The game was billed as 'The Gender Bowl,' and the basic premise was to pit a men's football team team against a women's team, because nobody ever seems to tire of 'the battle of the sexes' type contests.
This was the summer of 2005, just at the end of the Pittsburgh Passion women’s football team’s third season and some Pittsburgh players went to Los Angeles to play alongside players from the DC Diva’s team to form an all-star team of sorts. The athletes were chosen as much for their ability as their off-field demeanor, dedication, and ability to handle the media.
They were to play at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The game would be filmed and then edited and aired on MTV or VH-1 or something like that. The women would face a team of men - all over 30 years old - all of whom had played football before, but who had been away from the game. That was the pitch, even though the final execution was never clear. But the opportunity to send women to play football and have that game televised nationally? Regardless of the sideshow aspect, it was a plum publicity opportunity. The National Women’s Football Association jumped at it.
A hundred years earlier, newspaper and magazine columnists decried the presence of women even as mere spectators for football games and while women, and football, had come a long way in the meantime, some believed that women playing football was contrary to the natural order of the universe, a slap in the face of the memory of Walter Camp and Pop Warner.
When they left Pittsburgh for California, 22 years after Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in a much more well known battle of the sexes, the Passion players did not know what to expect. They didn't know what their responsibilities would be, what the media presence would be like, or how it would work, really, on a nuts and bolts level. How would practices go? How would starters be determined? How could they prepare in such a short period of time? Would the film of this crazy game ever make it to television? Would they get their asses thoroughly kicked? Would they be embarrassed? Just what had they signed up for?
In retrospect, the timing for her team couldn't have been better. They had just survived a disappointing season and Passion owner T. Conn was setting the wheels in motion for another big move towards legitimacy. Playing alongside the Divas was a huge part of their learning curve -- a necessary step towards their 2007 championship.
Once in California, the DC coaching staff had one week to get the players ready to play together. It was a lot to ask of a coaching staff -- to evaluate talent, establish a roster, teach them all the same playbook and install a game-plan. DC head coach, Ezra Cooper, decided that it would be easier to teach the Divas playbook to the Passion players, rather than teach a completely new playbook to all the players, so he gave his playbook to the Passion. He just opened it up and taught it to all of them. Passion tight end Kate Sullivan had never seen anything like it. She had never known a coach to do something like that for what was simply an exhibition game. After all, it was the playbook that DC would use against the Passion in future meetings, but Cooper just gave it to all of them.
The fastest player on either team was Divas wideout, Natalie Randolph, a former track star at the University of Virginia. As they didn't have game film of the men's team, they had no idea what to expect, so the only way to assess them would be to try things and adjust on the fly in live action. Cooper wanted to test the speed of the men on the first play of the game, so he had his speedster run a little jet reverse play. As Randolph raced down the sidelines, she was sandwiched between two of the men and somebody landed on her ankle. She was badly injured and had to be helped off the field.
Cooper wanted to try again. He sent Jen Moody in to replace Randolph. They ran the same play, to the other side. Once she turned the corner, Moody cut inside, away from the sidelines and got creamed. It was the hardest hit Sully had ever seen to that moment in her football career. On the sidelines, Moody said, "I'm coming around, and you know, stupid me for trying to cut it back inside. Man, that free safety just blasted me. That's the hardest I've ever been hit. Seriously."
Later in the game, Sullivan pulled in a pass from Lisa Horton, a little dump and shoot route over the middle. She got hammered -- took a helmet right in the sternum. She managed to hang on to the ball, just laying there on the turf, willing herself to breathe, but the air wasn't coming. Somehow, she got back to the huddle and ran the next play.
After the game, they all compared wounds. They had held their own, somehow, some way. They all took a physical beating that day, from the O Line (one player described the game as 'three hours of pure hell') through the defensive backs and the wide outs, everybody was hurting by the time it was over. Some of the men thought this was their chance to get back in the game because some guys never give up the dream; some saw this as their 15 minutes of fame; and some just thought it would be fun. Whatever their reasons for signing up, the men were unified in being deeply offended by the mere existence of women football players. They played angry and they were going to teach those women a lesson. The sign on the football treehouse read: 'No stinky girls allowed!'
Which was ironic, considering that playing against men or even what men might think of their playing hadn't entered into any of the women's minds when started their respective football journeys. Sully and teammate Carol Denniston talked about the irony of the whole thing. "It's not about playing with the guys. We don't want to play with the guys. There's not one of us that wants to play with the guys," said Denniston.
Despite the size and strength advantages, particularly on the line where Denniston played, the Passion and Divas finished the game, survived and, in the waning moments, trailed the men's team by just one point. If they could stand up, they could walk. And if they could walk, they could play. If they could play, they would finish -- they would fight and claw and dig to finish the game. They withstood vicious punishment and, in doing so, they gained a measure of victory. It was not about them saying that they wanted to play on Sundays in the NFL. It was about being respected as athletes and for their understanding of football.
Jen Moody, as always, saw the best in the experience, despite the fact that she could barely walk and had debilitating pain in her back. "What an an amazing thing to go through and see. It was fun."
What Sullivan remembered most, and what nobody on the men's team seemed to understand, was that the week -- the process of the week -- was the most important thing for them. They gained something more valuable than winning a game.
It was the first time, and the only time, in their football careers that they were solely football players for a whole week. All they did was live, eat, breath, and sleep football. There were no jobs, there was limited phone, there was limited access to other people. In the mornings, they had breakfast as a team. They had breakout sessions as a team. They had chalk talk as a team. They lived together as a team. Their whole day was football. And never, ever in their lives had they had that opportunity.
Nobody seems to know if any statistics from that game exist. Most of the players and coaches I’ve talked to can’t even remember the final score. It was a close score, but was it a one point loss? Or a one-touchdown loss? Nobody knows. Sometimes, some of those involved wonder if the film even exists or will some day find the light of day on YouTube or something.
But those Passion players involved -- Denniston and Moody, Sullivan and Horton -- were left with a strange loyalty to the team that was their most bitter rival. What they did together, what they withstood as allies instead of adversaries, had changed things, made the rivalry between Pittsburgh and DC complex, contradictory, nuanced and, even affectionate. Not many knew the back story, but for those who did, for those who lived it, for Lisa Horton and Kate Sullivan, for Natalie Randolph and Ezra Cooper, these were always emotional games, like playing against your siblings. It felt like a family affair. For all the sports events or games that each of them had played in, that one had changed them all.
The above is an excerpt from ‘Rough & Tumble: Pioneer Women in the World of Female Full-Contact Football.’