No Sissies Allowed
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 Own because 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.
The Houston Hurricanes (a.k.a. the Her-ricanes) were a good, tough team known to play dirty. They wore sharp steel knee braces and brass knuckles, Vinca remembers. The Hurricanes were ranked No. 1 in the state and second in the league. They beat the first-place team, the Dolls, 7-6 in the last game of the season. "They gave us all we could handle," Vinca says. "They were a big, strong team."
But there were too many people with Haywood's father's mentality. The Dolls averaged about 1,000 fans per game, but the Hurricanes were lucky if they got 200. The league folded because it couldn't get sponsors and supporters. "They weren't ready for it," Vinca says. "People just thought of it as a big joke. They didn't even put it on the same level as roller derby or professional wrestling."
In Texas, women had been banned from playing high school football since 1949 when the Board of Education found out that Frankie Groves of Stinnett wasn't a boy. It wasn't until seven years ago that high school girls were allowed onto the field. Board member and Austin lawyer Will Davis fought to keep women off the field. "A big, strong girl is still a weak boy," he said. A male sports medicine physician told the Houston Chronicle that girls are more susceptible to injuries (even though he pointed out that girls' bones are more mature) and that they need to wear padding to protect their breasts. The article's only counter to the prevailing male view was a female sports medicine doctor, quoted at the end of the story, who said she saw no medical reason women could not play football. HISD's former athletic director, Joe Tusa, also spoke out against girls on the gridiron. "It may be a novelty at first, but as time goes on, I don't think any girls will be interested," Tusa said. "I don't think the girls could compete." Last year 306 Texas high school girls played football along with 157,868 guys. No deaths were reported.
Overseas, women football players have fared far better. Women play throughout Europe, Asia and Australia. Spurred by the success of the Women's National Basketball Association, American entrepreneurs decided to try again; the new WPFL emerged last year with a golden phoenix as its symbol. About 600 women tried out to be on the two start-up teams. To see if people would pay to watch women's football, the Minnesota Vixens and the Lake Michigan Minx went on a three-month, seven-city exhibition tour. About 3,000 people turned out for the first game; the tour culminated in a halftime exhibition at the Superbowl.
Many players abandoned full-time jobs to earn about $100 a game. Teammates had to provide their own housing and health insurance; a few women crashed with the coach and his family. Outfitted in used or donated uniforms, players complained that nothing fit right.
A year later, the league has grown from two teams to 11. In Houston, women came out in droves to try out. Many had grown up playing football in their backyards or played high school football until they got breasts and coaches kicked them off the team. Most all of the women were strong, solid athletes who had spent years playing flag football, rugby and soccer.
When Haywood was drafted out of North Carolina State University, he signed a $1 million contract. No one in women's football is getting anywhere near that kind of money. Players for the Energy are earning $50 a game; factor in practice time, and they're making less than minimum wage for the chance to smash their skulls Saturday nights. Ten Hooters girls have volunteered to lead cheers.
Lani Alley zigzags across the field then dives toward the ground. She bought her padded white pants a year ago; she's the only woman at the minicamp not wearing shorts. Lani's father played for UT, and she convinced the coach at Westbury High School to let her punt and play free safety for two seasons. "I was just one of the guys," says the 30-year-old professional pet caregiver and volunteer firefighter. She spent last fall scrimmaging with her best friend's son's high school football team. She practiced two hours with the boys this morning before coming to the women's football camp. "I couldn't wait," she says.
Stacey Raven, 38, was bursting with the same excitement and enthusiasm. She spent ten years in the navy and grew up playing football with her eight brothers. She has played flag football for four years; technically it's illegal to tackle in flag, but she does it anyway. Stacey runs backward swiveling her hips, stops abruptly, then races forward, leaping into the air to catch the ball. The next woman jumps three feet into the air and snags the pigskin; she looks straight off Monday Night Football. The whole line cheers. The next woman starts running backward, stumbles and falls. "It's all right, baby, get up! Get up!" the women behind her scream. "You gotta get up." Even though they're competing against each other to get on the team, in a way they're already teammates. They all want to create a women's football team that is respected. They don't want their daughters to be told that they can get Gatorade for the boys. If a little girl wants to be a linebacker, they want her to have that option.
Tammy Walker-Brown runs behind the bleachers. Her husband is the head football coach at Wharton High School, so he provided her with brand-new black cleats. She digs in her duffel bag and pulls out her cell phone. She's trying to call her twin brother, Sammy Walker, who played for the Green Bay Packers. On the phone last night he reminded her to watch out for her knees, point her toes and not putter, wheeze or grab her hamstring even if it hurts. He told her that football coaches are looking for speed, aggressiveness, fast feet and heart. He has given her advice on everything from treating turf toe to tackling without getting hurt. He taught her chop tackles and to surprise bigger women by cutting them off at the knees. "It's better to be the hammer than the nail," he says.
