In October 1999 I covered the very first game of the Women's Professional Football League, in which the Lake Michigan Minx outplayed and generally womanhandled the Minnesota Vixens. I spent most of the game wincing, but I was also intrigued. I'd played high school Softball, Division I field hockey and almost every recreational sport there is, but I'd never known what it was like to maul or be mauled in a football game. So when I heard that the WPFL had grown from two to 19 teams and spawned two rival leagues, I decided to find out, firsthand. Last Saturday, before my mother, husband or my own better judgment could intervene, I went to Pearland, Texas, to try out for the WPFL's three-time champion Houston Energy, the crime de la femme of smashmouth football.
How to explain Houston's 30-2 record since '99? One rival player told me, "They grow 'em big down there." She wasn't kidding. Walking toward the tryout registration desk, I bumped into the Serta-sized back of Ali Gillen, who at 5'9", 260 pounds was one of the puniest of the returning linemen. She stared at my 5'5", 125-pound frame, read my mind about wanting to retreat to the nearest Starbucks and said, "What's the matter? Dontcha got the money?"
Thinking that "money" was WPFL-speak for "game, I stiffened. "I got some money," I said.
"You sure?" said Gillen, holding up a flyer that itemized the cost of joining the team. Because the Energy draws barely a thousand fans a game, players pay for their own uniforms ($530) and transportation ($500). After the Energy won the title in 2002, owner Robin Howington, an oil-industry executive who has put more than $140,000 into the team, banded each of her players a check: $12 for 12 games.
Despite the lack of pay, the scant glory and the prevalence, I'm told, of a nasty injury known as a "boob bruise," most of last season's players were back for tryouts. The 100 candidates ranged in age from 18 to 44 and in size from 5'11", 305-pound offensive lineman "Big Sue" Roberts, a Wal-Mart cashier, to 5'8", 120-pound wideout Claudine Workman, a kindergarten teacher. All of the players (the league includes one neurosurgeon, a few firewomen and several stay-at-home moms) were prepared to spend their autumns practicing twice a week for what Sue called "an opportunity of a lifetime."
While we warmed up for our four-hour workout, I found out that most women are drawn to football for the same reason men are: the opportunity to be aggressive. Wispy Claudine had settled for ice hockey as a girl because it was the closest thing to a contact sport her mother would let her play. And Jerri Martin, a WNBA-proportioned defensive end, gave me this sell: "For 3� hours you get to beat the s—out of someone and not go to prison."
To the chagrin of everyone, there was no hitting during tryouts. We ran sprints. We dodged cones. We chased down dozens of deep balls launched by a rocket-armed rookie. Finally we bit the blocking sled. "You're not going up there to kiss it!" one of the Energy's four male coaches screamed, as I bounced hopelessly off the pads. "Go up there and kick its ass!'
By the end of tryouts, it was me that was kicked. Sore and sunburned, I told the coaches not to count on me at mini-camp. Then I watched a pack of players run some extol routes before they headed off to lunch at Chili's, chattering with one another about the coming season the whole way. I realized, while hobbling to my car, that it would take more than money troubles to sink this fledgling sport. I may have been out of my league. But Big Sue, Claudine and hundreds of others have finally found theirs.