The Smackdown Sisterhood
In the instant before the snap, Jennifer “Jet” King sneaks her left foot close – very close – to the line of scrimmage. She glances at the line judge and, teeth clenched on mouth guard, garbles a question in his direction as she gestures down at her stance.”You’re okay,” he says.And then, almost as soon as she settled, the ball leaves the center’s hand, quarterback Cindy Day drops three steps back, and King explodes. The wide receiver cuts a slant pattern downfield and heads inexorably toward the goal line.But on this first play of the game, Day turns and hands the ball to her running back, Cynthia Miller, who gets bottled up two yards into the run. It’s second down, and the team runs it again.Angela “Lightning” Pitts, the right side wide receiver, goes into motion and crosses behind Day. The quarterback places the ball between her arms, tiny appendages that extend from her shoulder pads like spokes from a hub. They retreat toward her body and clamp the ball while her legs churn. First she makes for the sideline and then, seeing space that’s opened downfield, she wheels to her right.Two defenders materialize out of nowhere and scramble toward Pitts. She spins inside to avoid the pancake and keeps going, dashing diagonally into 50 yards of real estate.The clock shows 13:30 left in the first quarter. The scoreboard reads Carolina Phoenix 6, Detroit Predators 0.This was the strategy from the start, to strike early and frustrate their opponent with speed. Two weeks ago these teams met on Phoenix turf in Thomasville, and the game opened with eerie similarity: A quick score, followed by a succession of points.The Phoenix play their games in Cushwa Stadium, the regular-season home of the Thomasville High School Bulldogs. The stadium is sunk into soft hills surrounded by neighborhoods and parkland. It’s got working lights and a public address system and, in the offseason, brown patches of neglected grass.The Phoenix struck in the first couple of minutes, and stacked points on the scoreboard with ease. But in the last meeting, the team fell apart in the second half, allowing the women from Detroit to threaten. The game tilted into the Phoenix’s win column, but barely, the score – 18-17 – protected by a defensive stand on Carolina’s 10-yard line.By the end of their first meeting, the Carolina defense was in ragged disarray. Most of the players on this 15-person squad play offense and defense. All game long, the Predators’ diminutive running back punched holes in the scattered defense. Linemen (women?) drifted off their marks and missed their tackles. Carolina couldn’t get its running game going.Throughout the game, Detroit cycled in fresh players culled from its 30-woman roster. They assembled proper kick return teams and fielded separate offensive and defensive lines.Carolina played Ironman style, and yet the women, aching and sweating, held them off. It was nothing less than a bald exhibition of will. Outnumbered and dwarfed, the Phoenix stood.Will is a quality this team has no shortage of.The Carolina Phoenix is an organization that, by all indications, shouldn’t even be fielding a team in the semi-pro International Women’s Football League. The team played its first game in Orlando last season with only 11 women – well shy of the league minimum for an official game – and got blown out. The traveled overnight with only 14 women to play a willing team in Shreveport. Coach saw a silver lining in their 24 to 6 loss, he also glimpsed the potential of the team that could be.They played those first two games on the insistence of center Sara “Tank” Cavenaugh, over the reservations of league officials. And why not? The women wanted to play, win or lose.The Phoenix burst from the ashes of the Carolina Cardinals, a women’s team that collapsed two years ago before its members even donned their shoulder pads, victims, collectively, of mismanagement bordering on criminality.The team formed as a player-owned organization with a singular mission. Three games into the 2007 season, they’ve accumulated two home wins and an away loss. Coach is running low on the stickers signifying sacks, tackles and touchdowns that are the only decorations on their helmets.This is a team that has willed itself into existence, and then, collecting inertia, improved to a 2-1 record. Now in Detroit, in a light rain, on a field attached to a suburban high school, the Phoenix has arrived.