Sammy and Tammy grew up playing sandlot football in McKinney, Texas. "I didn't think of her as a girl, I thought of her as my best player," Sammy says. "I made sure she was the first one I picked. If I didn't, somebody else would pick her and she'd beat me." Their mother taught both of them to tackle. Try as they might, they never could take their mom down. She was too big and too strong, Sammy says. Their uncle wanted Tammy to play on the peewee team he coached, because she ran the 40 faster than any of the boys. Sammy threw a tantrum, which kept Tammy off the team. He didn't like the other guys saying a girl beat him. He didn't know he was hampering her professional career.
Haywood has 11 sisters, but he didn't tell any of them he was coaching. "I found out on the news," says his younger sister April La Chiusa. "On the news." He even told her the wrong time so she was late for tryouts. She was on time to the minicamp this morning and announced she wanted to play. He said she could be a coach. (Their father didn't want her to try out; she's the youngest of 16 children. Since she's a wife and a mother, he didn't want her to get hurt.) "We had a few words," she says. But Haywood convinced her that if she was on the team it would be a conflict of interest and people would think he was playing favorites. "He talked me out of it," she says.
"She can't play," he says. "'Cause she suck."
She glares at him. "He wants all the glory. He doesn't want me to get popular. He just don't want people to see that I'm better than him."
Next year, she says, "I'll try out. But he'll cut me."
"You got that right," he says. "I'll cut you."
He'll cut her, he says, because he knows if she was a player and she messed up, he couldn't yell at her. Next to his wife, she's his best friend. Their sons are the same age; they spend almost every day hanging out, teasing each other. He'd rather work with her than be her boss, he says.
He tells her to go get his cell phone from the car. "I'm his girl Friday," she says.
Playing ice hockey Labor Day weekend Lani slammed her head into the wall. She thought the ambulance was a bus taking her to a football game. She called the ER doctors "coach" and asked, "Did we win?" They said they'd find out.
Two nights later Lani shows up to football practice with bruised kidneys and a moderate to severe concussion. She can't remember people's names and has to ask the coaches to repeat plays. Her head feels foggy, but she isn't going to let a concussion keep her away from the first official practice. Troy Aikman is her hero. (The Cowboys have sidelined Aikman after he received his ninth career concussion in the season opener.)
"Lani needs to sit down," Haywood says.
At 6:30 p.m. women swarm the Pearland Dad's Club Little League field (club officials won't let the Energy practice on the football field now that the yard lines are drawn and the peewee leagues are playing). Some women are running laps; others stand in four straight lines warming up. As they count off a cadence of stretches, there's an intensity that wasn't there before and doesn't exist in the hardest workout video. About 80 women have been chosen from nearly 600. They know this cut will be harder; tonight they have to play better than they ever have.
"We gotta execute tonight," says assistant coach John Boyd. "We gotta run all the plays."
On the sidelines, the team owner stretches with them. Robin Howington also owns Texas Oil Patch Services, which sells bearings and parts for oil rigs. She throws a football back and forth with one of the teammates. They play with the same undersized ball as the JV leagues because most women have smaller hands than men. Smaller balls and bigger breasts are the only difference between the WPFL and the NFL, Robin says. She played tackle football in fifth, sixth and seventh grade in a small town outside Atlanta. Captain of a Houston women's flag football team, Robin heard about the WPFL from one of her players. The player contacted the league to find out where they could try out. Officials said they wanted to start a team in Houston; Robin said she'd buy it. She wants to play, but there's too much paperwork and she needs to get in shape. "I might suit up this year," she says. "You never know."
They run seven-on-seven skeleton drills practicing printed plays. "They should have mailed these to us," one woman complains, as she stands on the sidelines trying to memorize the sheet. The sky turns black, and the field lights come on. Boys practicing in the peewee league press their faces against the fence and watch.
Haywood stands with his hands on his hips, spits on the ground and walks off. He crosses his arms over his chest, then scratches his chin. He's studying the players' scrimmaging. They run a play, the ball is fumbled, the women scramble. They start again; fumble again. Haywood shakes his head.
"Let's go," an assistant coach yells. "You wanna walk, I'll get you a dog!"
Against the fence, Joe Roberts watches his wife slam another woman to the ground. He told Susan the idea of women's football was crazy. But he said to go ahead and try out. "Man," he says, "she might make the team."
His wife is just over five ten and about 325 pounds. In the last two nights she has knocked 13 women to the ground. "I've been ridiculed all my life for being big," she says. "This is what I was created for."
Haywood hollers for everyone to take a knee. It's after 9 p.m.; practice is over. He tells the team they did a good job and not to feel bad if they don't make the cut. Even if they're cut, they may still have a chance to play, he says. "I can guarantee you 20 percent of the girls are going down," he says.
He insists that there aren't any favorites, and he lectures them about what it means to be a team. If players want to go out to dinner together, he wants everyone on the team to be invited. "Let's be smart, let's be friends, let's don't be lovers," he says. Players aren't allowed to date coaches or each other in the NFL either, he says. But they probably don't have to announce that at the first practice. "Hands off," he says.
Tammy's husband says the best part about her joining the team is that she lets him watch Sunday-afternoon and Monday-night football. Since he coaches football all day, he normally has to sneak into the back bedroom if he wants to watch it at home. Now, she's trying to learn more about the sport, so they watch together; she pays attention and asks questions about why each player does what. "Otherwise, it's like, "Ain't we had enough football? It's time for the Lifetime channel,' " she says.
It's Monday night and one month from the October 14 season kickoff. They have to start getting the team together, Haywood says. Instead of running individual drills like they did in the last several practices, they're playing one-on-one and scrimmaging all night.
Two teams huddle up and then get into a three-point stance. The quarterback yells, "BLUE 13, BLUE 13, HUT! HUT!" She passes the ball, women slam into each other, another woman catches and scores.
Haywood applauds. "That's football!"
After practice Haywood reiterates that they really shouldn't feel bad if they get cut from the team. Then the marketing director, Julie Nelson, announces that all of the women were supposed to sell ten season tickets apiece (valued at $90 each). Of 80 women, only a handful have sold any. "You guys have got to get all over that," she says. "You've got to."
Two nights later it rains and rains and rains. The field is a dark, muddy swamp. Rain doesn't bother the players, but the Dad's Club doesn't want them messing up the field. Haywood gathers the women under the pavilion, stands on a picnic bench and tries to shout over the sound of the storm. "We've got a game in three weeks," he says. "We're missing a very important day. You never want to miss a day on the field."
Instead, they have a skull session and run through the playbook. Since Haywood was a wide receiver, he likes a passing game. "I'm gonna throw it every play," he says. They needed a day where they could meet and make sure the women understood the playbook, he says. A lot of the women still don't know what the circles and squares printed on the page mean. "If you don't know what's going on on the field, you don't do me no good," Haywood says.
It's hard to hear the coaches over the thunder. It becomes even harder when a group of very loud elementary school cheerleaders decides to practice under the pavilion too. Teammates push back the picnic benches and walk through the drills. Their cleats slip on the slick concrete. With all the wet women, the air smells like shampoo, strawberries and sweat.
In the corner Tammy commiserates with a woman whose coworkers and friends are telling her she should "know her place" and "quit trying to be a man." Tammy has no interest in being a man: She's a woman, a mother, a wife and a sister. She's not a tomboy -- she's an athlete. Another woman says she saw an on-line discussion group about the WPFL. A man wrote that they're going to lose games because they're all going to get pregnant, get PMS or break a nail. She wishes she could kill him.
Haywood reiterates that the players need to advertise the team as much as they can and get out there and sell season tickets. "Continuously talk about it," he says.
The team owner says they need to cut their fingernails. Too many players are getting scratched.
Lani got cut. A manager called Tuesday night while she was at a volunteer firefighter meeting and said she didn't make the team. She wasn't mad, she didn't cry; she just got into her car, turned the music up really loud and drove home. Her parents were relieved. Lani's sophomore year in high school she got blindsided and was pulled off the team for five weeks. They didn't want to see her hit and hurt again.
About 40 of Lani's friends had filled out season ticket purchase forms, but they told her not to turn them in until she knew she made the team. After all the sell-your-tickets lectures, she turned in five. She spent the last few days convincing her friends not to call the Energy and demand their money back. Most of the people she sold tickets to weren't interested in men's football, much less women's football; they just wanted to support their friend. Lani hasn't bought herself a season pass, but she'll probably go to a few games. "I don't hold no grudges," Lani says. "I'm not hoping they lose all season."
She's thinks that she'll probably still have a chance to play. Someone's bound to get hurt, so the coaches might call her in to sub. She's waiting for the phone to ring.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.