Wednesday, April 25, 2007

For 15 years the District’s football fans have longed for a championship-caliber team.

Joe Gibbs retired a year after guiding the Washington Redskins to Super Bowl glory in 1992, then the team plunged into the dregs of the NFL. Gibbs returned to the sidelines three seasons ago, but nothing has changed.

Meanwhile, another D.C. football team wearing burgundy and gold and operating in obscurity has posted three consecutive 8-0 regular seasons — the last of which was capped by a championship.

But none of the players on this team reside in multimillion dollar homes. In this league, there are no agents, no contracts, no unions, no huge endorsements — and no men.

Unlike their NFL counterparts, the members of the D.C. Divas — the District’s full-contact women’s football team, which opens its seventh season Saturday at 7 p.m. at Prince George’s Sports and Learning Complex — can’t support themselves playing football.

So the women juggle the sport with full-time jobs. They’re nurses, police officers, government workers, court liaisons, teachers and chefs.

Somehow they toggle between everyday responsibilities and life on the gridiron to achieve their dreams of playing a sport that for many years had no place for them.

“It requires sacrifice, but it’s worth it. It’s a stress reliever for me,” says defensive lineman Trigger McNair, who joined the Divas (her third team in eight seasons) last season after moving from Florida. The 30-year-old Bronx native works 16-hour shifts as a correctional officer at the D.C. Jail. Many nights she leaves work, attends a three- to four-hour practice, goes home, showers, eats and goes back to work.

Quarterback Allyson Hamlin once had to answer the call of duty while at practice one evening when her workday should have been over. That day, three years ago, she became the first Prince George’s County officer to make an arrest in shoulder pads.

The Divas were practicing at the Upper Marlboro Boys & Girls Club when Hamlin and her teammates heard what sounded like a car accident. They ran to the nearby intersection to find a man who had been thrown from his motorcycle in a hit-and-run accident. As the players tended to the victim and waited for rescue workers, someone noticed the white Mercedes Benz that struck the man circle past and speed off.

Hamlin jumped in her cruiser and pursued the car, which was being driven by an intoxicated woman.

“I got her boxed in on 450 and called for backup,” Hamlin says with a grin. “Then I realized I didn’t have my gun — it was in my trunk — and that I was still in pads. I had to call on the radio to let everyone know I had football pads on so they’d know not to gun me. I jumped out, got my gun and was standing in the road, holding my gun on this woman. A lot of cops still give me a hard time about it to this day.”

Hamlin made the arrest, waited for a fellow officer to take the woman into custody and then returned to practice.

While the players admit attending three practices and a game every week becomes taxing, they say the obstacles are well worth the reward.

“I love that I have the chance to play a sport I grew up loving and proving people wrong when they said, ‘You can’t do this. You’re a girl,’ ” says Donna Wilkinson, who ran for 1,267 yards four seasons ago, becoming the first woman to rush for 1,000 yards. “When they hear, most guys wanna date me or say, ‘You can hit me anytime.’ They can’t believe a woman can be beautiful and strong and intelligent but can kick some [butt] on the field, too.”

The Divas have made a rather rapid rise to the upper echelon of women’s football.

One of the 10 original teams founded by the National Women’s Football Association, which began play in the spring of 2001, the Divas have had only one losing season — their 3-5 inaugural campaign.

“For women, playing football takes a lot of dedication towards learning the sport from the bare minimum,” backup quarterback and seven-year veteran Ray Savoy explains. “Boys start playing Pop Warner when they’re 5, 6. It’s like that for us, but most of us are 30 and up. We definitely have to cram.”

The majority of Divas players have strong athletic backgrounds, with many of the women having played coed football before joining the team.

Savoy played three sports in high school and softball for Bowie State.

Wilkinson, who two seasons ago switched to linebacker, played basketball, volleyball and softball and ran track for Columbia Union. Middle linebacker Ivy Tillman ran track and competed in shot put at James Madison, and Hamlin was an All-ACC catcher at Maryland. But that doesn’t mean the transition to football was easy.

“It was hard for me,” recalls Hamlin, an investigator for the Prince George’s County police department. “The mechanics for throwing were totally different. Catcher is similar to quarterback in that you have to be the leader, but quarterback is the toughest position of any sport. But now I love it so much. We never claim to be as strong or fast as the men. We just wanna play.”

