The Austin Outlaws mean football
A lightning storm has delayed the start of the Austin Outlaws football game, and a hundred dedicated fans are huddled under the bleachers of House Park, listening to a high school jazz band. Inside the Outlaws' locker room, someone shouts, "Anybody got music?" In response, a half-dozen teammates break into a chorus of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," until the coaching staff interrupts to remind them of Oklahoma City's blitz package.
An hour later, the game begins, in front of the dedicated fans who braved the thunderstorm on their feet, screaming for the home team. But on the first play of the game, Oklahoma City's star running back Iliana Calderon cuts up field on the wet turf and scampers 45 yards to set up a touchdown. "You just reached for her!" head coach Geoff Gummerman exhorts his defense as they come off the field. "Wake up and do the job and we'll be OK."
The offense seems to get the message. On the Outlaws' first possession, running back Shadana Hurd bursts free with a flash of speed and goes 46 yards for an answering TD. And on Oklahoma City's next two possessions, the defense stiffens, as the linebackers crash down repeatedly on Oklahoma City's trap-blocking to stuff Calderon. "Good job ladies," Gummerman yells, pulling aside his defense. "Ladies, good work."
That Gummerman is coaching women seems irrelevant to the work at hand. As Oklahoma City tries to pound the ball up the middle behind its huge offensive line, the game takes on the trappings of any football game: Players covered in sweat, wet grass, and mud, late hits banging and mouthpieces dangling. It certainly sounds like football all crashing pads, swearing, and grunts as players hit the turf.
Conventional wisdom says girls are not supposed to play football. But with every tackle and every splash of mud, these grown-up girls seem to ask, "Why not?"
The hot media buzz over Austin women's sports these days is Chicks on Roller Skates. They're on TV and splashed across magazines, combining retro athleticism with a campy, cleavage-popping attempt to woo the FHM-loving Hooters crowd. Roller derby, with two leagues working the Austin niche market, is as much about self-promotion as sport girls working it any way they can to break into the big time.
There's none of that in women's football. If the roller girls are all about black-lace bras and getting on TV, then the pigskin girls are all about bus rides to Pensacola and learning how to clothesline running backs. They may not be well-known with the Hooters crowd, but they're legends in the gay and lesbian community, which religiously turns out to support the cause.
The Outlaws are 6 years old and have spent the last three years playing in the Southwest Division of the National Women's Football Association, which includes 40 teams around the country. The rules are the same as in college football; the only difference is that the women use a slightly smaller ball. The league plays an eight-game season followed by playoffs, culminating this year in an Aug. 5 championship game in Pittsburgh.
League organizers emphasize that the NWFA is a professional organization, structured like other pro leagues, but the Austin team is incorporated as a nonprofit, and to pay the bills it depends on sponsors, T-shirt sales, advertising in the game program, and fundraisers, such as regular barbecues at Nuevo Leon. The players are not paid; they actually have to buy their own jerseys and put down a deposit to use the team's gear.
The Outlaws started three-day-a-week practices in January for the current eight-game season, which continues with a June 3 home game at House Park against Pensacola. They started off with 56 players, but it's now down to about 33. "Some of them figured out it's not for them," said Lily Messina, the team's general manager and, at 5-feet-9-inches, 170 lbs., their offensive center. "If you're new, it's hard to understand how much work goes into it." Some show up simply as a chance to vent their aggressiveness. "You have people who don't even know the rules of the game, but they want to beat people up," said Messina, a process manager for a bank, who did a little kickboxing for yuks before she heard about tryouts for the team at an Ice Bats game. "The biggest eye-opener for people is they can't just go out and run and hit people and expect to do it for very long."
Gummerman, who's in his first year coaching women, quickly learned that the team was not a bunch of delicate ladies running around in skirts, like much of the baseball movie, A League of Their Own. "It ain't like that," he said. Most importantly, he found the women have the basic instincts necessary for football. "I've been really impressed with their physicalness, their aggression, their eagerness to hit," Gummerman said. "They're not scared of contact."
Looking for an Opening
"That big bitch is moveable!" an Outlaw offensive lineman screams at her teammates as they jog off the field. "Now move her!"
Oklahoma City's team is huge, with two linemen who weigh in well over 200 pounds. Their fullback looks like a fat Earl Campbell, and she barrels into the line on each play to clear a path for Calderon, who appears to possess a faster gear than anyone else on the field.
The Lightning and perhaps it's a bad omen to play a team named the Lightning during a lightning storm is a perennial league powerhouse; the Outlaws haven't beaten them in three years. After going 5-3 in 2004, its first year in the NWFA, the Outlaws sunk to a frustrating 4-4 in 2005 and didn't make the playoffs. But Austin is 2-0 coming into this game after last weekend's upset of perennial power, Pensacola. Emotion is running high that this is the year the team will break through and knock OKC off its perch.
