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Women tackle football: anything boys can do, they can do better.

"Feel that burn, baby! It's the end of the third quarter. Come on, ladies." Did she say "ladies"? On an unseasonably warm February day, even for southern California, the California Quake women's tackle football team sweats through practice drills on a high school football field.

"Run hard, run hard, push, push," comes the order, egging on the team to run through the finish line, or do just five more step-ups or three more bench presses. No slacking off, not even at practice. Especially not at practice.

Blown-out knees, torn calves, ruptured Achilles tendons, neck injuries and every kind of strain and pain imaginable have afflicted women who play professional tackle football.

Yes, that's tackle football. And you'd better be in the best shape of your life, baby. They call it professional, but the NFL this isn't. Taking part usually costs money. While most teams supply game uniforms, a player could easily spend $250 for a helmet, pads and cleats.

No one plays for the money. But the rewards are immeasurable. "Women juggle careers, families and time in order to train, practice and prepare for each season and game," says Jan Johnson, star quarterback for the West Michigan Mayhem in Kalamazoo.

Johnson, a detective sergeant with the Michigan State Police, grew up playing softball and believes football is "physically more demanding than any other sport."

Even triathletes are shocked when they discover they're not in shape for football, says Jody Taylor of the So Cal Scorpions in San Diego. "Not to mention the contact factor," says Taylor. "This sport is not for everyone. There has to be a certain level of fearlessness, heart and drive."

As the Long Beach-based Quake trudges through drills on patches of dirt and grass that just a few months ago were a well-manicured 50-yard line, cornerback Catherine "Cat" Vivo, the 27-year-old player-owner, almost spontaneously combusts as she spouts out motivation. "Two-minute warning. Yeah baby, yeah. Feel it, baby, push, push, push."

Vivo, a graphic designer by day, likes to conjure images of brutal game-day moments when their energy is sapped, time is running out and the other team is bearing down on their goal line. She and several other players have"1440" tattooed on their ankles, signifying how many minutes a day they think about football (all of them).

"Yeah, baby!" You can't just dust off your cleats and play this sport on weekends. The preparation is grueling and the time commitment is almost unreasonable for working adults. But the chance to play a sport that most women were told growing up they would never play is an opportunity many can't miss.

On the East Coast, they still have 20-degree days in late February, so the Connecticut Crush won't practice outside until the snow melts and the field dries out. They practice at an indoor arena when they can get it, which is usually from 9 p.m. until midnight on weekdays. Some players admit that the full-contact aspect is a powerful draw.

"It's a surprise the first time you feel what it's like to get hit," says Kelly "Turtle" Woodard, a 30-year-old offensive lineman who loves the rush of "legally beating the crap out of people," calling it "channeled aggression" because it stays on the field.

"Before you get into pads, there's a lot of running and pushing. But running is one thing, running with a helmet on is another. You don't realize how much the pads weigh."

Lisa Mitchell, a 47-year-old defensive tackle for the California Quake, remembers the first time she came helmet-to-helmet with the opposing line.

"I got kind of concerned," she understates. But her strength and speed even out the playing field. "They look at me [5-foot-7, 182 pounds] and think they'll be able to toss me around. I surprise them."

There are three women's leagues and nearly 100 women's professional tackle football teams across the country. About half the teams, including the New York Sharks and the California Quake, belong to the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL). The Crush and West Michigan Mayhem belong to the National Women's Football Association (NWFA) and the So Cal Scorpions are affiliated with the Women's Professional Football League (WPFL).

The rules are the same as for the NFL, except the play clock is 25 seconds versus 45, the ball is smaller and they kick off farther up the field. The rest is the same: full contact, full field and full game time.

One misconception about women's football is that everyone is a lesbian. That hasn't deterred Nancy MacLeod, a straight woman and middle linebacker in her third year with the Quake. A lifelong fan, she too grew up hearing she couldn't play football. Now that she does, her teammates are like family.

Taylor, who's also a spokesperson for the WPFL, says that players want to be treated as professionals, "so they act like it."

"You are never going to come to practice and see two players acting like they are at a nightclub," she says. "Secondly, when you are lining up against a woman who is 300 pounds, you are not thinking, 'Is she gay?' Just 'Is she gonna kick my ass?'"

Jennie McNulty is a defensive end for the Quake and a professional lesbian standup comic. She originally approached the sport with a blase attitude.

"I thought it would be fun to go down on a Saturday, throw the football around and get some [comedy] material," she says. Despite the three-nights-a-week, six-hour Saturday practices, she's been hooked for six years.

"I have found more camaraderie with football, more of a family kind of a feel with this sport, partially because it is so grueling and you really go through a lot together," she says.

"The game can't be played by individuals," adds the Mayhem's Johnson."It can't be won on the back of a single person. All 11 on the field have to do their job".

Size does matter. The football field may be the only place you'll ever hear women saying that they are heavier than they really are Michelle Friesen, a 27-year-old defensive back for the Quake, says she's 5-foot-6 and 125 pounds.

"In high school, I wanted to play but I was too small," she says between squats, where she presses 135 pounds. "It's so worth it when you get to put pads on and hit people."

Woodard, who joined the Crush at 400 pounds last season, is 100 pounds lighter this year.

"I couldn't complete a single jog up one side of the football field when I started," she says. Encouragement from other players kept her going. "I came on feeling like on outsider my first year. The first practice, I was going to die. People were coming up and saying, 'great job,' and 'you're doing awesome.' They were calling me 'rookie' even before I made the team. It changed my life."

"For most women, it's their first time playing football," says Vivo. '"The biggest thing is to teach technique, because we want them to be safe."

Losing players to season-ending injuries is the worst part of the game, many players agree.

The So Cal Scorpions were devastated when Desiree Weimann fractured her neck in a game in 2004. Her comeback, says Taylor, was an inspiration.

"Her healing, getting cleared to come back, and then this season rushing for more yards than [NFL San Diego Chargers' running back LaDainian Tomlinson and getting the league MVP was magical."

The regular football season runs from about mid-April through June, when playoffs begin. To see game schedules or to join a team, see league websites:, and
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Title Annotation:GIRLS COT GAME
Author:Schenden, Laurie K.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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