A view from the trenches of the Indianapolis Vipers
I"m coming to get you, No. 75," Chiena Taylor informs me from across the line of scrimmage. "Are you ready for me? I"m going to run right over the top of you." "I love the pain," I mumble back from my three-point stance. "I eat it for breakfast." The words, though, are barely intelligible through my mouthpiece, which is filthy with the mud and grass of our practice field at Riverside Park.
Sheri Hughes (AKA Cereal), No. 40, shoots through the gap against the South Carolina Crusaders.
Wearing it during football practice three times a week is like chewing the bottom of my cleat for two hours, and makes me worry about contracting E coli. When I spit it out of my mouth, it dangles, drooling from a strap on my facemask like a gnarled chunk of cud. Couth, however, has no place in football - even in the Women"s Football Association, the latest pioneer of women"s sports. No, we"re not talking flag or powder-puff here. This is full-contact, NFL-rules football, complete with tackling and trash-talking and games in the snow. It"s judgment day for me whenever Taylor shows up to practice. She"s a 310-pound defensive end and, along with 320-pounder Sandra Najib, a transplant from Egypt, one of the so-called Twin Towers on the Indianapolis Vipers" defensive line. Taylor often lines up opposite me, the right offensive tackle and the unfortunate No. 75 in the above scenario. She"s not kidding when she says she"s coming to get me. She gets a running start of a few yards and stands about a foot taller than me when we meet - me crouched low with my shoulders leaning forward and her grabbing my mesh jersey at the shoulders and flinging me aside. My job is to absorb all of her force so she doesn"t reach the quarterback with it, and then, if that slows her down, push her as far away from the ball as possible. It sounds a lot easier than it is, this game of football. Basically, it requires moving our feet, colliding with others, running and throwing and catching a ball. But the 40-some women on the Vipers roster - as well as members of women"s teams around the country, from the Indiana Speed to the New Orleans Voodoo Dolls - are discovering that the game is more difficult than the fundamentals suggest. Even once we learn to tackle and shove, overcoming decades of social conditioning that women shouldn"t be physical and aggressive, there"s the matter of learning some 90 plays, adapting to lineup changes in the couple seconds before the ball is snapped, blocking a target moving in the opposite direction and doing it all in a steam-cooker of a helmet and tiny pants that defy all laws of physics on our big bodies. From the huddle in practice, the quarterback calls our bread-and-butter run play, the Lexus 21. We yell, "Break!" and jog to the line. "I got 42," I tell tight end Mary Ann Slinn to my right. "I got 97," she says, pointing to Taylor. "Good luck," I say. A dream come true A few seconds later, head coach K.C. Carter blows the whistle to stop the play. As a train wreck of defensive and offensive players untangle themselves from the line of scrimmage, I hear Slinn laughing behind me. "She said, "Good luck," when I had to block Tower," she tells a curious wide receiver. She slaps Taylor on the shoulder, then chuckles while jogging to the huddle. Slinn"s one of the women on our team who truly knows and loves the game. "When I was 3, my dad sat me down in front of the television and made me watch football with him," she says. After playing pickup football for years with other women, she tried out for quarterback last year and ended up at tight end, leading the league in receptions. While many players in women"s football join the team armed with little more than a copy of Football for Dummies, Slinn manages to spot every infraction on the field amidst the 22-player confusion. "White ball!" she yells during a recent game against South Carolina when an opponent emerges from a pile-up with the ball. "The ground can"t cause a fumble." But most of us are learning as we go, literally. Those on special teams call out questions as they run down the field mid-play: Is it a live ball before the receiving team touches it? Should we let it go out of bounds? Players were still joining the team three days before the fourth game of the season, receiving instructions from teammates on the line seconds before the ball was snapped. The Vipers were division champs last year in just their first season, and eight players have returned. But most of us rookies are learning to play; in this league"s infant stage, knowledge and experience take a backseat to enthusiasm and a clean bill of health. Players run the gamut of size, speed and physical condition. Some have rugby