Diamonds in the rough (and tumble)
It's not money but love of football that transforms alumnae Aurelia Green and Debbie Wells into hard-hitting gridiron warriors.
Look closely and you see them, framed checks hanging among photographs on a wall in alumna Aurelia Green's living room. One for $10, the other $11, they represent her earnings from two years of bruises, scabs and ringing ears caused by helmet-to-helmet collisions with players twice her size.
Notions about women playing football disappear at game time. The quarterback throws hard, tight spirals. The fastest players can run 40 yards in the 4.5-second range. And these ladies love to hit.
"They are tough and mean," says Diamonds head coach Todd Haisten, who compares the play to that of a large high school or small college team. "We've got a few of them who will flat knock your block off."
Decked out in full football gear, some Dallas players could pass for men. They look big. Some are big, weighing nearly 350 pounds. They range in age from 21 to 46. The 46-year-old is Debbie Wells, an offensive lineman and 1980 UTA graduate.
Unlike Green-when coaches told her she'd be playing defensive end, she replied, "What's that?"-Wells at least knew football jargon when she started playing. She had watched the sport since she was a child and played catch with her father. At 5-8, 225, she anchors a spot on the offensive line.
"You have to be a BOG [big ol' girl] to play on the line," she says. "It's an honorary thing to be a BOG."
Growing up in Wills Point, Wells longed to play football. She got the chance at UTA, where her intramural flag football team won the league championship three years in a row. While sitting in the stands at a Diamonds game in 2002, she decided to try the full-contact version.
"Seeing that first game, I knew I wanted to play," she said. But because of her age, she had reservations. "I didn't want to make a fool of myself. I didn't want people to laugh at me."
No one did. She quickly discovered that she was in better shape than many of the younger players. Perhaps 19 years as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service helped. Or maybe she was hungrier.
"She goes out there with reckless abandon to fulfill her dream," team owner Dawn Berndt says. "She doesn't let age or injuries hold her back."
Green, on the other hand, is more subdued on the field. "I'm not a real headhunter type," she says. "I don't have that killer aggression, but I'm working on it."
Green ('92 BA) played competitive volleyball and softball and once belonged to 10 indoor soccer teams at the same time. She, too, had an early dalliance with football. "I tried to play in fourth grade, but my mom wouldn't let me."
Now her mother attends all of her home games, as does her husband, an assistant coach for the team. During the first season, her parents even made some road games, traveling as far as Boston. Her father, who died last July, was her biggest fan.
"My dad was excited about his little girl playing professional football," Green says. "But I had a couple of aunts who thought I was crazy."
Born and raised in Arlington, the former UTA Marching Band member now runs her own graphic design business. She also handles the team's media relations, maintains its Web site and organizes fund-raisers.
Last season, Green, Wells and their teammates posted a 9-2 record, won the league's Southern Division and advanced to the National Conference finals. Along the way, the Diamonds twice defeated the Houston Energy, which hadn't lost a game in three years. They also thrashed the Missouri Prowlers by scores of 72-0, 66-0 and 65-0.
The WPFL, which begins its sixth season this summer, is the original and longest-operating women's pro football operation in the nation. Seventeen franchises span the country-Los Angeles; Miami; Syracuse, N.Y.; Dayton, Ohio; St. Paul, Minn.-with names like the Vixen, Rebellion and Caliente.
Berndt herself ached to put on the pads and knock heads.
"I wanted to play but nobody was bringing a team to Dallas," she said. "It was one of those situations where if you wanted something done, you had to do it yourself." So far, the day-to-day duties of owning and running the three-year-old franchise have kept her off the field.
Budgets are tight, so teams travel mostly by bus to play opponents in the same geographic region. An exception was Dallas' game last season against the Florida Stingrays in Miami's Orange Bowl. The team covered airfare and hotel expenses, but players paid for their own meals.
While Berndt worries about funding, coach Haisten frets over fundamentals. Many of the women lack elementary football knowledge. The terminology can be tricky. Getting blitzed has nothing to do with heavy drinking. A trap is not a device for catching mice.
"Even 10-year-old boys have been playing football for a few years and understand the basics," says Haisten, whose previous coaching experience was at the youth level. "With most of these women, you have to teach them everything from the rules of the game to how to put on the equipment."
Oh, that pesky, made-for-men equipment.
The pants are often ill-fitting and tend to sag. But it's the shoulder pads that cause the most problems. They extend about halfway down the upper torso. That's fine for a man, not so great for a woman.
— Mark Permenter