Unsportsmanlike Conduct

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

Here, playing football on a basketball court.

Actually, the Tsunamis would make a formidable basketball team. Renee Robinson, a former player for the WNBA-champion Houston Comets, joined the Tsunamis as a wide receiver in mid-December. Brown played on an NCAA-champion USC women's basketball team in the 1980s. Bruno, who played in high school and recreationally, has shown that she can hold her own on the court.

And then there's Pashen Bagsby, a young running back who's gained as many as 210 yards for the Tsunamis in a single game and who, at Berkeley High, played on the state champion girls' basketball team. She has a crossover dribble that's rumored to make opponents weep with frustration.

Tsunami owner Wendy Brown played football with a team in the Midwest before taking on the San Francisco franchise.
Paul Trapani
Tsunami owner Wendy Brown played football with a team in the Midwest before taking on the San Francisco franchise.
Gwen Hayes and Tiphon Bryant play both offense and defense on the field.
Paul Trapani
Gwen Hayes and Tiphon Bryant play both offense and defense on the field.

Tonight, however, Bagsby and her teammates are practicing football.

Coach Carter, in his orange down jacket, is bent over in the midst of a group of defensive players, waving his hands as if conducting a symphony of pigeons. The players stare, listening intently, and then take their places in some kind of formation, while the coach runs around moving them this way and that.

The offense is running plays, sort of. And throwing fake passes.

Another coach sends players off to run laps around the field. In the distance, a squabble heats up between two teammates.

What the Tsunamis lack in skill, they make up for in attitude, which is good so long as it's directed at the other team. It's not, always. Everyone who watches the Tsunamis knows that if and when the players start working together as a team, they're likely to win. There's a lot of talent wearing maroon and black. But football, perhaps more than any other sport, has to be played as a team.

"Those girls got heart," Carter says about his Tsunamis. "When they play together they can be a good unit. The majority of them are willing to learn. It gave an opportunity to some people who probably would never have been active in sports, and to do a sport they would never otherwise have been able to play."

Among the Tsunamis are computer engineers, telecom workers, Web designers, and students. Tania DaCruz, a soccer player in her native Brazil, is now a caterer who likes American football. One of her teammates loads trucks for a living. Another is working on an MBA at night school. Shea Cannon played softball and basketball in high school; her husband watches their two children while she plays for the Tsunamis.

A lot of women in the league played sandlot football growing up, until they reached the age at which girls don't play anymore. Some played flag football in recreational leagues, or just in the park with friends.

About the only thing they all have in common is an overwhelming, nearly inexplicable passion to be a part of what could be either the first or the last year of the Women's American Football League.

In the third quarter of the San Francisco Tsunami's game against the Arizona Caliente early in January, the score is tied at 6-6. An annoying drizzle has turned into rain. It's crisp enough to see your breath; a little steam is coming off the panels of lights illuminating Kezar Stadium.

Arizona needs to win this Saturday night showdown to make it into the playoffs. San Francisco needs to win to get rid of the zero in its season record. Both teams are playing hard, having narrowly missed taking the lead in plays that would no doubt be rehashed at future practices, if either team could afford to videotape the game.

Moments ago, a Tsunami defensive tackle finally got hold of Arizona's formidable running back, Tiffany Latta, a woman who'd racked up considerable yardage during the first half of the game. Needless to say, when Latta stood up on the Tsunami sideline, wearing lawn on her face mask, it was an inspirational moment for San Francisco.

Now, with the Tsunamis in possession, Bruno completes a 35-yard pass to Renee Robinson. San Francisco players and the enthusiastic crowd of 70 or so explode in uncontrollable celebration. Coach Carter appears momentarily stunned.

They're alive. They're still in the game. They completed a pass.

By the fourth quarter, the air is thick with excitement and anxiety. San Francisco is pissed off, fired-up, and tired of losing. The Tsunami defense is, for some unexplainable reason, playing better than it has all season and somehow managing to hold the Arizona Caliente. The team's first win seems just minutes from reality.

Defensive tackle Tiphon Bryant breaks through the line and sacks the Arizona quarterback. Arizona hasn't gained enough yardage for a first down.

San Francisco gets the ball on its own 20-yard line. The rain has turned to mist. Bruno hands the ball to Pashen Bagsby for a run, but the Caliente stops her.

Another handoff to Bagsby goes nowhere. Arizona's defenders are all over her. With limited practice time, the Tsunamis have only been able to learn about five fairly simple plays; most of those involve Bagsby running around the end or Brown running up the middle. Bagsby's quick, and Brown, at 5 feet 11 inches, is hard to bring down. Nonetheless, by midway through a game, opponents have adjusted to cover both like a blanket.

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