By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
Two lines of women face each other on the field of Berkeley's Grove Street Park, the San Francisco Tsunami's third practice field in as many months. Securing a football field in San Francisco is kind of like finding a vacant apartment during the dot-com boom: There's significantly more demand than real estate.
Then again, it's been raining for almost a month. And most Bay Area cities have tight rules around playing football on wet fields. And because almost all the Tsunami players have day jobs, they have to practice in the evening, which calls for a lighted field. So the Tsunamis have moved like sports gypsies from one practice field to the next.
Now, in early December, halfway through the season, the team, one of 17 in the fledgling Women's American Football League, is still trying to learn how to tackle properly. With each toot of the whistle, one woman from the head of each line runs toward the other, imitating the beginnings of a tackle.
"Keep your head up and run through," the coach tells them.
A pair of women smack pads. From afar, the drill resembles a violent line dance.
"Did you hear how that sounds? You want to hit and lift up. Hit and lift up. ... Lock your arms around the other player."
Most of the Tsunami players are athletes of some kind, but only a couple have had the chance to learn the fundamentals of tackle football, because there simply are no college or high school programs from which to draw players. "I learned how to throw and catch and run as a kid," explains Susan Wheeler, a 28-year-old software product manager who lives in San Jose and has played softball and flag football. "This is, like, "What is the proper way to tackle?' I didn't learn that particular aspect. I'm finding that there's so much that I didn't know."
A whistle blows on the field to focus attention on an important matter. "Who needs a ride to Sacramento?" the coach asks, referring to the location of the Tsunamis' next game. Names are quickly jotted down on a clipboard, and the tackle clinic continues. A few yards away, quarterbacks throw footballs to receivers running patterns; about one in three practice passes is completed.
Women have been playing tackle football in one form or another since the 1920s, though early teams played mainly as halftime entertainment for their male counterparts in the National Football League. More serious professional leagues came and went through the next three decades, all plagued by financial problems.
Perhaps bolstered by the success of women's professional basketball and soccer teams, football again took an upswing in 1999 with a tour that kicked off a new Women's Professional Football League. By the second season, however, internal turmoil and financial squabbles had once again claimed the sport, and there were only a handful of teams left.
In 2000, Carter Turner, a WPFL founder, split with his partners and headed to Florida to form the Women's American Football League. The league's 17 teams are divided into regions in Pacific and Atlantic conferences; the winners of those conferences will play a championship game in San Diego in February. The Tsunamis, who play in a division with the Oakland Banshees and the Sacramento Sirens, have yet to win a game.
It would be a grave understatement to say that San Francisco has not embraced its women's football team. Much of San Francisco doesn't even know there is a team. Home games each draw only about 100 people, most connected in some way to players. "San Francisco doesn't know us because we haven't introduced ourselves," says Tsunami Marketing Director Dawna Williams.
With no national sponsor and little seed money from the fledgling league, franchise owners are pretty much on their own to fund their teams. What money there is pays for necessities -- uniforms, officials, stadium rent, and the like -- rather than the relative luxury of advertising.
The price of a WAFL franchise is about $20,000, but, realistically, owners estimate that it costs about $100,000 to get through the first year. Everyone in the WAFL, from coaches to players, is paid through profit-sharing. With San Francisco's level of attendance, of course, there's no profit to share.
In fact, the Tsunamis are perpetually on the verge of breaking into the win column and, simultaneously, falling apart entirely.
The Tsunamis got off to a late start when owner (and player) Wendy Brown took on the franchise, almost as an afterthought, late in spring, after a deal for the Sacramento team went awry. With a few exceptions, the Tsunami roster has been filled via a revolving door; mainly, women have showed up at a practice after hearing something about women's football or stumbling onto the team's Web site and seeing that the Tsunamis wanted players. The scramble for players, staff, equipment, and a practice field has lasted nearly all season. Oakland and Sacramento had full rosters by the end of the summer, and while other WAFL teams were in training camp, San Francisco was still looking for a coach.
If the WAFL is A League of Their Own, the San Francisco Tsunamis are The Replacements. Individually, the players are talented, driven, and passionate. Collectively, they're wildly dysfunctional. The coaching staff joined only a couple of weeks before the first game of the season, so the team essentially missed training camp. Then the relationship between owner and coach became so turbulent that Head Coach Alonzo Carter quit before the season ended.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
A San Francisco punt attempt is blocked, and Arizona has the ball again.
Susan Wheeler walks along the sidelines in front of her teammates, speaking in a slow, calm chant: "Let's get our heads back in the game. Let's get that ball back to the offense."
Arizona is playing hard, marching steadily down the field toward the goal line. The Tsunami defense is barely holding on. Tension swells.
Finally, the Caliente makes an end run around the Tsunami defense for a touchdown. The score is tied at 12, just before the two-minute warning.
Players scramble on and off the field. Coaches pace, wave, and holler in every direction. "You're beggin' to get into the game, and they're running right past you," Carter screams at a player on the field. "They're running right past you!"
Seconds later, Arizona runs into the end zone for a two-point conversion.
San Francisco gets the ball back but can't gain much yardage, and the clock runs out with the score 14-12, in Arizona's favor.
The Tsunamis form a line up the middle of the field, shaking hands with the Arizona team. Carter and two of his staff walk from the line off the field, away from the team. An announcer thanks everyone for coming and reminds the small crowd about an upcoming fund-raiser. A group of Tsunami players form a huddle and raise their hands in a group cheer: "1-2-3-Tsunamis!"
Certainly the loss hurts. But everyone knows the team played better than it has all season. And played together.
Tsunami players stream off the field, trailed by the fans who are mostly family and friends. A volunteer collects unclaimed paraphernalia along the sideline and yells something about an ice chest. Within minutes, the stadium, still lit by the bright panels shining down on the field, is oddly quiet, virtually empty.
Wendy Brown stands alone, in the dark, at the top of the bleachers, next to a white SUV. After playing both offense and defense in the close, grueling game, it's a wonder she can stand at all.
There is no press conference. No massage. No cocktail party. Brown just pauses for a moment, then pulls off her pads and begins to load up boxes of T-shirts and other team accouterments that were for sale during the game.
Five days later, Coach Alonzo Carter quit the San Francisco Tsunamis, taking his offensive and defensive coordinators with him. The team subsequently drove to Los Angeles where, coached by two remaining volunteers, the Tsunamis lost by a single point to the Los Angeles Lasers. Immediately after the game, at least one San Francisco player was injured during a bench-clearing fight.
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