Fumble-ina

A new NFL playbook offers a word to the wives.

Naturally, Damiano herself is a huge fan. "I've always loved football," she says, even though she was raised in a Western Slope family of all girls. When it came time to select a college, she chose the University of Iowa -- because the school's football team had made the Rose Bowl the year before.

But it wasn't just the game that held her attention: Damanio is thrilled by the spectacle that results whenever 50,000 human beings gather in one spot. "I'm a huge people watcher," she explains. "I look at the crowd, the mascot, the cheerleaders. At high school games I was always watching the two girls in front of me arguing over their boyfriends."

There's plenty to watch at NFL 101. After milling around several tables heaped with seafood, roast beef and cheese, and being led on tours of the new stadium (visitor's locker room only), the women file into a huge room with lovely views of downtown Denver. Anita Lopez, a Channel 9 anchor, introduces the program by guessing why women find the game interesting. "How many of you are here because you like to see tight ends in motion?" she wonders and gets a loud cheer as an answer.

Next up is tight-end coach Brian Pariani, a dull brick of a man. While undoubtedly an inspiration to his receivers, Pariani seems hopelessly at sea in front of a roomful of women. "Um, the field is a hundred-yard field," he begins. The women laugh at him. He tries again. "The objective is to score and get things done like that," he says. "There are a lot of things you can do to score a touchdown."

"Although you wouldn't know it," mutters a woman sitting next to me.

Pariani plods on. It doesn't take long before the crowd gets restless, and the noise level rises audibly. Some women begin passing around family pictures. Fifteen painful minutes later, Pariani finally finishes, concluding coach-ishly: "That's all I have from a football standpoint."

He asks for questions. A smattering of women raise their hands and begin peppering the coach with a series of ponderings that have a certain emperor-has-no-clothes logic.

"What's pass interference?" one woman asks. "Aren't we trying to interfere with them catching the ball in the first place?"

"I don't get holding," another complains. "If you're going to get caught, why do you do it?"

"What?" Pariani says.

"Holding," the woman persists. "Why do you do it?"

"I want to know what they're saying in the huddle," another woman says. "Are they telling jokes, or what?"

Pariani is too terrified to try anything as risky as humor. He launches into a serious answer about the complex machinery of play calling, but by now no one is listening. He leaves the stage to tepid applause.

Next up is Frank Bush, special-teams coach for the Broncos. He starts by playing off the buttocks riff begun by Lopez: "How many of you are here because you have husbands or boyfriends interested in football?" he asks, getting a few claps in response. Then: "How many of you ladies showed up 'cause they look awfully damn good in those pants?" The reply: raucous applause and wolf whistles.

Bush is tall, loose limbed and well built, and he seems much more at ease in front of a crowd while launching into a basic primer on defense. Cornerbacks are the gnatlike pass defenders who buzz around wide receivers, he explains, while "a safety is a bigger guy. Still looks good in his pants, but a big guy." And then, "When we say blitz, we're not just sending those four big guys who don't look good in pants."

To his credit (and in contrast to many men), Bush also appears to have acquired some perspective on the game -- perhaps because of the sudden conclusion of his own career about fifteen years ago from a spinal injury after two promising seasons in the NFL.

"It ain't that hard," he acknowledges. "We got something called 'two-deep' coverage. Why do you think we call it that? 'Cause we got two-deep guys!" And, "Man coverage -- what's that mean?" He walks across the stage, stops in front of the lectern and points at it: "I got you." As for "hot dog coverage, it means that if my guy goes into the stands to buy a hot dog, I go with him. That's it; it's not that hard."

Despite Bush's capable delivery, by the time he's winding down a sizable portion of the audience has again grown restless. A few women get up for drinks. (The event is co-sponsored by Ernest and Julio Gallo; the "NFL for Her" Web site lists recommendations for wine-and-cheese pairings.) More pictures are passed around. But all this distraction stops at the appearance of the next speakers.

Lisa McCaffrey and Ann Frerotte sit next to each other on tall stools. They seem to be good friends, and it's clear they have learned to give football just as much respect as it deserves.

While McCaffrey plays the fake-glam wife of a bona fide NFL star, Frerotte is the put-upon spouse of a back-up journeyman quarterback. The questions now come fast and furious -- and I can't help but notice that these queries are way more interesting than anything having to do with actual football.

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