By Rebecca Vesely
Friday, June 28, 2002
Women are building the teams of their dreams. As yet few fans have come, although the first "SupHer Bowl" is being televised in Pittsburgh. The players love the thrill of throwing another person into the dirt and racing toward a goal post.
SANTA ROSA, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)--On a recent summer evening at a rural high school football field edged by cow farms, the dreams of Shea Cannon and 27 other women came true.
Suited up in red and yellow jerseys, pads and helmets, and with the support of 150 screaming fans, they played their first ever pro football game as the Santa Rosa Scorchers, one of a growing number of women's full-contact professional football teams sprouting up across the country. The sport is becoming so popular that on Saturday, the National Women's Football League will hold its first "SupHer Bowl" in Pittsburgh, to be broadcast live on local television.
"It's the best feeling in the world," says Cannon, owner, player and unofficial den mother for the Scorchers. "When you're on the field and you look at your teammates and you know they have that feeling too, it's indescribable."
In the past two years, women's pro football has expanded from a few Midwest teams to more than 75 in seven spring and fall leagues nationwide. The first women's pro football season kicked off in fall 1999 between the Minnesota Vixens and the now-defunct Lake Michigan Minx. Today, the largest league is the National Women's Football League, which consists of 24 teams on the East Coast and in the South.
Women's pro football is no powder-puff game. Players follow the same rules set by the National Football League, though like the Women's National Basketball League, they play with a smaller ball.
"This is the most coachable team I've ever worked with," says Scorchers defensive coordinator Craig Gorski, a 19-year veteran coach of boys' football. "The girls are more focused on the field and they don't have the egos that men have."
And these women rip up the field. The Scorcher's first game, against the Boise Xtreme from Idaho, provided the strategy and hard-hitting contact of men's football. Johnnie Griffin, a petite, ponytailed wide receiver and defensive back for the Xtreme, flew through the air, grabbing a Scorchers player twice her size around the waist and flinging her onto the field.
"It's the adrenaline rush, I just love tackling people," says the birdlike Griffin, an electrician who played on boys' football teams in junior high and high school. "I used to tell my mom when I was a kid that I wanted to play on an all-women's team; all of our dreams are coming true now."
For these women, playing football is a dream that can't be substituted with another sport.
"I just need to hit people," says Jessica Lucas, linebacker for the Scorchers. Lucas was a cheerleader in high school who wanted to be on the field "so bad," but her older brother said he would quit the team if she joined. So Lucas waited for him to graduate before getting picked for the junior varsity team.
"I've never had this much fun playing with the guys," says a sweat-drenched Lucas, holding her ruby-red helmet, with a huge grin on her face despite losing 14-28 to the Xtreme. "We're a real team, and everyone has so much heart."
Women's tackle football is far from becoming a sister organization to the National Football League, as many in the sport hope will happen someday. Because the leagues are so new, most players have little experience playing in actual games. For those who were on boys' teams in high school, getting onto the field wasn't exactly a regular event. And the sport itself needs to find its audience--most major U.S. cities have at least one team, but few would-be fans know they exist.
"Women's football is a mess out there," says Karen "Boo" Hunter, a player for the California Quake and unofficial chronicler of women's pro football through her Web site. "It's good in a way because it gives us a chance to practice and work on our skills, but there's no unity and people don't take us seriously."
Game experience is critical in tackle football, where practice can be limited so players don't injure their own teammates. The Scorchers defensive line Samantha Brinkerhoff, at 5 feet 10 inches and 200 pounds, is not allowed to hit quarterbacks during practice, Gorski says. The first season conditions players to withstand the sheer physical force of the game.
"You can't coach around shock," says Jay Hatfield, owner of the Boise Xtreme, which played its first season in 2001. "The first game we played, these women's eyes were huge in their helmets coming off the field."
Cannon, who played the 2001 season with the now-defunct San Francisco Tsunami, says that the physical demands of the game can make it hard to find and keep players.
"After every game you feel like you've been in a car accident," Cannon says. "Your tolerance level gets higher after each game, but you have to get used to it. And you have to get used to the bruises," she adds. "We're not exactly the sexiest bunch in shorts."
Players say they enjoy challenging stereotypes about women's tackle football. "I was at the gym the other day and a guy said to me, 'You're such a pretty girl, I wouldn't think you'd play football,'" says Leslie Beer, second string for the Scorchers and a massage therapist who had never played football before. "And someone else asked me if I got the bruises on my arms from a boyfriend," she adds. "I don't even have a boyfriend!"
Beyond the physical demands of the game, the cost and time involved in running a team means that the sport is not for the faint-hearted. Many team owners and players must do absolutely everything on a shoestring, from providing proper equipment to building a Web site. At the Scorcher-Xtreme game, for instance, ice for an injured player is sought at the concession stand.
"It's making sure that every little detail is taken care of," says Cannon, 31, who holds down a full-time job and is a wife and mother of two girls. "It's finding sponsors, booking venues, buying water for the team--and it takes a lot of time."
Hatfield, who started the Xtreme because his wife Jessica wanted to play, says travel and expenses take their toll. The way the leagues are structured means that nearby teams sometimes don't play one another, he says. The Xtreme traveled to places as far away as Arizona for games, instead of going up against closer teams in states like Wyoming.
"The leagues need to stop worrying about expansion across the United States, and instead focus on organizing so teams don't have to travel so far," Hatfield says. "The current system is killing people on travel and killing leagues on cost."
The Hatfields should know. In 2000, while the couple was living in southern Oregon, Jessica Hatfield drove more than five hours each way for the chance to play for the Sacramento Sirens. This year, Jay Hatfield says that he has shelled out thousands of dollars in traveling expenses for the team.
The financial commitment extends to players as well. Players must have their own health insurance, and either pay for their uniforms or pay a deposit on them. Hunter says the California Quake team paid for their own plane tickets to attend a game in Portland, Ore., last season. Cannon, who declined to say how much of her own money she has spent to fund the Scorchers, covers all team expenses besides equipment. The team has raised money through sponsorships, raffles, ticket sales, concessions and other local events.
The desire to play is so great that sometimes teams give others a hand. The Scorchers helped fund the Xtreme's trip to Santa Rosa by paying one night of their hotel costs. The Xtreme drove the 650 miles to the game.
"I don't care about the money," says Audra Urie, star quarterback for the Xtreme. "We came down here because we love every chance to play."
The demands won't likely change soon, but for these women, it's a small price to pay.
"Every single one of us has the same reason for being out there," Cannon says. "And it's not because Nike is knocking down our door. It's because we love the game."
Rebecca Vesely is a frequent contributor to Women's Enews.
Boo's Unofficial Guide to Women's Professional Football:
Santa Rosa Scorchers: