It is a perfect spring day, fading into a perfect spring night. The sun has just crested over the football field at Oakhaven High School, and even the stubbly grass has taken on a golden hue.
"RIP SOMEONE'S HEAD OFF!!" comes barreling over the lawn. It is guttural, angry, an obvious battle cry meant to inspire action in one team and fear in the other. The two teams take their places on the 50-yard line, seething fire and brimstone between them.
But wait ... is that a ponytail slick with sweat hanging out of that helmet? It is. This is a game between two teams in the Independent Women's Football League, a version of tackle football that is every bit as violent, angry, and intense as anything played by a man. Even on these benches, players who wear their hair long do so at their own risk -- the easiest way to get a woman down is to pull on that ponytail.
"Tackle football is tackle football," says Memphis Maulers general manager Tiffany Ross. "We hit and we hit hard."
This professional football league was started in 2000 by some women in Austin, Texas, who wanted to play real football, not the powder-puff version. Now the league, whose season runs from April through July, has 13 teams across the country and Canada.
"A lot of people think, Oh, I'm going to get hurt, but that's what the pads are for," says Ross. "Don't get me wrong. You do get some stingers, but it doesn't really hurt."
Ross, a lineman (linewoman?) on the team, never really wanted to be a GM, but her desire to play football was so great that she took on the responsibility.
"I watched football when I was a kid. I always wanted to play full contact," she says. She learned about the league and thought it would be a good fit in Memphis. "I put an ad in the paper and got about 60 calls from women wanting to play. Only one of them actually showed up." Ross eventually tapped into a supply of wannabe football players at the University of Memphis, but last season the team only had 13 people on it. Whether they were playing offense or defense, almost everyone was on the field at any given time.
For whatever reason, football is one of the last bastions in sports where women haven't taken to the court or the field en masse. Even among the women on the team, none has played tackle extensively. (There's a rumor that a few of them barely knew what a first down was when they joined.)
Ross says that many of the women are natural athletes, having played other sports. Now that there's an opportunity for it, they play this one too.
As for the game, it's as rough-and-tumble as they come. The coaches scream, and you can hear them clearly, every F-word. The women -- or ladies, as they are always called -- yell at each other, grab face masks, pull ponytails, and pinch during the pile-ups. And then there are the fights.
"The intensity level gets so high," says Ross, "that you just want to hit somebody. There are quite a few fights. It's hard sometimes to walk away." If you think they take it easy just because they're female, you've got another think coming. This is not your kinder, gentler football.
Unfortunately, there aren't that many people here to see it. There are no cheerleaders, no band, no half-time entertainment. Though there are some guys dotting the stands, the fans are mostly women. Perhaps that's not a surprise. Cast a female protagonist in a movie, it's labeled a "chick flick." Even the WNBA, now in its sixth season and with a host of women superstars, has a core female fan base. The level of play in the WNBA is the stuff of dreams; those women have been taking it to the hoop since elementary and middle school, if not before. They've benefited from the words and wisdom of years of coaching.
That's something the women on the Maulers lack.
"We haven't been playing since we were 3 years old. It's going to take a little bit of ground-building to get younger women serious about playing football," says Ross. The team's coach, Devin Ragland, tellingly, is a peewee-league coach. "Once you start playing and then you watch a game on TV, it really gives you a whole new perspective."
One of the hardest things for the team is not learning plays or taking hits but marketing themselves to the public. Most of them work 9-to-5 jobs before spending about two hours every night in practice. It doesn't leave much time for fund-raising, and they don't have money to advertise the league.
Asked why she plays football despite all the difficulties, Ross' answer is no different from any man's: "It's an adrenaline rush. It's fun."
"The men I've talked to outside my workplace are very leery of women playing football. It's almost like a joke to them," says Ross. "For me, it's all about a time line. It's hard to get used to change. It's hard for me too. But whether the league grows or doesn't grow at all, I can say I played football. And so can every member on that team."
The next Memphis Maulers home game is on Saturday, June 8th, at Oakhaven High School, against the Tulsa Tornadoes. For more information, call 219-4470.