Ladies Who Crunch

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

A month before they were to play the Houston Energy, the Knighthawks were gathered at one of the Tempe Diablo Stadium fields. To the west of them was a Frisbee football practice; to the south, a kids' soccer league.

It was the evening of one of the first monsoon storms; the air was branched with lightning and scoured with a heaving, dusty wind. It was also the night of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game. While Bud Selig and Co. were figuring out how not to conduct an extra-inning game, and the players' union had voted earlier in the day against setting a strike date, this collection of women was deciding whether it was too dangerous to drill. It was; the night had more than 600 lightning strikes.

It is hard not to think back on this confederacy of competitors and ponder their dedication. These women pay for their own equipment (on average $300 to $500). Because they are nurses, students, firefighters, electricians, social workers, administrators, store managers, computer salespeople and students, they often clock 15-hour days. They show up for weekend car washes and bake sales and fashion shows to raise money for water, ice, travel, the field of their dreams. When those efforts fall short, they fork over the fare for away games (most of them in Texas). And, yes, they steal time from their families.

Wide receiver Julia Kelly gets her knee worked on by chiropractor Quati Makeeta.
Emily Piraino
Wide receiver Julia Kelly gets her knee worked on by chiropractor Quati Makeeta.
Back in 1979, Knighthawks co-owner Rufino Uribe dreamed of owning a football team.
Steven Dewall
Back in 1979, Knighthawks co-owner Rufino Uribe dreamed of owning a football team.

Tamara Jansen, one of three Knighthawk centers -- the one with the high, hard snap -- joined as a Titan. "Friends who are no longer on the team said, We need big girls,'" recalls Jansen. "I kept thinking about my age. A contact sport at 36? It's kind of like when you're pregnant. If you've been doing it for a while, that's fine, but if you're just starting, well . . ."

So she watched the team practice. "I thought it seemed pretty taxing," she says. But, she thought, "Surely I can do this."

In her civilian life, Jansen is the clinical manager of the Renal Care Group in Mesa. Before becoming a football player, she and husband Greg used to do co-ed volleyball or co-ed softball.

Things have changed. "Getting home and trying to get to sleep after a practice. It takes an hour to wind down," Jansen says over lunch one afternoon. "You're out there hitting people and keeping your quarterback from trying to get hit. I find I'm not going to be asleep until after midnight during the week. By Friday I'm just exhausted.

"Friday night is usually our date night, and I'm like, Uh, Honey," Jansen says, laughing. "Date night kind of went out the window. Since we started playing, all day Saturday is taken up with football. Then Sunday you're recovering from your aches and pains. Every Sunday, I'm like, Let's take a nap.'"

At a practice in the preseason, Red -- Jansen has long, minted penny-hued hair and, yes, she gets just that flush during a game -- was suiting up. "Ma'am, you come to work out?" she asked. Then said with a grin, "We'll put a hit on you. The good thing is you get to hit back."


In his 1972 novel Semi-Tough, Dan Jenkins tells the story of a good old Fort Worth quarterback, his sure-handed buddy and their football team, the New York Giants, during the '70s. It's a sharp-tongued bit of business. Billy Clyde Puckett shotguns words like nigger and spic and redneck to drive the story of team relationships during an era of black power and national upheaval (and coincidentally the merger of the American Football League with the National Football League).

Thirty years later, if Jenkins were to drop his gridiron jocks into the midst of seismic cultural shifts, the most controversial tension in the locker room would not be race (though it's still there) but homosexuality.

Indeed, over the past year, the conversation about gays, gay men especially, and team sports has reached a fevered pitch. Pitch is the right word given that much of the chatter began blazing last year, when the editor-in-chief of OUT magazine wrote a piece about his then-boyfriend -- an in-the-closet Major League Baseball player.

The hullabaloo continued. New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine ventured that the time was nearing when a player could safely come out. Mets catcher Mike Piazza gave a press conference in May to deny rumors that he was gay. Billy Bean, a former Padre -- out of the game and out of the closet -- appeared on Arli$$, the HBO show about a sports agent. The episode was about one of Arliss' clients coming out.

As for women, it is often pointed out that college and professional teams have very nearly the inverted concerns. If all the men in the locker room are presumed to be straight, all the women are gay, goes the counter assumption. Of course, neither axiom is true, but there's anxiety aplenty.

"It's not right for people to assume that because a woman is strong, self-assured and independent, she's a lesbian. She should be able to play sports without being stereotyped," Alissa Wykes, a running back for the Philadelphia Liberty Belles (formerly of the National Women's Football League, now part of the Independent Women's Football League), told a reporter in the December-January issue of Sports Illustrated for Women. She then added with a cheeky matter-of-factness, "Of course, I am a lesbian."

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