and track backgrounds, and at least one woman played on a boys" high school football team. Safety Julie Calvert, a 40-year-old health teacher and mother of two from Frankfort, just loves to compete. "Football isn"t in my top 10 sports to watch or anything like that. I didn"t even know what a safety was when I started. It"s just something I tried to do." The sport gets away with calling itself professional, but it"s still recreation for many players, who play a 10-game, five-month season for a check that would barely buy a pair of cleats. Some of the better athletes on the team hope they might one day earn a living playing women"s pro football, provided the sport hurries up and takes off before their bodies give out. "At 38, it"s a dream come true for me," says wide receiver Lynn Rogers, a cheerful community center administrator. But most players are only vaguely interested in the ultimate goal that league management works toward: sponsorship by the Nikes and Reeboks of the world and a partnership with the NFL. They play instead for a host of simple reasons: They"ve always loved football or competitive sports; they want the exercise; they want to open women"s football to future generations and figure it has to start somewhere. Dig for complex, sociopolitical, gender-role-shattering motivations and you"ll come up as empty as the Colts without Peyton Manning. Ten hours to Alabama No one plays this game for glamour or the glory. After summer months spent running up and down stadium stairs and six weeks practicing in football gear, the realities of league life awaited us on the weekend of our first game in October, against the Birmingham Steel Magnolias. We boarded a big tour bus, paid for by our cheesecakes and pizza-kit sales, and headed out Friday evening, driving overnight, 10 hours to Alabama. We brought pillows and blankets, and finally learned who on the team was a couple, but even my extra-drowsy prescription pain killers were no match for a busload of people inexplicably armed with kazoos. Then there were the hourly Silly String ambushes, and a 3 a.m. reminder to make up a team song. All this plus calming cinematic fare like Superstar and Remember the Titans. We arrived in Birmingham at 5 a.m. and paid for our own rooms at a Comfort Suites, sleeping six per room to keep the cost under $15 per person. I was anxious about the locker room atmosphere, and it was almost a deal-breaker in the beginning. I hadn"t dressed and showered with a group of females since eighth grade, so I kept imagining my middle school"s facilities: spacious and well-lit with private enclaves shielded by tall lockers and plenty of restroom stalls with a fresh coat of yellow paint. What welcomed us to some anonymous field in Birmingham (were we at a high school Ö a community center Ö we never found out) was a little, well, grittier, with one common area, two bathroom stalls and mud everywhere. Upon seeing our shower area, I contemplated simply toweling off after the game and retreating hastily to the bus. But by that time, I would reach an unprecedented level of filth, and all inhibitions about group nudity would be vanquished. One girl still couldn"t bear the shower scene; she"s now known as Stinky. But teams everywhere operate on no budget. Under these circumstances, hosting us at all was an achievement. And the surroundings were quickly forgotten when we got our first look at our game uniforms: black pants that the coaches assured us would stretch to four times their petite size, thick green knee socks and sparkling white-green-and-black jerseys. We helped each other tuck in the jerseys and peel the pants over our padded legs. Then all of us ran out onto the turf field, which had soaked up afternoon rains like a sponge. The game was a blur. Nevertheless, certain moments stood out: getting the first flag of the game for a false start. Then there was seeing several players carried off the field for various injuries, including our quarterback, Dana Miller, who writhed in pain on the ground after being sacked on fourth down with less than two minutes to go and a two-point lead. We held on to win, but no one felt like celebrating after Miller"s shoulder injury. Our next game, two weeks later against the Georgia Enforcers in Atlanta, would be cancelled at midnight the day before, five hours after the bus was supposed to leave. Players hung at home with packed bags, waiting for a phone call to learn if Plan B was a go: leaving at 4 a.m., in vans, to play a Sunday morning game in Birmingham instead, or just having practice the next day. It was an object lesson about the struggles teams face. By November, only one team in the Women"s Football Association (WFA) was still scheduled to play its original 10 