Ladies Who Crunch

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

After all, the origins of the Knighthawks were bumpy at best. Depending on who you ask, you'll get a variety of answers to the question, "When did the team really start?"

Charlene "Cletus" Canty will say it has its roots in "ghettoball." That's what she calls the flag football games a number of players convened on Sunday afternoons a couple years back. They would line up in a Tempe park, Red Rover-like, and then go for it. There was only one position player -- the quarterback.

"Even though it was flag," recalls Canty, "we tackled like hell."

Running back Arlene Locklin and quarterback Monica Kutchinsky on the sidelines as the Knighthawks blank the Los Angeles Amazons, 27-0.
Steven Dewall
Running back Arlene Locklin and quarterback Monica Kutchinsky on the sidelines as the Knighthawks blank the Los Angeles Amazons, 27-0.
Knighthawk linebackers plot a punishing defensive strategy.
Steven Dewall
Knighthawk linebackers plot a punishing defensive strategy.

Back then, diminutive but feisty Roach-Canty played, too. "Give it to the midget,' we'd yell. Give it to Pokémon.'"

Other players will likely tell you this saga began in earnest with tryouts for the Caliente, Arizona's first women's full-contact football team, which was just forming in spring 2001.

Two short months later, a splinter group of players left the Caliente to form the Arizona Titans. Here Knighthawk genealogy, with its arrows of accusation and patterns of alleged betrayal, starts to resemble a John Madden diagram. Race usually rates a mention. Almost all of the players who left owner Jennifer Cada's Caliente for the Titans were black, as is Titan owner Byron Autry.

But there were other frustrations, too, that point to the usual emotional ups and downs of fielding a team. There were Caliente players who'd played together in informal leagues for years and wanted to protect their new turf, their positions. There were women trying out who'd known each other for years and were eager to get started, making it scarier still for the Caliente core who wanted to become starters. Player frustrations led to an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new sports enterprise.

But owning a team in these nascent years is more money pit than gold mine. Roach-Canty puts the team's annual cost at between $90,000 to $100,000. This does not include airfare; that would add another $25,000. And it does not include player salaries.

And, if you're keeping score, there are three women's full-contact football teams in Phoenix representing three different leagues -- the WPFL, the Women's Affiliated Football Conference, and the American Women's Football League. (As an editor at Sports Illustrated said, the city should erect a sign that reads: WELCOME TO PHOENIX, HOME OF WOMEN'S FOOTBALL.)

Still, that original split between the Caliente and Titans taints the blood between the Caliente and the Knighthawks to this day. In August, a few of the Caliente's players sat on the visitors' side, cheering as the Knighthawks got spanked by the Houston Energy in their third game of the season, 37-0. Even the owner of the Energy was amazed by the rivalry. "Hey, we don't have any fans in Phoenix,'" Robin Howington remembers thinking to herself. "How funny was that?"

Not too. That first Houston game played at home was not just any game. It was supposed to be The Game.

The way to make your mark in the WPFL is to zap the Energy. So after the defeat, offensive lineman Selina Canty and center Michelle Jackson sat on barstools at the Original Hamburger Works doing something they seldom do. The bartender set up two shot glasses, did some mariachi-shaking of a cloudy concoction and poured.

It's not every day you witness the dousing of sorrows with peach schnapps.

Later, J-Lo, who is an engineer at a small company, and Missile, a corrections officer in Maricopa County, sat in the roiling spa at one of those freshly minted suites hotels that should come with an expiration date stamped on its cornerstone. Over the din of the Jacuzzi, the two sketched out the final nightmare that led to the Knighthawks. It came during a blighted 25-hour bus ride to Boise, Idaho. There the players, then the Arizona Titans, tromped from "Satan's capsule" (as one player dubbed the dilapidated bus) to a pockmarked pasture, where they commenced to dislocate the Boise Xtreme from their own dreams. The score: 57 to zip.

The win did little to ameliorate the shoddy treatment a number of players felt they were receiving from the Titan organization. The team was getting to compete about once every four weeks. Shortly after the miserable trip, Deena Roach-Canty, then the player liaison, and Rufino Uribe, the trainer, had decided to resign. A number of players didn't want them to -- many of these were of that same nomadic tribe that had left the Caliente. They just wanted to play ball.

These players drafted Roach-Canty and Uribe, who are now owners of the Knighthawks. Derek Rodriguez, then quarterback coach, became the Knighthawks head coach, and Bashu Delco remained on as special teams coach. Other coaches include Chris Uribe, Rufino's brother, and Ed Judie. The latter, a linebacker on the Super Bowl-winning 1981 San Francisco 49ers, has instilled a head-banging ethic in his daughter and damned good defensive lineman, Adrienne, or "House." As in you'd curl up and die if she landed a hit on you.

The Knighthawks' season has been a dogged three-and-a-half-month affair. A two-week mini-camp was held in mid-June. Regular practice began just days after that. The average temperature at 7 p.m. during this period is usually 101 degrees. Add shoulder pads, thigh pads, hip pads and helmets, and a certain Nelly song comes to mind.

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