GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — By day these women are college students, teachers, hospital workers, secretaries, designers and commercial artists.
But by night they don the pads, cleats, helmets and jerseys of the Grand Rapids Carpenters--the undefeated leaders of the National Women's Football League.
As double lives go, this one is especially tough, according to the two dozen women who spend every spare minute practicing, competing, watching and thinking about full tackle football.
It's a professional team, although owner Mary Lohrstorfer said she and the rest of the team consider it cause for celebration when there are enough fans at their games to pay the cost of renting the stadium and hiring officials.
The team has come up with virtually every kind of fund-raiser known to woman in order to cover the $300 it costs to outfit each player, the $2,500 for insurance, the travel costs and all the other expenses.
Last year there were so few players one squad had to play both defense and offense and the Carpenters ended the season with a 1-5 mark, tied for last place in the six-team division.
But it's a different game this year as the Carpenters reign over their opponents with an unblemished season record, going into the playoffs later this month as heavy favorites against second-place Toledo.
In the five games they played this season--one win was a forfeit--the Carpenters have been scored upon only twice, both times in games against Toledo.
There are 24 women on the squad this year and, said Lohrstorfer, "We're the team to beat, no doubt about it!"
Other teams in the division are in Lansing, Cleveland and Columbus. The Kalamazoo team was out of play this season because of a reorganizational effort.
Although there were once three other divisions in the country, only the Northern Division has survived the high cost, low revenue life of women's professional football.
But Lohrstorfer said there is active interest on the West Coast in reviving a division there, a team is developing in Miami, and the Northern Division will gain at least one team next year since a franchise has been granted in Pittsburgh.
She said there is also interest in the Indianapolis and Elkhart, Ind., areas.
Players say it's not the long hours of training, hard-hitting tackles or lung-burning runs that make this sport so tough for women. The problem, they say, is with people who think football is a man's game.
Many said they kept their love of football a secret from co-workers and relatives because they didn't want the lecture that most often starts out with, "But girls just don't . . . "
Quick to point out they aren't "girls," the women are equally quick in noting that there is nothing "unfeminine" about their sport or the women who play it.
"I grew up playing football with my eight brothers," said Lohstorfer, an eight-year veteran who made the 1984 All-Star Team and is a two-time NWFL top defensive player.
"It's like any sport, the better condition your team is in the better your injury rate is and we've found ours to be lower, on a per-player basis, than softball," she said.
Assistant manager Karen Carten said she's aware of the typical sterotype of a woman who plays football and laughed as she pointed to the 5-0, 115-pound safety, Lynne Dressler.
"Sure we've got some big women but we've got average size women and small ones too," she said. "People have to realize we play other women and we're basically matched against someone approximately our size."
Coach Rahn Bentley, a 1964 Michigan State University graduate who played college football and then semi-pro ball for 2 1/2 years, termed the Carpenters "very, very capable players."
Bentley has coached at the high school and college level and was voted Coach of the Year by the Northern States Football League when he coached the Grand Rapids Broncos. He said the Carpenters in many ways are "more coachable" than men.
"Most players come to you already knowing the game and a style of play," he said, "but these women just love the game and concentrate very hard on what you have to say . . . they're more receptive to instructions and follow them to the letter."
When asked if he employed any specific methods not used with men's teams, Bentley quipped, "I don't supervise the showers or pass out towels."
He also said the women aren't interested in touch or flag football, or any of the less contact-oriented forms of the game.
"If it was just tag I don't think they'd be out there," he said. "But once they get a taste of football and what they can do when they're strong and in condition . . . other sports like softball pale by comparison to the competition they get here."
Kathy Elenbaas, a 5-3, 125-pound wide receiver and linebacker, said she was a long-time softball player who "got curious" and just came to watch a practice."
"Now I just love it," she said, admitting she kept her playing secret from co-workers at a local hospital until her cover was blown when she needed some post-game treatment at the emergency room there.
"The next day they were kind of whispering about it . . . They couldn't believe I'd play football . . . And of course I didn't tell my Dad for a long time because I knew how he'd react," she said.
Although at first he simply refused to accept her love for the game, she said he's since become one of the team's biggest fans.
Both Bentley and Carten said some of their early fans came to snicker but returned because the quality of play was much better than was expected.
"Sure, at first our style was 'hit and pray you get up' but Rahn's taught us solid technique through proper training and that's made all the difference," Carten said.
She said the team this year spent five months training before ever getting into pads for a scrimmage.