regular season games. A little extra sting "Hitting people and getting hit has been the hardest part," Lynn Rogers says. "It"s part of the game, but it"s not natural. It"s like plowing into someone with your car." By September, when I answered questions about football, I would absent-mindedly brush my hands over the bruises covering my arms. But things don"t seem as mean as they need to be. For all of the tackling and attempts at intimidation, the coaches can"t get the women to hate each other on the field. Coach Carter glares at an offensive lineman who asks a defender on the ground if she"s OK. "Damn it, if you ask anyone else if they"re all right, you"re giving me 25 pushups! This is football! Don"t fucking apologize!" Still, it"s hard not to say you"re sorry when blocking turns into groping. Accidentally grabbing handfuls of breasts is much more common than the dirtier goal: pushing the pads up into the player"s throat for a little extra sting. In the summer, rookies listened with wide eyes to the war stories of returning o-linemen, who claimed to have been punched in the stomach and pinched viciously on the upper arms by opponents. They admitted to popping a defender"s facemask a play or two later. These stories fed my appetite for taking the first hit until September, when we finally suited up in full gear and began the regular schedule of three after-work practices each week. I joked that I couldn"t believe I was wearing white pants after Labor Day, but no one cracked a smile. Things were about to get serious in the snake pit. We formed a giant circle for a drill called Bull in the Ring. As the bull, I stood in the center of the ring as, one by one, my teammates barreled forward and tried to tackle me, then retreated to their spot to do 10 pushups when they didn"t make the tackle. Without any instruction on proper form, I resorted to the offensive-line blocking technique of shoving with my hands. That turned out to be a big no-no, because my wrists got smashed every time. I ran back to my spot in the circle choking back tears, rubbing my throbbing wrists. I remembered Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own: If there was no crying in baseball, there sure as hell couldn"t be any crying in football. At home, I extracted my feet from the vice grip of my cleats and iced them with packages of frozen strawberries. I called my mother and wrestled with the burning desire to quit against my growing sense of obligation to the team. Mother suggested I fake a big injury. "The next time you get knocked down, just don"t get up," she offered. "Then you can sit on the bench for the entire season and not have to quit." She was joking, but the threat of injury is real. Teams kneel, or "take a knee," when someone is injured on the field, and it happens a lot - especially if you"re a marquee quarterback like Miller, who is a physical therapist. "Between her and Mary Margaret Montgomery with the California Shockwave, you have an Elway and a Montana," coach Carter says. And Miller"s a marked woman after last year"s successful season. South Carolina had a "spotter" on her, meaning one defender was instructed to leave the receiver she was supposed to guard and just try to sack Miller on every play. Finally, a defensive end got through the line and took her down. Miller, a former Golden Gloves boxer, clutched her left shoulder, injured three weeks earlier against Birmingham. She wouldn"t return to the game. In the huddle, center Deb Roysdon called for revenge on No. 7, the opponent who made the sack. When the smoke cleared after the next play, No. 7 was squirming on the ground and eventually led off the field by her coaches. "I did my job," said left tackle Christen Foege, walking back to the huddle. We"ve been told we have a job to do when Birmingham comes to our field at Arlington High School this month: Get even with No. 99, the player who first hurt Miller"s shoulder in a vicious blind-side sack during our first game. Some players tell the reserve quarterbacks to throw the football at her head a couple times if she"s getting away with late, illegal sacks. But I know that the first line of defense against 99 is me. Just like Tower, she"ll be coming to get me, so I"ve been stocking up on trash talk from commercials during Monday Night Football. "Your mama can"t help you now!" I hope I remember to say that. But it doesn"t matter what we growl to each other across the line. In the end, you just have to love the pain. For the Vipers" upcoming schedule, visit their Web site at indianapolisvipers.com. Two games to look forward to: Saturday, Nov. 23 against Georgia Enforcers and Saturday, Dec. 14 against Tampa Bay Force. Both games will be at Arlington High School. Tickets are $7.