By Erin Sherbert
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By the middle of the season, the Tsunami's all-volunteer management had adopted a phrase to explain away the near-constant chaos: "This is a baseline year."
On a crisp December morning, sitting in a booth at an International House of Pancakes in Sacramento near her home and work (she sells women's clothing at Denio's Farmer's Market and Auction in Roseville), Wendy Brown muses on her athletic career and the problems facing her football team.
Wearing dark sweats and short braids tucked into a stocking cap, the 5-foot-11 Brown cuts a somewhat intimidating figure that is softened by a very bright smile. She talks about track, basketball, and football like they're beloved family members. Whatever her problems in getting women's professional football off the ground in San Francisco, Brown is clearly one hell of an athlete and certainly no stranger to the underdog role.
Brown grew up in Oakland and East Palo Alto, and her athletic ability showed early; she first participated in Olympic track and field trials when she was still in high school, placing an impressive sixth. (Typically, the top three in each sport go to the Olympics.) The most recruited female high school athlete in 1984 -- she'd already set national records in the long jump and triple jump events -- Brown chose the University of Southern California, where she went on to shatter more records in the triple jump and played for the Trojans' NCAA champion women's basketball team from 1984 to 1988.
In 1986, Brown won the United States Track and Field Championships in the triple jump, and set a world record. Alas, the event wasn't recognized in international competitions, including the Goodwill Games, so Brown stayed home while her teammates went on to compete against teams from other countries. As a college junior, she competed in the heptathlon, a two-day, seven-event track competition, and won the Pac-10 championship two years in a row.
After college, Brown ran in the European track circuit, dabbled in amateur boxing, and briefly coached track in Southern California. She tried out for the Women's National Basketball Association several times, but was already 29 years old and coming off a knee injury by the time the highly publicized, NBA-backed league debuted. In fact, it was during a tryout for the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx that Brown was first introduced to the idea of playing pro football. Carter Turner, founder of the WAFL, was recruiting for a new women's league, and Brown figured she'd give it a shot. "I always played football with the boys in the neighborhood," says Brown, sounding an oft-repeated theme among women players.
She joined nearly 200 women from across the country in a camp and wound up on an underdog team -- the Lake Michigan Minx -- that won an initial, six-game exhibition season. When the league expanded west, Brown talked to Turner about the franchise in Sacramento. At some point along the way, however, a group of investors who'd already run a team in Oregon wanted to join the WAFL with the Sacramento market. At Turner's request, Brown says, she stepped aside so the league could gain an established team in the west, taking the San Francisco franchise instead.
"In hindsight, I shouldn't have done it," Brown says. "But I did."
At least four teams in the WAFL started the season with player/owners. Two (including Kisha Frady, who owns the Oakland Banshees) quit playing along the way and now concentrate entirely on the front office, so to speak. (Most don't actually have offices.) There's a fair number of people who think the Tsunami team would work a whole lot better if Wendy Brown picked one role too. Shortly into the season, she and Head Coach Alonzo Carter began to knock heads over strategy -- and nearly everything else. As the season wore on, relations only seemed to deteriorate.
It was a particularly low point the week after the game against the Seattle Warbirds, an undefeated team. Brown and Carter had argued about strategy on the sidelines. Finally, Brown, who'd started at quarterback and then switched to wide receiver, removed her helmet and walked off the field. The Tsunamis went on to lose the game 0-41.
"We have no relationship," Brown said in early December. "He's the coach of my team, and I don't like him."
A former semi-pro football player and professional dancer, Alonzo Carter has coached track and football at McClymond High School in Oakland, his alma mater, for nearly a decade. He also runs the A-C Track Club (the name is short for Alameda-Contra Costa, not Alonzo Carter). McClymond grabbed a championship earlier this year, and Carter was named East Bay Coach of the Year. Before the high school season was over, an old friend and Tsunami player introduced him to Wendy Brown and the idea of coaching women's football.
Brown was coming into the season desperate for a coach for her first team. Carter was coming out of a winning season, intrigued by the challenge. It was a match made in ... hell.