On July 17, 2005, Day, known as Koos to her teammates, gathered her Sunday paper and turned to the sports pages. Deep inside, past the baseball scores and tennis results, her eyes crossed a feature about the Carolina Cardinals, a women’s football team holding tryouts in Raleigh.Day, a physical education teacher at Zebulon Middle School, who had recently run a 40-mile adventure race, had played football with the neighborhood boys during her girlhood in Vermont. In college at Linden State, she and her friends organized a co-ed intramural team that won the school championship. She’d moved to North Carolina a little more than a decade ago after a split from her husband and taken up long distance running.She showed the article to her boyfriend, then removed and saved the pages. Day is rangy and lean, with a bright gaze and a head of sun-bleached hair.”I was just looking for the next adventure,” she said.She called the team, tried out and, after its dissolution, attended an August mini-camp with a cadre of former Cardinals. One of the girls who attended was a natural quarterback, Day says. But by Sunday – game day – she’d had a change of heart and decided not to play.The rest of the team lined up and pitched their best spirals. Day’s teammates selected her to lead the team.Day, who is 43 years old, suited up in full pads for the first time the day the Phoenix faced Orlando in an exhibition game last summer. Three days before the trip, she and the rest of the team bought their own equipment. They managed to schedule a single practice before the game to try on shoulder pads, helmets and cleats.One team member donned her helmet, suffered a bout of claustrophobia and promptly quit the team.”It was interesting,” Day says. “You slow down a little bit.”Day, despite her background as a long-distance runner, doesn’t move the ball with her feet. She specializes in medium-yardage throws and operates most comfortably in the pocket.When Head Coach Tim Holmes first saw her play, he sized up his quarterback thusly: “When I first saw her play I thought, ‘Wow. She is going to be a project.'”Holmes, who had coached men’s minor league teams in the past, tailored his drop steps to match the length of a woman’s stride and adjusted the snap count accordingly.”The reason I picked her for quarterback is that she has the ‘it’ quality,” Holmes said. “People will follow her through a brick wall.”She also has intelligence. Within weeks Day had memorized the playbook, Holmes said, and although she still struggled with her drop and throwing accuracy, she had command of the offense. In fact Holmes, who still coaches the minor league men’s team the Carolina Rattlers, said Day was further into the playbook than his men within just a couple of months of practice.Nearly two years after her initiation into women’s tackle football, Day lofted her first touchdown pass into the hands of Jennifer “Jet” King just minutes after that first rushing score. Carolina leads Detroit 12 to 0.
The Carolina Phoenix arrives in Livonia, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, at 9 a.m. on Saturday after an overnight drive lasting more than 12 hours. Thirteen people – players, coaches and trainers – squeezed into a rental van. Another six traveled in a Durango hauling a trailer full of equipment and uniforms. Four more players, including Day and King, flew into Detroit on Friday night and spent part of Saturday tooling around the mall.Livonia is a modest settlement so recently scratched from farmland that its industrial buildings look as naked as hailstones dropped from the sky. The Days Inn at which the team slept was crafted from cheap stucco and clean linoleum and also houses a number of young Marines done up for a military wedding.When they arrive, the team opens the back of the trailer and unloads their equipment onto luggage dollies. Once they have unpacked, most of the players retreat to their rooms for naps before a walkthrough scheduled at 5 p.m. at the Franklin High School football field.By the time the team reassembles hours later, again lugging dollies full of equipment, at 4:30 p.m., dark gray storm clouds had knit themselves into a blanket. The wind kicks up and the sky collapses, sending fat raindrops down to earth in waves of water that skate over the asphalt like sidewinders. The deluge is accompanied by lightning and thunder.”The good thing about this team is that they haven’t played that much,” Holmes says. “And the bad thing about this team is that they haven’t played that much. In some ways that’s good because they are sort of blank slates and I can impress upon them the right way to do things.”After the team repacks its vehicles up under the hotel awning, the cars pull out onto roads transformed into bodies of standing water. The cars speeding through send frothy waves over the curbs.The team runs into an unexpected dead end and pulls into the parking lot of a Lutheran church. Cavenaugh dials the number of a Predators player to get directions, but the woman on the other line sends the van in the wrong direction.After a detour through a number of townships adjacent to Livonia, they pass a high school – Churchill, the wrong one – and into the lot of an American Legion post. Day dashes into the club and returns with directions on a bar napkin.A half hour later they arrive at Franklin, a beige stone box edged in pale concrete. The rain has let up, and overhead the canopy of dark gray has opened enough to reveal a glimpse of high afternoon sun.King sits in front of a bank of lockers in the cubicle closest to the door. From a black athletic bag she extracts two ankle socks. Her left heel is taped up to the low calf from a high ankle sprain she sustained in the first game of the season; she slips a sock on top of it. Over those she pulls black knee socks and her padded pants. She grabs the waistband, yanks it and laces it up.Onto the injured foot she affixes a canvas brace, and then slides sweatbands up over her elbows. The straps attached to the breastplate of her shoulder pads swing loose until she cinches them tight and drops the entire plastic device over her head. Then she digs deodorant out of her bag and swabs it under her arms.”Oh, I forgot my deodorant,” Cynthia “Nails” Miller says. “That means I got to start over.”From a plastic tub, Cavenaugh selects unmarked jerseys handed down from the coach’s men’s team. Several members of the Phoenix set to sewing on league patches. King pulls a jersey with the number five over her head and tucks the tail neatly into her pants and the sleeves up under her pads.With only 50 minutes until kickoff, the women drift out of the locker room toward the field.Koos is waiting with an IWFL issue football. The balls for the women’s game are a shade smaller than NFL standard, the better to fit women’s hands. Jet and Koos toss the ball. Jet, who is the backup quarterback and often throws the ball on trick running plays, sends the ball forward with a fluid twist of the body. She drags her right foot as she releases and lofts the ball some forty yards.Once all the team members are on field, Holmes collects them to run defensive and offensive patterns. He relies on the same playback for both his men’s and women’s teams, and he expects the Phoenix to run the same intricate running patterns.”Other coaches teach their players to play women’s football,” is a constant refrain. “I teach my women to play football.”The women are quick to credit Coach Holmes for their success. He doesn’t just demand excellence from them, he sets an example on the strategic front and is quick with an everyman’s (or woman’s) explanation of what went wrong. Some of the women on the team have played before, but many have not. The coach doesn’t dumb down his plays, but he stops to offer schooling where remedial football education is required.For this game, the coach is adjusting his defense to shut down the middle, to close the gaps exploited by the Predators’ running back in these teams’ last meeting. He is also tweaking the movement on the outside of the offensive line to open up the running game. In the last few minutes before kickoff, Holmes giving his women a crash course.