The growing pains out of the way, the Divas’ 60-woman roster boasts experience and depth at nearly every position. That includes a 15-person practice squad to season new players.

“The progress, it’s been incredible and a joy to see,” says Ezra Cooper, the Divas’ coach since Day 1. “It’s fascinating to see women play a sport they’ve been denied for so long. It’s like a throwback to the purest form of football. They don’t have attitudes. They’re working hard. They’re doing it for love.”

Cooper, a former standout linebacker and fullback at Arlington’s Yorktown High and Division II Shepherd University (W.Va.), first instituted a power-I attack and gradually sprinkled in more advanced passing schemes. Last season the Divas boasted one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the NWFA to go with a stingy defense.

With the on-field product steadily improving, the Divas needed a stronger financial infrastructure to progress as a business. So Hamlin’s father purchased the team.

While following his daughter throughout her athletic career — youth sports, high school and college — Paul Hamlin became a strong advocate for female athletics and saw buying the Divas as another way to advance women’s sports.

“I felt I could bring my business and organizational strengths and help the organization to continue to grow,” the retired college professor and administrator says. “My responsibility is to make the team a financial success. I leave the on-field stuff to the coaches.”

Two years ago Hamlin hired Rich Daniel, former sports director at WJLA-TV (Channel 7), as the team’s first full-time general manager. Daniel holds a wide range of responsibilities, including marketing, securing sponsors, ordering equipment and scheduling.

Hamlin refused to discuss the specifics of his financial investment in the Divas, but a new team can be purchased from the NWFA for between $35,000 and $40,000. Hamlin did say running the Divas requires an annual budget “in the six-figure range.”

“You can do less,” says Hamlin, who is involved in everything from booking hotels and scheduling coach buses for road games to promoting ticket sales and scheduling halftime entertainment. “It just depends on what you want. We want to make the Divas the premier women’s football team in the country, and I believe we’re on our way.”

Hamlin and the Divas reaped the ultimate prize last season, when they beat the Oklahoma City Lightning 28-7 to capture their first NWFA World Championship.

“Winning it was the culmination of six years of dedication,” says Wilkinson, a wellness consultant who played in the championship game on a torn ACL and meniscus. “We had lost in the conference championship the last two seasons and finally achieved our goal.”

But the stakes have risen this season.

In the offseason, Hamlin made what he believes is a key move toward further improving his organization by moving the Divas from the NWFA to the Independent Women’s Football League (IWFL), which boasts 30 teams in eight divisions and is considered to have the highest level of competition and professionalism of the country’s three women’s leagues.

Daniel praises Hamlin for a willingness to do whatever it takes to improve his franchise. The commitment of the owner and players has influenced him.

“I’m just trying to match the dedication of these ladies,” Daniel says. “I can’t go on the field and hit anyone or catch touchdown passes. But I can make touchdowns happen a lot of other ways. What these ladies have given is very transferable. I’ve got 60 inspirational stories to market to advertisers.”

Expanding the team’s fan base is one key to growing the Divas into a profitable business. The Divas averaged 1,000 fans, most of whom are family members and friends of players and coaches, says Hamlin, whose son heads ticket sales. The owner hopes to double that number this year.

“Once people see the game, they’ll enjoy it,” Hamlin says. “It’s just a matter of overcoming that initial reservation.”

Securing major sponsors also is key to the Divas’ success.

Medstar Sports — also the medical provider for the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Ravens — is the team’s biggest partner. Individual agents or branches of Geico, Marriott, Morgan Stanley and MetLife also are sponsors. Hook and Ladders Brewing Company, Crystal City Sports Pub and Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse are on board as well.

Daniel envisions a day when whole corporations invest in both the team and league. The NFL recently began holding women’s football camps, and Daniel hopes things progress to the point where the NFL invests in the IWFL like the NBA does with the WNBA. But he’s well aware that will take time.

“My general thought is nothing worthwhile is easy, and this is definitely worthwhile,” Daniel says. “What helps is the wonderful women that make up this team and the sacrifice and devotion they’ve given.”

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