Ladies' Day

Behold the ancient rituals of autumn. The sting of just-rubbed wintergreen oil catches in the nostrils. Two tall quarterbacks kneel facing each other, soft-tossing spirals, while a lean wide receiver yanks on a pair of black Adidas sport gloves, then balls them into fists. Weariness mingles with anticipation as a pair of chunky linebackers studiously tape bruised fingers. At the corner of the endzone, a grim-faced trainer prods the swollen knee of yesterday's casualty. Sitting on a table, the player gazes into space and pretends to feel nothing. No sweat, the look says. Be back out there tomorrow. Because nothing changes at football practice.

Except this: "Lessgo, ladies! Move it!" head coach Don Cavarra yells, clapping his hands. He's not kidding, nor is he mocking his charges. At Cavarra's command, ninety women jog onto the synthetic green turf of Englewood's Family Sports Dome and divide themselves into neat ranks for calisthenics. They have been doing this, and much more, four days a week since mid-August. Getting ready to make history.

The Colorado Valkyries, Denver's entry in the new, Minnesota-based Women's Professional Football League, do not play their first home game until October 22, against the Oklahoma Wildcats, at 7,600-seat Five Star Stadium in Thornton. Fact is, they don't even have pads, jerseys or helmets yet. But they're already doing battle, fighting the century-old notion that football -- eleven-player, full-contact, smashmouth, tackle football -- is strictly the province of boys and men. Already, pro basketball has given up male dominance; sellout crowds for WNBA games have blown that idea out of the arena. As for ice hockey, soccer, weightlifting and water polo, they were testosterone-fueled for ages but are now Olympic sports for women. Why not football? the WPFL asks. More than a thousand women in twelve U.S. cities from Honolulu to Tampa think they have the answer -- and the preliminary bumps and bruises to prove it.

"Why am I out here? For the love of sports, for love of the game," says Jennifer Lueck, one of seven players competing for three quarterback spots on the Valkyries roster. "This is a chance to prove we can play football, too."

Lueck, who has been commuting from Fort Collins since mid-July for mini-camps and practices, spends more on gas each week than the $100 per game she would earn as a Valkyrie. But that's beside the point. The point is about finding a new kind of joy, and maybe breaking a few barriers. "We just hope we can draw a crowd," Lueck says. "With a little support, especially from women, this league can make it."

The Valkyries -- named for the sword-swinging battle maidens of Norse mythology -- got off to an auspicious start. While early tryouts in some WPFL cities (including New York) drew just a few dozen former soccer, volleyball, basketball, softball, rugby and track athletes, Denver's open call in late July attracted 350 potential players -- including the wives of Denver Broncos Gus Frerotte and Ed McCaffrey. Two months later, the merely curious, the physically unfit and the mentally unprepared have disappeared. Head coach Cavarra, a thirty-year veteran of the local high-school and semi-pro ranks, now finds himself with the unenviable task of cutting his squad from ninety women who want to kick butt now and take names later to the fifty players (35 for road games) who do it best. And he must cut well before the October 14 season opener at the Minnesota Vixens.

"The enthusiasm and focus are unbelievable," Cavarra says, peering out from under the brim of his Tom Landry-style hat. "Their heart. When a woman wants to do something, you ain't stopping her." He has the highest praise for athletes who, in a matter of weeks, are learning the fundamentals of a game most of them have never played before. "The skill level is terrific," he says, sounding a bit astonished. Examples: Ex-New Mexico sprinter Natalie Dalton timed out at an NFL-worthy 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and at least three quarterbacks can put it on the money fifty yards downfield. "When we're working on, say, pass plays and reacting to the ball, everything is already there," Cavarra adds. "The biggest problems are with the terminology and the specifics of the pass routes. But they already have the ability to get there. It's unbelievable. They are great learners -- much better than males, I think."

With that in mind, Cavarra and his seven assistants have kept the pressure on in grueling, three-hour practices and have refused to simplify schemes. "We'll have a wide-open offense that runs everything -- fifteen different concepts and off those concepts ten different runs and ten different passes," he says. "We're not backing off just because they're women." The league's only concession to gender? A smaller ball.

Such rigor suits Patricia Bibbs, a feisty cornerback whose day job as a commercial pipefitter keeps her in top shape -- and exhausted most of the time. On workdays, she commutes between Denver and Longmont and on non-practice nights finds herself in bed by 6 p.m. "We have to learn quickly," Bibbs says. "We're trying to master everything in a month instead of an entire preseason, and if we don't take care of ourselves we're gonna get hurt out there. But I love it. There's even a dilemma I've thought about: If I had to take one or the other -- my job or this -- it would be a hard choice. Because I need to challenge myself. And I want to be a part of history. For my daughters."

Bibbs's single-mindedness is typical. Sandy Nickal, a 28-year-old former basketball player at San Diego State, was a stay-at-home mom in Torrington, Wyoming, when she heard about the Valkyries. She headed for Denver with the youngest of her children, one-year-old Lexi. The long separations from her husband and their two older children have been hard, but Nickal wants to play quarterback. "It's pretty important to be part of this," the 5-9, 145-pound blonde says. "My husband [an ex-college footballer] has come to see that, too."

Split end Brenda Bumgardner, aka "Bum," moved here from Oregon "on a wing and a prayer" to try out for the Vals, and she's likely beaten the odds. A wisp at 5-3 and 118 pounds ("I'll lie about it when we get to the team program," she vows), the 33-year-old former heptathlete and Oregon State assistant basketball coach has landed at least a special teams spot. Her knee, forearm and butt already are covered with turf burns, but she says she'll always take the physical pounding in stride. "I know I'm going to get hit," she says, "because it's part of the game. I grew up with an older brother, and I learned to be tough. There's no crying in football."

Danielle Cummins knows that better than anyone. Her uncle, Larry Graziani, played linebacker for Notre Dame in the 1970s, and his gold helmet has been in the basement ever since, an inspiration. She started playing neighborhood football with boys at age eight and was the only girl on her high school team -- Aurora Central -- from 1989 to 1993. Now Danielle's football dreams have been revived as the Valkyries 5-4, 165-pound starter at running back. "Maybe I was naive when I was fourteen or fifteen," she says, "but I never thought football was something I couldn't do. Like my grandma always said, if you can dream it, you can do it. Now, playing with women, there's a great camaraderie. I love being around women who are as competitive as I am. I appreciate another woman who can get down and get after the ball the way I do, with the same intensity and emotion. They have the same passion about the game that I have, and I love that."

Whether the Valkyries, the New York Sharks, the New England Storm and the other WPFL teams can instill passion in the paying customers -- at $10 to $20 a ticket, on already football-clogged fall weekends -- is another question. The professional-sports cemetery is filled with noble ideas and failed franchises, and women's football will need luck and quality to succeed. A look-see from ESPN or Fox Sports Net might help, too. But if sheer desire can move mountains and score touchdowns, the warrior goddesses of the Mile High City could be a hit. Shonn McLin, a 200-pound defensive end teammates call "Miss T.," sums it up well. "I have ten uncles, and of the 32 grandchildren in my family, I'm the only girl," she says. "So I had no choice but to learn how to cook and to play sports. I don't even want to explain how excited I am playing for the Valkyries, because I don't want to cry."

On opening day, though, there will be no crying in football.

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