It’s safe to say that King has more football experience than the vast majority of women her age. It started in the empty lots of Reidsville, where, at age five, she joined the neighborhood boys in backyard games.As the years progressed, she picked up – and excelled – at almost every sport available to her: basketball, softball, volleyball, track, cross-country and others. When she was 13 or 14, Jet put her football skills to the test; she participated in the NFL’s Punt, Pass and Kick competition. She ascended through the local levels and was the female representative for the Carolina Panthers at the national competition, which she won. She played flag football in middle school and from very early on demonstrated a general aptitude for all things athletic.”She pretty much likes anything with a ball,” says her father, Douglas King.
Coaches in her middle and high schools coaxed her to come out for the boys’ teams, but her mother protested out of concern for her physical safety. Instead King gravitated toward basketball, and she played varsity for four years, taking her team at Rockingham County High School to the Division 3-A state championship in the last two.Division I colleges recruited her, but she chose Guilford College, mostly because they did not quibble with her desire to play softball, too. She broke a few records at Guilford during her four years there, including one for three-point scoring.Last summer, King and her family (they missed only three of her college games) traveled to Australia, where she played for the US Under 21 team. This summer she’ll attend a free agent camp and is angling for a spot on a European basketball team.”If I can get paid playing basketball,” she said, “that would be great.”
On the Phoenix, King plays at every skill position: quarterback, cornerback, wide receiver and running back. She also returns kickoffs.She heard about the team through Maria “Sanchez” Ormond, one of the Phoenix players who mentioned the team offhand during a pick-up basketball game.”When I heard about it I just kind of pricked up my ears,” she said.
As for the tackling, she has less of a problem with it than her mother.”It’s just part of the game,” she says. “You’ve got to love it to play it.”
Her mother also has a resigned take on her daughter’s involvement with the sport.”She’s grown now,” says Janice King. “So there’s nothing I can do about it.”King has speed – lots of it – and a natural athletic intelligence that manifests itself whenever the defense closes in or her offense collapses. In almost every situation, King can turn nothing into something, an inevitable loss into a miraculous gain. Her coach calls it intuitiveness, and he uses her versatility to give other teams fits.Against the Predators, in their first meeting, King dropped back to pass and, facing the blitz, tucked the ball under her arm and ran. King picked up about 60 yards, a touchdown and two new nicknames: (Reggie) Bush and (Michael) Vick.She’s on the small side for a football player, even a female football player, but she’s muscular with short, strong legs and a low center of gravity. When she talks about football, her face opens into an easy half-moon smile.
