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His long-sleeved black jersey is soaked in sweat as Haywood Jeffires stands on the Pearland Patriots' football field. Retired four years now, he was the Oiler known for catching the ball behind his back with one hand. He averaged six to nine catches per game and helped make the Oilers the NFL's highest-octane passing offense.
For three years in a row he played in the Pro Bowl, leading the conference in receiving. He and Warren Moon created the fade-stop play, where the quarterback throws the ball behind the receiver, the other team thinks it was a lousy pass, maybe laughs at the quarterback for making such a bad throw, and then the receiver reaches out behind him and plucks the ball out of the air. Haywood liked making the crowd scream. "Everything I did was crazy or spectacular," Haywood says.
Teammates called him Loosey Goosey in the locker room because he was always wandering around the field looking totally relaxed before scoring a long-yardage touchdown. But sometimes the smiling Peter Pan routine faded, like the time Haywood threw a bottle of Gatorade at his coach during a game.
Haywood played nine years for the Oilers, a year with the New Orleans Saints and a month with the Chicago Bears. He had five surgeries on his knees and arthritis in his wrists and ankles; he couldn't practice because his joints would swell. He no longer got excited about games that meant more surgery, and he was tired of taking daily medication to keep his heart rate down. Someone at the Bears suggested he think of something else to do.
He bought a house in Brazoria and opened Pearland's Pro Play Zone, "The place where the pros play." Among the batting cages, laser tag and miniature golf, Haywood stores his trophies, balls from the Pro Bowl and pictures of himself and his friends in their pro-football glory. He spends his days taking his kids to school, helping in his family's insurance business and trading stocks on-line.
In June the owner of the Houston Energy asked if he'd be interested in coaching women's professional football.
She told him that no one really expected anything from the league -- and a lot of people thought Houston's team wouldn't amount to anything. That was an incentive for Haywood. When he coaches his six-year-old son's flag football team, he always takes the kids other coaches don't want. He likes to win games with people everyone else thought were losers. "I'm a risk taker," he says.
That's why Haywood is sweating in the hot August sun, the heat topping 100 degrees. His younger sister is at his side with a whistle around her neck and a clipboard in her hand. Around them, women are running the 40-yard dash, slamming the sled and diving for balls. Haywood's putting them through his NFL camp drills.
"I asked them where the beef was, and they brought it to me," he says. "They got some healthy girls." At the 50-yard line he points at the women getting into formation. "There's some beef up there," he says with a huge smile. "Look at them. Damn. Look at that."
The assistant coach turns to him. "That's an offensive line," he says.
Haywood grins. He figures the linewomen each weigh at least 250 pounds. "Don't you think those women are all 250?" he asks. "If you ain't 250, you can't be on my offensive line."
The assistant shakes his head. "Can you get to the quarterback? No."
The team owner walks up. "Isn't this awesome?" she asks. Haywood just smiles at her and watches the women lock arms and push each other back. All day women have asked him when they were going to start tackling.
"You got some monsters out there," he says. "They're crazy. They're so driven right now they want to knock each other down. The way I saw them move the sled, I can't wait to watch them move the real deal."
Haywood's father told him that football isn't a woman's game. That's why all the previous women's leagues have failed, he said. Every time women have suited up, they haven't been taken seriously. During the Roaring '20s, teams like the Frankford Yellow Jackets (later the Philadelphia Eagles) had women put on the pads at halftime. They were entertainment, like a marching band or baton-twirling majorettes. "It was a novelty," says Stuart Kantor, historian for the Women's Professional Football League. "It wasn't like A League of Their Ownbecause the gentlemen were at war. This was a way to cross-gender promote and try and get people in the stands." Like when major-league baseball teams had midgets run the bases between innings.
The first all-women team was created in 1965 by Cleveland talent scout Sid Friedman. Many men liked mud wrestling, so he thought people would like to watch women tackle each other. He was right. His semipro league grew from two teams to six -- but it lasted only five years. People say it was more like a carnival sideshow than a real football team. Even though the idea of women playing pro ball was intended as a joke, women took it seriously; they wanted to play. Shortly after the WPFL folded, the National Women's Football League formed in 1976. "That was when the women's movement was at its full bra-burning glory," says Vinca Williams, who played for the Oklahoma City Dolls. Now she's general manager of the Oklahoma City Wildcats, and plans to buy the team. The NWFL had 14 teams and played real American blood-and-guts football.