Ladies Who Crunch

The hard-hitting Knighthawks are bringing a new edge to women¹s football

Tight end Emmy Schmelzer pushes the Jetta onto I-10. The drive to Glendora, California, and the Citrus College stadium, where the Arizona Knighthawks of the Women's Professional Football League will face the Los Angeles Amazons, takes a good five hours. Schmelzer, a West Point grad and Qwest cable repair technician, has short, light brown hair and a look of contained bemusement, not smirky but wryly knowing. Maybe active duty in Bosnia does that to a demeanor. Maybe playing full-contact football at 31 hitches your sense of humor to a fine-tuned resolve. Maybe a bit of both.

For reasons of funds -- sparse -- and the collective memory -- ugly -- of a 25-hour bus trip to Boise, Idaho, the Knighthawks have decided to travel to Los Angeles by haphazard caravan. This particular carload intends to pull into Glendora around 1 p.m., grab a bite, suit up, do a walk-through of first, second and special team assignments, kick some tail, and hit I-10 back to Phoenix -- more precisely Tempe, Mesa and Gilbert -- at the end of the night.

On the Seventh Avenue ramp, Monica Kutchinsky, also 31, turns down Phil Vassar's "Houston" on the CD. The song is resonant: The Houston Energy is the WPFL's two-time Super Bowl champs. They've put a hurt on the Knighthawks (who have the second best record in the American Conference). Twice. In back-to-back games. Kutchinsky points out that the tune's refrain should be: "We have a problem, Houston."

Steven Dewall
Quarterback and place kicker Paige O'Hanlon comes from a football family; her twin is also a quarterback on a women's full-contact team.
Steven Dewall
Quarterback and place kicker Paige O'Hanlon comes from a football family; her twin is also a quarterback on a women's full-contact team.

Kutchinsky -- Chandler firefighter, second-string quarterback, Mormon (by no means in that order) -- came to the team after fellow firefighter and Knighthawks assistant head coach Andre Langley told her that arm of hers was pretty good.

She asks to say a prayer. "Close your eyes, Emmy," she deadpans. She then offers up a modest request for a safe journey and an injury-free game. "Amen, amen," echo Emmy and nose guard Mary Jo Naberhaus, who sits folded into the back seat.

The three wear their game-day tees, the white ones with the crest of a determined hawk, a football gripped in its talons on the front and the season schedule on the back. Tonight's face-off brings them to midpoint in a 10-game schedule. They've already opened up one can of whup-ass on the Amazons, winning their inaugural game of the season 46 to 6.

Forty-two Knighthawks suited up for that game. Late in the fourth quarter of the onslaught, there was a marked difference between the two benches. Arizona's teemed with bobbing, energetic copper helmets. As for L.A.? "All that's left of L.A.," one of 1,200 spectators cracked, "is Riverside."

After weeks of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday practices, something came into focus under the lights of the Phoenix College stadium: This team had talent.

Now, as their rookie season draws to a close, the Knighthawks are in a dogfight with the Dallas Diamonds for a spot in the WPFL's American Conference championship and for a rematch with the undefeated Houston Energy. Deena Roach-Canty, general manager and (with Rufino Uribe) co-owner of the Knighthawks, always said that the goal this season was to "sport championship gold."

It's just the kind of sports boast that gives short shrift to the craziness of the undertaking. Just how boneheaded has it been? Let's count the ways.

First, there's the brain-bender of women playing full-contact football to overcome. Hitting? Sure, boxing has primed the pump, but still.

Women? Football? Talk about throwing a wrench into the sports-marketing machine. Even when the players are lovely (and many on the Knighthawks are), they're hidden beneath helmets and pads. Not sexy, at least not in that tired Anna Kournikova sense.

And this being football, where heft matters, some of these players are "big girls." Again, not sexy -- at least according to today's pop cult standards.

And, all joking aside about how the fellas love to see lesbians go at it, no front office denizen thinks this is what they mean. So there are pockets of worry around the nine leagues that the issue of gay players is just the thing that will sack higher aspirations of these teams, perhaps even derail a women's national football league.

As if these challenges aren't daunting enough, this sort of pioneering effort requires everyone -- players, coaches, owners -- to treat this gridiron dreaming as a full-time job, to commit to it as if they were getting paid a living wage. Far from it. They donate time and money as if it's to their favorite charity. Don't even think about a signing bonus. We're talking a mere dollar a game. Which, over at the Knighthawks camp, is being paid in mental IOUs these days.

And then there's turf toe, hyperextended knees, rolled ankles, dislocated elbows, a concussion (mild), broken fingers, sprained ACLs, cut shins, countless contusions to wear as tattoos, and one mega boob bruise.

Knighthawk GM Deena Roach-Canty's business is to prognosticate. Her dad, once a bookie back in Omaha, back in Cornhusker country, would like the long-shot appeal of a team that was born in April converging on a championship a short seven months later. The rest of us, however, eyeing the odds, might have kept our cash in our pockets.

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