In Detroit the Phoenix is clicking. Tameka “Meka” Parks and Carmen “Peppers” Williams, from their positions on the edge of the offensive line cross in front of each other to take out the linebackers and open up holes for Nails.On the defense, the same pair harass the quarterback to within an inch of her sanity. Peppers comes off the line like she’s snakebit, with such persistence that the blockers give up. Meka leaves her spot a dreadlocked blur, and sacks the Predators quarterback decisively, with a gorgeous tackle that stuns almost everyone, including those on the Phoenix bench.”That’s my baaaabbbaaayyy!” says her girlfriend Bridget from the sidelines.It’s three and out for the Predators.”We’re going to pitch a shutout on the road,” Holmes says.One the first play of the offensive series, Koos hands the ball back to Jet. Jet runs out and back, and the Predator linebackers scream “Pass!! Pass!!”They swarm; she dodges and scrambles for a seven-yard pickup. Nails takes it three more for the first down.Koos sets up for the throw, with Jet as the intended receiver, but the defense reads it and bats the ball down just as the receiver reaches for it. It’s a good defensive play, and their coaches are ecstatic.”She can’t outrun you fifty-seven, she can’t outrun you!” he shouts.Coach Holmes raises his eyebrows.”Wanna bet? Wanna bet?”Jet delivers another touchdown after a short pass, and shuffles a little as she slides into the end zone. The mood is jubilant as the team retreats to the bench for halftime.”I danced when I got that last touchdown,” Jet says. “I don’t even know why I did it! I just told the ref ‘Please don’t give me a flag, I won’t do it again.’ I just wanted to do it once.”In their last meeting, Carolina dominated in the first half only to fall apart in the second. Still, the coach and team seem unconcerned about a comeback.”I want to shutout,” Holmes says. “We drove too far to let them score.”In fact, the coach already expressed his disappointment that the Predators were allowed to complete a pass. Given how his team is playing, nothing short of football perfection will suffice. The team settles into silence and stretching, preparing for the start of the next quarter.Jet goes in at quarterback just a few plays into the second half. She connects with Lightning on a 40-yard pitch and the wiry receiver dodges 10 yards into the end zone. The Phoenix is up 24-0 with almost two quarters left to play.Nails lifts the ball toward the 30-yard line on the kickoff, and in the ensuing scrum a brand new Phoenix player, soft-spoken Cameron “Kodak” Williams (no relation to Peppers), sails in from the left flank and devastates the receiver on the 35-yard line.The Predators, for the first time all game, get a first down on a 17-yard pass – their second completion of the evening. On the second down of the series, Jayna “Zoom” Bryant picks a wobbly spiral out of thin air and returns the ball safely to Phoenix hands.Then Koos takes over behind center once again. Holmes orders the team to run the ball, mindful about running up the score.But their legs are tired, and the team runs into a defensive wall. They punt, and the ball, arcing high, lands squarely on top of the helmet of a hustling Predators player. Zoom is there again, stealing the ball for the Phoenix.Koos keeps the streak going and zings a pass to bring the team down to the 11-yard line. Nails takes the handoff on the next play, gets tackled and fumbles. The loose ball rolls past the fingertips of a white jersey, pops out from underneath a blue one, bobbles out of the hands of another Phoenix defender, only to be crushed, finally, under a Predator.The Predators can’t capitalize on their good fortune, and in three plays they are forced to punt. Candice “Seven” Idol from the Phoenix comes over the top and makes the block for the team’s first defensive touchdown.The Predators have been surly all night, and, frustrated with the sour turn of the play, one of them plants a foot on Peppers’ neck. Her girlfriend, trainer Lagracisa “Glaxo” McClain, dashes onto the field. She helps the sizable defensive end limp off the field with a little more than a quarter left, and the referee assesses a 15-yard penalty on the home team.The team doesn’t play perfectly – Jet throws an interception in the fourth quarter down on the Phoenix 20 – but the team is trouncing their opponents with vexing ease, and the Predators react with unsporting eruptions of aggression. Number 92 earns an ejection after kicking at lineman Murphie Chappell’s knees. Zoom snags another interception and runs it in for the touchdown. The score is 36 to nothing.”I think I got the fastest team in the IWFL,” Holmes says in pleased disbelief.The Predator’s quarterback escapes a blitz on the next possession and takes the ball 20 yards up the field. A pass interference call against the Phoenix brings the ball down to the 25, and the game starts to resemble these teams’ last meeting – with the important distinction that the Phoenix are fighting for a shutout this time, not the victory.The Predator quarterback steps back and gets stuffed by the Phoenix linebackers. The Predator coach calls a timeout with two seconds left to play. The defense attacks again on the last play and the quarterback hurls the ball fruitlessly into the flat. The receivers, their patterns disrupted, have been hung up by the Phoenix linemen. The game is over, the score final. Carolina won 36-0.
After the game the women convene in the parking lot near a cooler stocked with Coors and Budweiser. Beers finished, they rendezvous to a Livonia sports bar with a fryer by the door, Christmas lights on the ceiling, sports memorabilia cluttering the walls and a clientele deflated by the Pistons loss to the Cavaliers in the NBA regionals.Koos orders two beers and across the table Jet sips a Smirnoff Ice. The Predators players swill rounds of Southern Comfort and lime juice, and offered one to Koos. The starting quarterback raises her right pinky, a digit mottled with green and purple.”What happens on the field gets left on the field,” bellows one of the Predator players.Not so much with the bruises that have started spreading across the players’ torsos and extremities. After dinner, the women return to the hotel, where Koos has chilled a case of beer. At ten o’clock tomorrow morning, the caravan will pull out. On the ride they’ll discuss the fly-by-night state of professional women’s football, and the frustrations of fielding a team with an uncertain financial future. But here in the glow of the bar lights, the team is cocooned in beery satisfaction and pride. The next day, on the exhausted ride back home, between predictions for the next two games, Peppers will put words to their triumph.”Football is a game,” she says. “It’s not a man’s game. It’s just a game. And anybody – anybody – can learn how to play it.”To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org