But they can't stop Calderon, who continues to slice through the Outlaw defense. And the offense can't move the Lightning's huge line, which pounds quarterback Julie Wilke who's about 5-feet-7-inches, 130 lbs. every time she moves out of the pocket. A 75-yard kickoff return by Hurd keeps Austin in the game, but a few minutes before halftime, Oklahoma City's quarterback connects with the tight end over the middle, giving the Lightning a 30-14 halftime lead.
In the locker room Gummerman tries to rally the team. "I love you all to death, but I think we're fuckin' intimidated," he tells the offense. "I understand they're big, but earlier in the game they were that big and it didn't matter."
After he's done, the locker room is quiet, faces grim. Starting guard Alexis Allen hobbles in on crutches with a badly strained hamstring. Team leaders move through the locker room, moving from player to player, trying to get them psyched for the second half.
The Incredible Bunch
When Lucinda Benitez started showing up at work with large bruises, people quietly expressed their support and understanding. "You don't have to take it," one woman assured her. "It's hilarious," said Benitez, a dental assistant. "People give you a look like you're getting beaten up at home."
Benitez, 24, played soccer, softball, and ran cross-country in high school, but her sports life was relegated to running and lifting weights until she tried out for the Outlaws this season. "I've always wanted to hit somebody and not get in trouble," she said. She wasn't for a second deterred by the idea that women are not supposed to play football. "I think that's crap," she said. "Women deserve the same opportunity. We may not be as big as men, but we have heart." Now, at 5-feet-4-inches, 120 lbs., she's a starting cornerback and speaks of the game with the zeal of a true believer. "It's like I was meant to do this," she says.
Each member of the team has her own story, ranging from the linebacker coming out of an abusive marriage to the girl who drives up from Corpus Christi just for the chance to play. One is an arson investigator; another is a nanny. Most played sports in high school and some in college; receiver Angela Brown played for the UT basketball team.
Running back Monica Gauck, 31, played basketball and softball at Southwest Texas State (now known as Texas State-San Marcos), before she joined the Outlaws five years ago. Last season she played quarterback but switched to running back this year after she broke her collarbone. "I knew that in general I loved the sport," Gauck said. "But I wasn't expecting to love it as much as I do."
Gauck, who works on product compliance issues for 3M, and Messina own the license for the team and are part of a core group of players that has been together now for several years. They talk about the team as their second family, sharing a clearly visible bond that is separate from their jobs and family. Everything is by and for the team, literally as a nonprofit, the franchise is controlled by a board of directors, elected by the team members. During the season, they spend almost all their free time together. They practice twice a week and meet another night to watch game films with the coaches. On the Friday night before the games they meet for a walk-through. And that doesn't count the regular appearances for sponsors like Dave & Buster's, and fundraising barbecues, and the regular parties after each home game at a local pub.
"We have an incredible bunch of women," Gauck said. She's heard other team executives in the league talk about prima donnas and the inevitable petty squabbles. "We've never had that," Gauck said. "It's all we've known. I feel so fortunate that we are so tight."
When Gummerman was first asked to coach the team, he was apprehensive about his friends' reaction to the idea. "Then I realized I didn't care what they think," he said. After 18 years coaching at Anderson and Lanier high schools, he was at a point in his life when he was looking for a job and eager to return to football.
"It's been a blast," said Gummerman, who is not paid. "They're like sponges. They want to learn." In the Outlaws, Gummerman found athletes eager and ready to follow his instructions a sharp contrast to snotty high school kids. The women, he says, "were really eager to know the fundamentals of the game."
Boys learn the techniques of applied physical abuse at an early age. Through sophisticated games like Kill the Guy With the Ball, they practice the intricacies and rhythms of slamming someone down to the ground, all in the name of good fun. And they discover quickly if they have what it takes to face a ball carrier charging toward them. By the time they enter Pop Warner, they are already versed on how to drive their heads into an opponent's chest or bulldog the leg of a speedy wide receiver. Girls have no such de facto training. "The biggest thing was getting more in touch with the experience level," Gummerman said. "It's not so much the skill, it's the experience."
Gummerman says that overall, the women's teams are probably comparable to a junior varsity level at a small high school, simply because so many of the women don't have experience. And as in high school, there are stars who stand out. "There are a few out here who are phenomenal athletes," Gummerman said.
Gummerman says he hasn't changed his coaching style for the women, but he did have to make some adjustments. He's always considered himself a hands-on coach, always ready to slap a butt or grab shoulder pads. In the heat of the moment he's had to catch himself. "I'm getting better at it," he said. "I still grab the shoulder pads, but I'm a little more particular about where I put my hands."
Part of the Game
The Outlaws seem to respond to the coach's halftime pep talk. Just three minutes into the third quarter, Gauck breaks free for a 21-yard touchdown to bring Austin to 30-20.
