“You’re doing what?” everyone asked, half laughing, half shocked.
“Trying out for the National Women’s Football League,” I repeated insistently.
“Full-contact football,” I said.
“Seriously?” they asked.
“Well, sort of.”
The National Women’s Football League, which had its first season last year, is forming a local team: the Detroit Danger. Tryouts began last Saturday in Southfield’s Inglenook Park, where I and about 27 other more-determined women gathered to show our stuff.
Actually, I don’t have much stuff to show. I felt like a female Woody Allen asking my potential teammates questions such as, “What advice to you have for someone who has never played football, doesn’t watch football and doesn’t know the rules?”
Originally, I planned to cover the tryouts in the typical reporter fashion: safely on the sidelines. But when I called the league office in Nashville to find out more, I decided that the threat of bruises and broken bones would make a better story. Debbie Lening, NWFL’s media vice president, was excited. But before I committed to trying out, I made sure to get a couple things straight.
“Do I have to be big?” I asked Lening.
“No,” she assured. “Our second-best tackler last year was 5-foot-2, 105 pounds.”
“Will I get knocked around?” I asked, trying not to sound frightened.
“They’re just going to test your endurance, your 40-yard dash, stuff like that,” said Lening.
Completing an application over the phone, I told Lening that I’m 35. She said, “That’s the perfect age. Most women are in their 30s. We have a woman on the Pensacola Power who is 56. And we have a mother and daughter on the Chattanooga team.”
So, there I was at the first of three tryouts. On the field, we formed four rows for warm-up exercises. Unfortunately, the stretches and jumping jacks did not seem to diminish the aching in my legs and lower back — or the moans I bellowed — when I rose from bed or a chair the following couple days.
Lori Bob Sansom, who owns the Tennessee Venom, led the tryout. The 36-year-old played for the leagues’ Alabama Renegade last year before a 6-foot-2 teammate — who weighs 350 pounds — stepped on her ankle and shattered it. Sansom plans to play again, but is taking time to heal. For now, she helps league owner Cathryn Masters form teams around the country. So far, there are 14 of them that play at high school fields and college stadiums. Most are in the South and on the East Coast, except for the Detroit team and another forming in Kalamazoo. Last year’s championship game drew 5,000 fans.
I asked Sansom if knowing how to play football was critical to making the team.
“You don’t have to be an athlete. You don’t have to know how to catch or throw. If you’ve got it right here,” she said, laying her hand on her heart, “you’ll learn the game.”
The women I met last Saturday surely showed that they’ve “got it right here.” They could throw, catch and run with intensity. But they also proved that they have heart as they cheered for one another during the 40-yard dash and other drills. I spontaneously shouted, “good job,” and back-slapped my new pals, amazed at our instant camaraderie.
I asked some of the women, most of whom raise kids or work full- or part-time, why they decided to try out for a sport that demands three practices a week and weekend games three months a year — for absolutely no pay. Most gave the same answer: “I love football.” Many of them have always wanted to play, but had little opportunity.
“I watched my brother play football, but he never let me play” said Rochelle Armstrong, who is 35 and works at a DaimlerChrysler assembly plant. The tall, lean Pontiac woman hopes to become the team quarterback.
Candice Williams is 19, short, stocky and plans on joining the Navy if she doesn’t make the team. She wanted to play on the school football team when she was 11.
“But they wouldn’t let me because I’m a girl,” said the native Detroiter. “I just cried.”
As I listened to these women, I thought of how men bond when playing or watching football. I imagine the camaraderie among the Detroit Danger women — and all women who play or watch this fledgling league — will be unique. For they also share the joy of participating in a sport that, until now, they have been deprived of playing.
Good luck, Detroit Danger. Though I won’t be on the field — having learned that tackling will be part of the next two tryouts— I’m with you all the way.
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