An untold number of Minnesotans, having glimpsed the towering lights shin-ling down upon Energy Park Drive in St. Paul last Saturday evening, had to be wondering the same thing: What's going on at Midway Stadium? Two months ago those lights would have signaled a home game for the St. Paul Saints, the independent Class A-caliber baseball team that draws more than 6,000 fans a game. The curious who answered the lights' call on Saturday—2,463 and three camera crews in all-had a chance to get early membership in what may become another cult following. On a baseball field lined with hash marks and flanked with temporary goalposts, 80 women, averaging 5'8", 168 pounds and 25 years of age, suited up for the inaugural game of the grandiosely named Women's Professional Football League. In the first stop on their seven-game, three-month barnstorming tour of the Midwest and the East Coast, the Minnesota Vixens and the Lake Michigan Minx put on pads, skullcaps, helmets and snarls, shrugged off their sex-kitten nicknames and proved themselves capable of the type of "full-contact, smash-mouth football" that league CEO Terry Sullivan has been promising since he and business partner Carter Turner announced the formation of the WPFL last year.
It was only last winter, when the WPFL began sending press releases, that women 18 and older learned that the opportunity to play tackle football existed beyond the backyards and living room rugs of their childhood. At tryouts held in the Twin Cities, Miami and Daytona Beach last summer, about 360 women showed up. Last week, after final cuts, the survivors were split into two supposedly evenly matched teams. They knew that part of the crowd at Midway would consist of beer-bellied naysayers expecting the type of football played by boys' high school jayvee squads. For these players, whose friends and family members hoisted handmade signs in the stands, this wasn't merely their pro debut. This was the first play of the first organized tackle football game of their entire lives.
Minx wide receiver Wendy Brown, 31, a heptathlete in the 1988 and '92 Olympics and the former world-record holder in the triple jump, was the league's Jerry Rice in waiting. Playing golden girl was Vixens quarterback Shannon Davis, a 28-year-old NASA engineer with a right arm capable of 50-yard heaves and calves as thick as her Arkansas drawl. Minx linebacker Jane Bolin, 24, took a leave of absence from her senior executive position with Campaign Media Analysis Group in Washington, D.C., while Miami resident Kertria Lofton, 33, the Vixens' top receiver, moved with her 12-year-old daughter, Ashley, to Maple Grove, Minn., where she got a warehouse job. Two Vixens and two Minxes, unable to find housing, have moved in with Turner, his wife and three children in their two-story house in the Minneapolis suburbs.
The unsalaried players will each pull in a profit share of .25%, which should amount to between $100 and $500 a game. Each of the league's seven coaches and various assistants also will get a cut. "We're avoiding front-loaded costs," says Sullivan, "the thing that has brought so many leagues to their knees." While the players say they're not in it for the money, they do gripe about equipment. "Terry's cheap," says Minx receiver Sheri-Lynn Knudson, who, at 23, is one of the youngest players in the league. "We're wearing used pants from the University of Minnesota, and nothing fits right."
Despite an opening ceremony that included Vixens linebacker Merrill Camel—firefighter by day, VFW bartender by night and full-time parent to a teenage boy—revving up the crowd with a sideline spin on her Harley, the first moments of the league's first game weren't much for the record books. The undersized WPFL ball kicked off by Missy Bedwell of the Minx wobbled for 20 yards, hit the dry sod and bounced twice before being swarmed on by a passel of skittish-looking Vixens. Soon, however, Brown snagged a 27-yard touchdown pass for the first of her eight receptions and two scores. Behind quarterback Missy Boyd, a feisty scrambler with a quick release who was 12 of 29 for 179 yards, the Minx maintained a steady attack, highlighted by some sharply executed swing passes and sweeps. On defense Lake Michigan forced three fumbles, and the Minnesota special teams failed to catch a single punt. In the fourth quarter Minx running back Tangela (Tango) McCall (60 yards on 12 carries) bellowed at the Vixens, "You've got motorcycles, you've got cheerleaders, but you've got no game!"
The first game of the WPFL ended 33-6, with the Minx in a victory heap at midfield and a few Vixens brushing away angry tears. Although the moment was historic, it was not a first. On July 22, 1973, at Long Beach Veterans Stadium, the Los Angeles Dandelions were defeated 16-12 by the visiting Dallas Bluebonnets in the debut of the National Women's Football League, a six-team outfit that folded after three years. Why try again? "It just made sense," says Turner, who with Sullivan hopes to expand to six teams in 2000 and 12 in 2001. "I mean, women are competing in everything these days, why not football?"
On Saturday night at least, under the lights of Midway Stadium, there was only one career path in which three Vixens water girls were interested. "The minute we turn 18, we're definitely going to try out," said Char Strait. "Watch out for us on TV."