Unsportsmanlike Conduct

The chaotic, unsuccessful, and utterly charming first year of the San Francisco Tsunami of the Women's American Football League

For starters, Carter was hired only two weeks before the Tsunamis' first game, which meant there was no time for a training camp. His new team was not in good physical shape. What's more, most of the team hadn't even played contact football before. That meant Carter had to start at zero. By high school, male football players understand the fundamentals of offense and defense. Now, supposedly at the pro level, Carter was not only teaching basic tackling and blocking, he was trying to teach it to grown women, which was definitely a new experience.

"With women, it's personal. It's attitude. It's like, "Don't talk to me that way,'" Carter says. "You can't be sensitive and play football. It don't mix. If a male is sensitive and tries to play football, it won't work. I always tell them, "If you're part of the Jackson family, if you're Tito or Janet or Michael, you shouldn't be out here. If you're wearing your feelings on your shoulder, then I'm not the coach you should be playing for.'

"If we'd had a training camp, we probably would have lost maybe two games. I'd have weeded that out."

The first love of running back Pashen Bagsby (above) is basketball.
Paul Trapani
The first love of running back Pashen Bagsby (above) is basketball.
Quarterback Heather Bruno huddles the Tsunami offense.
Paul Trapani
Quarterback Heather Bruno huddles the Tsunami offense.

Owner-coach disagreements are as old as professional sports. But this one was unique because Brown, the owner, was also playing, and had briefly acted as coach when there was none. Now there was a coach who was used to running his own show and winning, neither of which seemed to be happening with the Tsunamis. Brown wanted Carter to resign early in the season, but when other players opposed the move, Carter decided to stay on. Nonetheless, the stage was set for a firestorm, and each loss added gasoline to the growing flame.

"Women's league football can work. There is no doubt in my mind," Carter says. "I might just not be the one who can coach it. Part of it is probably me."

Most of the Tsunamis come from an athletic background. But some have never played organized sports. Some have competed only in individual, rather than team, sports. And some just don't play well with others in a general sense. Until a recent group meeting that included introductions, a lot of players didn't know one another's names. Now at least they've learned who lives close enough to catch a ride to practice.

Except that the ball is smaller, WAFL teams play by NFL rules; this is about the only thing the two leagues have in common. Tsunami players drive from as far away as San Jose, Santa Rosa, and San Ramon to practice twice a week, and to games on Saturday. There are no salaries -- big or small -- or endorsement deals. The players carry, and sometimes buy, their own equipment. When they play interdivisional games against Southern California teams, they drive or take a bus. They have full-time jobs and child-care problems. There is no whirlpool to sit in after the game. Often, there's not even a shower.

On a damp Thursday night in January, about two-thirds of the Tsunami roster shows up for practice. An unusually wet December wrought havoc with the Tsunami's practice schedule, and tonight continues the trend. Though the rain has stopped, the football field is soaked and closed. Between the weather and the holidays, the Tsunamis haven't been on the field together in more than two weeks (one game was canceled), and they've got a game to play in 48 hours.

Clad in full pads, helmets, and practice jerseys, players fall into loose lines on the lighted basketball court adjacent to the field. Quarterbacks Heather Bruno and CoCo Thames lead the group in warm-up exercises, and then offensive and defensive players separate to work on plays.

Bruno joined the team before its first game, having been recruited by a friend. The 22-year-old from Sonoma just graduated from UC Berkeley, where she played golf for four years. Initially, Bruno had the idea of being a receiver. But seeing a few of her throws, the coaches thought she'd be better as a quarterback.

It's been a mentally challenging, physically painful year. At 5 feet 10 inches, 135 pounds, with a light brown ponytail trailing out from underneath her helmet, Bruno is not what you might call an imposing figure on the field. She has, however, managed to stay in the game under an amazingly high level of pressure. "I've been a point guard in basketball, I've been captain of tennis and golf teams," Bruno says. "But this is really hard. It's fast."

As quarterback, Bruno has to not only remember and execute the plays, but also make sure her teammates are where they're supposed to be on the field, and watch what's happening on the opposing team -- all of this while the clock is running. And there's no glory in being the quarterback of a team that hasn't won all season long.

Early on, Bruno suffered a broken nose in a practice scrimmage, something that's likely to mean plastic surgery at some point. A recurring ankle injury, meanwhile, could harm Bruno's golf career -- which is to say, her potential livelihood. "The only reason why I'm still playing football today is because I love this team," Bruno says. "We've grown not only as a team but as individuals. Who knows where some of these people would be? They could all be somewhere else with their time. But we're all still here."

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