But Oklahoma City starts to execute its passing game and quickly jumps back to a 41-20 lead. Although there are occasional openings, the Lightning defense swarms Gauck every time she touches the ball. At one point Calderon limps off the fields, but she returns to break another long run.
In the stands, Jim and Carlotta Greybeck are watching their daughter, Jennifer, play linebacker, crashing into Oklahoma City's determined blockers. "The first couple of games I was afraid she'd get hurt," Jim said. She's also a diabetic, which amplified the worry. But she has always excelled in sports and bounded into football with her usual passion. "She has to try everything," he said. But Jim and Carlotta still cringe at the violence, and it is difficult to watch their daughter get hit. "We like it better when she hits other people," says Carlotta.
A few minutes later Jennifer Greyback is on her back in the middle of the field, writhing in pain. "Would somebody please get the doctor," a player yells loud enough for everyone in the stands to hear. Greybeck is eventually helped off the field, clearly in pain, gingerly supporting her left wrist. Jim and Carlotta stand nearby as a doctor wraps her arm in ice and explains that the Jennifer's arm is likely fractured.
"It's all part of the game," Carlotta says, as she follows her daughter off the field. "That's what I was afraid of," her dad says.
Building a Base
Beatrice Sager and Ellis Craig never miss Outlaws' home games. "It's good football," Sager said. They are season ticket holders for UT football and religiously follow the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Obviously we're into football," Sager said. The women may not be as big as the men, "but it's definitely not peewee," she said.
The Outlaws could use more fans like them. The team averages about 500 people a game, Messina said, and the constant struggle is to expand the base of support. The team is virtually ignored by the local media; despite the growing acceptance of women's football around the country, the Austin American-Statesman won't even run the team's scores on the agate page. (The Statesman's idea of coverage was a short story with no photos on page 34 of last week's XL entertainment section.)
When the Outlaws started six years ago, it was part of the Independent Women's Football League, a rival to the NWFA with 31 teams around the country. For a long list of complicated reasons, three years ago the Outlaws voted to pay $20,000 to join the NWFA, which has lofty ambitions of making women's football part of the football landscape. League executives talk of someday selling TV rights to the games and building a fan base similar to that of the WNBA.
When the NWFA launched in 2000 founded by a longtime sports industry marketing executive named Catherine Masters the first tryout attracted 300 women eager to play. "Getting players was never a problem," said league vice-president Debby Lening. "The biggest hurdle is getting on TV and sponsors." The NWFA now has 40 teams, and it now costs $35,000 to join. "We want the commitment," Lening said. "We don't want somebody paying $50 who doesn't show up for the games." Finding owners willing to see it as a business "something more than a park and rec team," Lening said has also been part of the challenge. Some teams get out and market, and some don't, she said.
The league has been taking its own shots at marketing the idea of big-time women's football, with mixed results. TV coverage is generally limited to a few games on public-access-level channels in a few cities like Toledo, although the league expects to get this year's championship game on the Dish Network. To help build recognition for its best players, this year the league is launching its own awards, the Whammys. And there are signs of mainstream interest an appearance on Jay Leno, the occasional network news report. Earlier this year, a movie production company optioned the rights to make a movie about the league. Former Cincinnati Bengals running back Icky Woods of the famed Icky Shuffle bought a team. More importantly, Lening said, teams are learning the business, and the quality of play is getting better. "We know that arena football took 15 years to catch on," she said. Eventually, NWFA envisions a league in which the players are paid and sponsors eagerly target a demographic of woman football fans. Those days still seem far off.
Messina says she simply wants to develop a stronger base of support and to consistently find players willing to sacrifice their spare time and familial relationships for the chance to play football. They hope one day to find an owner who will turn it into a for-profit enterprise. But it has to be someone committed to building the franchise. "We want an owner who has the same desire we do," Messina said. "We wouldn't sell it to just anybody."
By the start of the fourth quarter it's clear this won't be the Outlaws' night to break Oklahoma City's streak. The passing game never gets going, and Oklahoma City refuses to let Gauck break clear again.
But a strange thing happens. The team continues to play hard, showing the same zeal as in the first quarter. In the stands, the fans are still chanting and cheering on every play, oblivious to the score.
When it's over, as Oklahoma City heads to the team bus for the long ride home, the Outlaws gather around Gummerman. "That was a good old-fashioned football game," he says. "You got physical and you got after it. ... Keep your heads up. I'm proud of you, as always." He looks around at his team, most sopping wet and covered in cuts and bruises. "I love the hell out of coaching you guys," he says.
After Gummerman leaves, the team huddles together in the center of the field.
"Who are we?" one calls out. "We are the Outlaws!," the team shouts in reply.
The Outlaws bounced back from the OKC loss to beat the Dallas Rage, 43-40, last weekend in Dallas, and move into second place in the NWFA Southwest Division. See standings below.