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They're More Than Football Fans

Women's league has many serious players trying to make their mark while balancing lives away from the field.

June 02, 2002|PAUL NEWBERRY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

DECATUR, Ga. — The idea of playing football--the real kind, with tackling and blocking and everything else--first came to Jennifer Frederick in sixth grade. She approached the principal about getting a permission slip for her parents to sign.

He refused. She was a girl. Everyone knew that girls don't play football.

Frederick didn't fare much better when she got home. She told her mom and dad, only to learn they were in the principal's corner. No way they were going to let their daughter put on a helmet and pads, and take the field with a bunch of boys.

"I tried to argue it out at home and wound up getting grounded," Frederick recalled. "I got two weeks of washing dishes and cleaning the house because I wanted to play football."

All grown up now, she's finally getting a chance to fulfill her dream with the Atlanta Leopards, an expansion team in the fledgling National Women's Football League. Never mind that she had to buy her own equipment. Who cares that practices and games have to be juggled around a real job.

No payday at the end of the week? No problem. This is football for the true love of the sport--even if some of the players didn't know the difference between a goal line and a goalpost.

"I never even watched a full game on television until the Super Bowl this year," admitted Benita Booker, who plays offensive and defensive line for the Leopards. "But I've been out here for 10 weeks, and I'm still here--even with all the bumps and bruises. It takes a lot of commitment."

The NWFL is hardly big-time football.

The Leopards practice on a ramshackle high school field east of Atlanta, and only when the prep band and team have finished their drills.

Massages are given on a folding table. Practice ends when it's impossible to see the ball on the unlighted field.

The season opener drew about 1,200 fans, and only half that number turned out for the second game. The team's owner, LaTonya Watters, has to worry about more than fan support, though--you see, she's also a starter on the offensive line.

"It's quite intensive being a player-owner," said Watters, who somehow finds time for her 9-to-5 job as a therapist dealing with troubled children. "I look forward to traveling to games out of state. The responsibility is off me and I can be a player only."

Before the first game, Watters didn't have time to go over the playbook. She had to make sure the referees were there and the concession stands were staffed. She had to make sure there was water for both teams and all the bills were paid. Hmm, kind of makes George Steinbrenner's life seem rather idyllic.

"I was writing checks during the game," Watters said.

Her teammates realize that all their aches and pains won't be soothed by a million-dollar contract somewhere down the line. They are students and police officers and accountants by trade, merely hoping this adventure will make things easier for the next generation of female players.

Everyone had to pay $35 just to try out for the Leopards. Those who made the team had to fork over more than $300 to buy their helmet, uniform and pads. There's a chance they'll get paid something if the team is profitable, but that seems unlikely.

"Being pioneers, we have to pay out of our pocket for everything," Booker said. "It gets a little expensive, but I don't regret it a bit."

Neither does Randi Terry, a 155-pound defensive end with an 18-month-old son. She grew up playing basketball, soccer and volleyball, but remembers the desperate search for someone to emulate.

"I used to stay up till 2 in the morning to watch women's basketball on TV. That was about the only time it was on," said Terry, 28. "My hope is this is one more step for women in sports."

Frederick, a mechanic for Delta Air Lines, had more primal reasons for trying out.

"The other sports I played, you couldn't hit anybody without getting in trouble," she said, grinning mischievously. "Here, if you want to hit 'em, you can hit 'em hard."

Make no mistake: These women will hit each other. If nothing else, they have struck a blow against those--Frederick's former principal, are you listening?--who don't believe females have the physical strength or aggressive nature to send another woman crashing into the turf.

"These girls are out here because they want to play real football," Terry said. "They're not afraid to hit anybody."

M.G. Dawson heard about the league on the radio, thought it sounded intriguing and came out to watch the tryouts. Next thing he knew, he had a whistle around his neck and was coaching the team.

"At least you don't have to un-teach them things," Dawson said. "They don't have any bad habits because the game is so new to them. They're extremely coachable, too."

Dawson, whose day job is selling computer software, coached briefly at North Carolina, his alma mater, but had to draw on earlier experiences for his first practice with the Leopards.

"This is a football field, these are goalposts, this is a sideline," Dawson told his players. Then they went from there.

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