They're tied for second in the toughest division in the country. Their rushing game plays out on the field like a fixed-bayonet charge. And their uniforms are flat-out bitchin'. But of all the immediate and inherently cool things that the Arizona Caliente have going for them, undoubtedly the coolest is their refusal to act like anyone's prom date. They don't go by one of those diminutive "Lady" team names like women do in college basketball. Their summer tryout reports unabashedly make references to "a 40-man active roster." And when you see them out on the gridiron, there's no denying that they play for keeps.
"It surprises a lot of people," says the Caliente's owner and general manager Jennifer Cada. "I'll tell you they hit a lot harder than people expect."
For sure, in the way they move the ball down the lines, the women of Phoenix's new professional football team give you every indication what their priorities are. They're not women playing a man's sport. They're football players.
And the Caliente aren't the only ones with such a passion for the game. This fall marks the inaugural season of the Women's American Football League, the first major nationwide pro association for women's football. Seventeen teams in all, ranging from Hawaii to Orlando, the league is the product of smaller regional groups that staged games on the barnstorming circuit in the late '90s. As leagues like the WNBA and WUSA began to blossom and the likes of Mia Hamm started appearing on Wheaties boxes, it became clear to everyone in the women's football scene that starting a major league of their own was, as Cada puts it, "an idea whose time had come."
And like all scratch-ankle startup efforts, the WAFL is clearly a labor of love. Team members spend about 20 hours a week in drills, scrimmages and official league play. The team covers their uniform and travel expenses, but the players are paid only at the end of the season, with a portion of the profits shared among the franchises. And, as athletes in a sport that has all but forbidden women in the past, most women in the WAFL are largely self-taught.
"Usually the only full-contact experience they've had is with their brothers or on the playground," Cada says of her players. "For a lot of them, it's something they've just always wanted to do."
Now that they have their chance, they play like it. As of this writing, Arizona's girls of the gridiron are split for the season with wins and losses, and Cada is confident in the Caliente's burning fervor for the sport.
"You're dealing with women who are on the field for the love of the game and nothing more," Cada says with no small measure of pride. "When you're with a group like that, the small sacrifices are worth it."