Thursday, June 21, 2001

All Donna Wilkinson ever wanted was a chance to hit someone. Preferably hard.
A recreational weight lifter and former three-sport athlete at Columbia Union College, Wilkinson has spent a lifetime punishing volleyballs, banging cast-iron plates and mashing particularly unlucky softballs.
Recently, however, she has discovered something better: The pure, unfettered joy of slamming another person deep into the turf.
“It’s a rush,” Wilkinson said. “The first time I put these pads on, it was like unleashing my inner beast.”
The 27-year-old Gaithersburg resident plays fullback and defensive line for the D.C. Divas, a franchise in the new National Women’s Football League.
Founded last fall by a Tennessee businesswoman, the NWFL is a full-contact, two-division spring league that began regular season play in April and has teams in 10 cities, including Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore.
The Divas are 2-4 following a 14-6 loss to the Philadelphia Liberty Belles last Saturday. They play the Tennessee Venom (3-3) on Saturday afternoon at Eastern High School in the District in their final game of the season.
“It’s exciting, the kind of football I’ve been watching all my life,” said Divas quarterback Deb Troell, of Alexandria. “I’ve always loved the game. But I never thought that I would get to play, that there would be a league like this.”
Tara Kallal, a communications specialist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, was among the 85 women who attended the Divas’ January tryouts.
“When I first started, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, how am I going to learn all of this?’ ” said Kallal, whose previous football experience consisted of playing backyard catch with her younger brothers. “Most of the other girls had already played flag football before, and they knew the patterns and stuff.”
Thanks largely to her speed Kallal ran track at Augustana College in Illinois and teammates have nicknamed her “Cheetah” she made the cut at wide receiver. The Divas’ 45-woman roster also includes a former Virginia Tech swimmer, a triathlete, an Aikido black belt and a number of flag football and rugby players.
“Granted, these girls didn’t play tackle football before,” Divas general manager Joe Dolan said. “But they’re pretty good athletes.”
Off the field, the Divas are a varied group. Alison Fischer, a defensive back, works as a civil engineer. Safety Barbara Cohen is a strength coach at American University. Linebacker Karen Hulme studies law.
Then there’s Gayle Dilla, a 39-year-old offensive linewoman-cum-Merrill Lynch investment banker from Alexandria.
“There’s not a lot of investment bankers playing football,” Dilla said with a laugh. “I think I’m the only one at Merrill.”
Like most start-up businesses, the Divas are decidedly low frills. The players travel by bus. They practice at a local recreational field. Their entire 13-person staff, including Dolan and coach Ezra Cooper, consists of volunteers.
And the players? They won’t be paid unless the team turns a profit.
“We’re out here for virtually nothing, just because we love the sport,” Wilkinson said.
According to Dolan, the Divas probably won’t make money this season. The club is still looking for an owner the league’s franchise fee is $35,000 and operating expenses soak up all of its revenues.
Home games cost about $3,000 to stage, Dolan said, while road trips run between $1,000 and $4,000, depending on their length.
“We’re not making a lot of money,” Dolan said, adding that the team had drawn about 550 spectators to each of its two home games. “But we’re selling enough tickets and merchandise to cover all of our costs.”
The team is largely a do-it-yourself operation. The scene before the Divas’ inaugural home game against Connecticut on May 12 was typical: Dolan and wife Eileen, the team’s operations manager, set up merchandise tables and concession stands, made sure that referees, security and an ambulance showed up, even put fruit trays in the locker rooms.
“My wife and I do it all,” Dolan said. “The home games are hectic we run around with our heads cut off pretty much from 9 a.m. to game time.”
Likewise, players sell tickets, promote the club and bring in sponsors. Troell, a photographer with Inova Health Systems, persuaded her company’s marketing department to support the team.
Dilla used a slightly different approach to land a YWCA sponsorship.
“I cold-called them,” she said with a laugh. “I haven’t done that in about 15 years.”
On the field, the Divas are very much a work-in-progress. Though many of the players come from flag football backgrounds Dilla estimates there are 12 to 15 serious women’s flag teams in the area none has extensive full-contact experience. As a result, Cooper spends much of his time teaching football basics, like blocking and wrap-tackling. Games are dominated by running and defense.
“We’re improving every week,” Troell said. “I have a lot more understanding that you can’t blame the quarterback for everything. And I’ve learned to get rid of that ball a lot sooner. It’s not like flag they’re coming to kill you.”
In the team’s season opener April 28 in Philadelphia a game that saw the Divas wear practice jerseys because some of their new uniforms didn’t fit D.C. was trounced 40-0.
“Philly had been together just under a year,” Troell said. “And we had just gotten our equipment three weeks earlier. They blew us out of the water. It was an eye opener.”
Three weeks later, the Divas defeated the Connecticut Crush 10-6 for their first victory. Since then, the team is 1-2, including a 20-8 road victory over Baltimore on May 27. In that game, Kallal caught her first-ever touchdown pass a feat she thought nearly impossible just four months earlier.
“At first, I was just worried about making the team,” she said. “Then I wanted to earn a starting position. But once we started playing, I thought, this is real. This is professional football. And it’s an awesome feeling.”
That sentiment is shared by Dilla, who brings her 2-year-old son, Trevor, to games and practices.
“If my son looks back and says, ‘My mom played pro football she was one of the first women who did it,’ I’d be so happy,” she said. “That’s what you live for.”
For her part, Wilkinson just wants to keep unleashing her inner beast. Despite suffering a broken left thumb during the Divas’ June 2 contest against the Massachusetts Mutiny, she plans to play in the team’s final game.
“I can’t miss [it] for a broken bone,” she said. “I’ll take the cast off when we play, so that the other team won’t know it’s injured.”
In fact, Wilkinson added, there’s just one drawback to being hurt.
“It stinks going no-contact in practice,” she said.

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