the following week. From there, he'll select a final roster of 54 players. Only 90-some-odd women have tried out so far, a couple of dozen short of what Alexander had hoped for, but he says his hardest task will be deciding whom to cut.
Before the break, Alexander had instructed the women to be back on the field at noon. But the women are back out there a half-hour early. They help themselves to footballs and begin tossing and kicking them around. As I watch, I mull over Horton's comments, and it dawns on me that I am a lot like they are. Feeling my muscles growing cold, I forgo my after-lunch cigarette and join them.
Until this day, I had assumed "Who Let the Dogs Out" was a fictional song, invented by whatever ad agency handles the Visa account. I stand corrected when I hear the song blaring out of the stadium's speakers, mixed in a short rotation with Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" and the Temptations' "Treat Her Like a Lady."
Out in the center of the field, the women start barking.
"Who let the dogs out?"
"Woof. Woof, woof."
By midafternoon, these women are ready to hit. Alexander reserved most of the afternoon for a group tackling session, in part because he wanted to save the most popular drill for last. But it also helped reunite the group's scattered egos.
While the morning session was designed to test for fitness, the afternoon drills were a search for talent. Everywhere I looked, I saw women whose eyes reflected their determination. Women such as Lori, who left no one in our group wondering about her desire to be the Diamonds' quarterback.
The three-pronged passing drill required us to hit a 3-foot target from 20 yards and hit a moving target from the same distance before heaving the ball as far as we could. Most of the women in my group just took the ball, hotfooted around and flung it. But when Lori stepped up, she got down in a crouch, scanned the field left, then right, said "hut, hut" and dropped back to pass. She sailed her first ball over the target through the end zone. With her second ball, she unzipped a spiral that buried itself into her receiver's chest.
Many others displayed a desire to pass, but none could hit the stationary target, and nobody was able to toss the ball more than about 30 yards. No wonder the Houston Energy stayed on the ground.
I didn't realize how excited I was when I stepped up to the line in the receiving drill. As a result, I misheard the coach when he said run 10 yards, look right and catch the ball. All I heard him say was "go deep."
On his hut, I took off from the 40 and sprinted down the sideline. It was fourth and 10, two minutes to go and the Vikings were down by three. I, Randy Moss, am going to land Daunte Culpepper's 50-yard toss and score the winning touchdown that will clinch the title and be replayed on the Monday Night Football highlight reels for years.
I was thankful I didn't get beaned in the back of the head; I was still running long after the pass hit the ground.
Before that mishap, I started to believe I could actually make this team. I wasn't so sure when I got back to the line and watched one woman after another snag the coach's passes. By then, the idea of becoming a Dallas Diamond no longer seemed absurd, at least not for the reasons I initially imagined. Now, I simply didn't know if I was good enough.
My doubt grew when I crossed paths with Judy Palmer, who stands 5-foot-11, weighs 248 pounds and can bench-press 180. When she looked down at me and grinned, all I could see was the sunlight reflecting off the gold tooth in the front of her mouth.
There had been a minor hitting drill in the morning, involving two unmanned dummies. But this drill required us to clear two pairs of coaches, each equipped with handheld blocking pads, before tackling a full-sized dummy, which a fifth coach pulled away as each tackler approached.
I soon learned that girth alone does not a good hitter make. Some of the heavier women, those who looked like the most promising tacklers, lumbered into the coach's forearms only to be bounced back. Others simply fell over. Some of the best hitters were the compact ones, like Susan Horton, who got her shoulders down low before barreling through the obstacle.
Judy Palmer was the standout. She plowed through the pads, sending a pair of coaches sailing, before pouncing on the last dummy like a lion on a slow-legged dik-dik. When she arose from the turf, her smile glimmering like Fort Knox, the crowd erupted into a chant of "Judy, Judy, Judy."
I knew the pain had caught up with me the moment I awoke the next morning. Just lying in bed I could feel the throb. The mere act of moving my legs set off an avalanche of ache.
I was a deep-sea diver walking the ocean floor, my throwing arm dangling at my side, as I plodded into the bathroom. In the medicine cabinet, the ibuprofen beckoned. There have been days when I wondered how I ever survived before the invention of Advil, but not today. If I actually were to play football, I realize, I would have to learn how to live with some pain.
It was a brave thought. Later that day, I popped a couple of pills before heading out to the Whole Foods store on Greenville Avenue with my boyfriend Tom. The medicine works wonders for minor aches, but it couldn't numb the strange new thoughts that entered my head. It happened at the deli.
We had just ordered a half a pound of Genoa salami when this woman butts in front of us, her mouth jawing into a cell phone. She yaps out an order for turkey--the lean kind--and resumes her conversation. My eyes drift down to her basket. A health nut, she must be, what with her low-fat muffins and enough green beans to feed a cow. In between the blabbing, she slurps a smoothie. It's probably got protein powder in it.
Everything about her says "I just got back from the gym," only it doesn't look like she actually broke a sweat. Her white tank top is fresh. So, too, are her shorts, which are cut short to reveal perfectly bronzed legs. My eyes wander up to the back of her head, where she has pulled her hair into a ponytail, which taunts my nose.
She is shorter than I am.
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I was sizing her up. Worse, I was overwhelmed by the desire to drop back three steps, lower my shoulders and slam her and her cell phone into the meat counter. In my mind, I see beans flying and her sprawled out on the floor, there beneath the Parmigiano Reggiano. Now that would give her something to talk about.
I lean over to Tom and whisper, "I could take her out."
"If you make this team," he says, "it's going to be like hanging around with a midget Mike Tyson."
Good point. But if I were to make this football team, I would no longer have to imagine decking women who agitate me. For the first time in my life, I could hit them for real. With shoulder pads, helmets, the whole shebang. Now that's an opportunity I just can't pass up.