WOMEN'S PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL
Seattle Warbirds vs. Hawaii Legends Juanita High School, 425-867-2409 10601 N.E. 132nd St., Kirkland 7:05 p.m. Sat., Dec. 29
I PERSONALLY believe women's soccer, gymnastics, swimming, ice skating, volleyball, and mechanical bull riding are far superior to the male versions, for varying reasons.
But, for better or worse, the hardwood is where the gender equality debate seems to be centered these days in the wide world of sports, and women's hoops is positively milquetoast compared to the sort of Fila-fresh aerial calisthenics offered up by Desmond Mason and the like.
But with spine-tingling hits, noisy grunts, and hard cuts that are eerily reminiscent of the guys' version, perhaps it's time for women's tackle football to be ushered in as the new proving ground in the aforementioned athletic battle of the sexes.
At its most literal, there are two essential criteria by which any football team (or any team, for that matter) should be measured: whether the franchise in question prevails consistently, and whether the product on the field is of reasonable quality and entertainment value.
Having outscored their opponents by a collective tally of 198-8 en route to a 6-0 record in their inaugural season, there is no question the Seattle Warbirds of the Women's American Football League (WAFL) meet the former criteria with room to spare. It's the latter consideration that provides lush terrain for analysis.
The women's professional tackle football "movement," founded in 1998, has undeniably struggled through several botched incarnations. The WAFL is essentially a hodgepodge of the defunct Women's Professional Football and National Women's Football leagues, with a few new franchises tossed in for good measure. League rules are virtually identical to the NFL, save a slightly smaller ball and no instant replay used in officiating.
Sixteen teams from areas such as Alabama, Indianapolis, Arizona, Hawaii, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Jacksonville are split into Western and Eastern conferences and play a 10-game regular season. The Warbirds are in the three-team Pacific Division, which includes Rose City (Portland) and Hawaii. The league championship game is set for the weekend of Feb. 9.
"Unfortunately, what happens is a lot of people hear 'women's football' and think it's a joke," proffers Warbirds owner Jennifer Stuart, who pumped some $65,000 of startup costs into the expansion team at the urging of her father, Michael Stuart—who also happens to be the Warbirds head coach. (Stuart also helms the gridiron gods at Sammamish High School and the semipro Eastside Chiefs of the Northwest Football League.)
"My dad got me around football with the Chiefs," explains Jennifer, who pulls double duty as concessions manager during Warbird home games at Juanita High School's Bergh Field. "I don't really play. I'm only 4 feet, 11 inches. I'd probably get really squished."
A perusal through the tales of the tape on the Warbirds' roster of 50-plus women reveals that Stuart would have a fair amount of company in the diminutive department were she to strap on a helmet. But the Warbirds' offensive line, most prominently 250-pound center Mo "The House" Fugate, is as brawny as fuck, enabling Coach Stuart to deploy a run-centric wing-T offense that relies on the deft ballhandling of quarterback Kim Walden and the piston-like legs of star running backs Sara Keys and Sharon Williams.
Any prejudices get chucked upon conversing with Walden, a mother of two and partner in an Eastside law firm (see what I mean?).
"Most players have kids; balancing football with family," explains the 5-foot-3-inch, 130-pound Walden, who goes on to shatter a timeworn gender stereotype by saying she wishes the statisticians would "tack some pounds" onto her listed weight.
Unlike the vast majority of her teammates, Walden played football as a child, when she was a Navy brat in Japan, where her father was stationed. Most Warbirds were or still are star soccer and/or rugby players eager to take advantage of an athletic opportunity not afforded them in their adolescence.
"Had football been more accessible, it would have been my favorite sport," laments safety Mugs Louden, who netted a key interception and delivered a bone-jarring hit on a hapless receiver in the Warbirds' 34-0 whupping of the Rose City Wildcats in front of some 1,000 fans at a rain-soaked Bergh Field on Dec. 1, the team's most recent home performance.
A STOCKY, mustachioed fireball of a man, Coach Stuart doesn't believe in dumbing the game down just because his team lacks experience. Sheltering his players from a torrential downpour in a wooden shed adjacent to Bergh Field one recent practice day, Coach Stuart spoke in a twangy, technical parlance virtually incomprehensible to the uninitiated, providing acute analyses of the depth of the opposing quarterback's drop and the cadence of Walden's snap count.
"[Stuart is] relentless. I have a lot of respect for him," observes the quarterback. "I'm sure he catches a lot of shit for coaching a women's team."
Unlike their obscenely overpaid counterparts in the NFL, the Warbirds travel to road games as far away as the Bay Area in four jam-packed vans and are supposed to make roughly $50 per game and divvy up whatever profits there are at season's end. As for the loot, Louden says no one's holding her breath: "We don't know if we'll get paid, and we don't care," says the safety.
Sponsors have been hard to come by as skeptics assess the viability of the fledgling league. The team, left to fend for itself for lack of a marketing staff, has enlisted the financial backing of their favorite postgame watering hole, the Lucky 7 Tavern.
As for that all-important quality-of-play issue, nowhere was it more evident than in the stalwart backfield of Keys and Williams, who conjure up memories of the Miami Dolphins' great Mercury Morris-Larry Csonka combo of the 1970s. While Keys is the league's leading rusher, Dec. 1 was Williams' day to shine, as the sturdy, 180-pound fullback battered Wildcat tacklers en route to 111 yards and four touchdowns.
As I watched Williams run, I had to remind myself that I wasn't watching the Pittsburgh Steelers' Jerome "Bus" Bettis shred his way through a Cleveland Browns' D of yore. At these moments, it was more than the novelty of women willfully pounding the shit out of each other that drew me. It was skill, it was execution—it was smash-mouth football par excellence. And it didn't mean a squirt of piss that it was the softer sex doing the dirty work.
Methinks Seattleites would be foolish not to shimmy out yonder past Juanita Drive to catch these athletes in action. In a town that boasts just one sports championship ('79 Sonics) and a perennial choker of a baseball team, such potential for greatness should not be taken for granted.