Ladies Who Crunch
Steven Dewall

Ladies Who Crunch

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."

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.

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."

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.

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.

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."

It was an exchange that hinted that women's full-contact football might be comfortable enough with its already edgy identity to let its players, whatever their persuasion, speak frankly. That didn't turn out to be the case, exactly.

The owner of that league complained that Wykes' candor hurt the league. However, Liberty Belles owner Marie Olsen disagreed, telling a reporter, "What shocked me is that they printed [Wykes'] weight. Every woman in America is going to laugh at that -- that's more sacred than anything else."

Robin Howington, the WPFL honcho in charge of expansion, was not as amused. "If they did that in the WPFL, I would have been furious," she says on the phone from Houston, where she owns a bearing supply company called Texas Oilpatch Services and a demure football team by the name of the Houston Energy.

"It's not that I think homosexuality is inappropriate," says Howington. "But it's about trying to build credibility. If the sport already had credibility in everybody's eyes, if a player was credible first, then it wouldn't be like the gay football player.

"I have a customer in Oklahoma," says Howington. "He said to me, I ain't gonna see a bunch of dykes play football.' He's a redneck, but other people think that, too."

This is coming out presented as chicken-or-egg conundrum. Come out after you're successful (but also have much to lose). Or come out when things are just beginning and kill your opportunity. Somehow it always winds up sounding like "don't come out."

"All we tell the girls is if they come out to the media, they should do it because they want to," says Lydia Vargas, press liaison for the Knighthawks.

This rather simple approach to the players' personal comfort zones -- gay or straight or, as folk on the team seem fond of saying, "bi-curious" -- turns out to be not so simple for some.

"It's very important for owners, coaches, to set a respectful atmosphere for all their personnel," says Helen Carroll from the National Center for Lesbian Rights' Homophobia in Sports Project. (The project was instrumental in getting a non-discrimination policy written for the Philadelphia Liberty Belles, the only one of its kind in women's football.)

"Being able to recognize your athletes and those important in their lives -- family, partners, kids -- is a positive force in their athletic ability," says Carroll. "The huge fear is that this issue takes over all of women's sports. But this is a way to manage that. To say, We're going to be fair to everybody, so let's play ball, and then it's done.'"

The Knighthawks' Deena Roach-Canty goes further into her philosophy for the team. "Do I think it's an issue?" she asks one night, as she sits rebuilding her 9-year-old son Ryne's computer. "No. I don't. But it's become an issue.

"In a way, I'm torn. I would like to say, What does it have to do with football?' But the reality on our team is I don't discourage people from being who they are. I don't allow my ladies to lie about who they are. A lot of these women have life partners -- in my case, my wife.

"I don't deny myself. I don't deny my being. I married my wife, I took her name. Therefore, I wear it proud. If someone asks me if we're related, I say 'yes' and leave it at that. If they dig deeper, I'll tell them more."

Roach-Canty, who speaks with the same quick energy she uses to pace up and down the sidelines, takes an atypical breath. "What am I going to do: ask people to lie? Please."

So, for personal and professional reasons, Roach-Canty doesn't view the issue of lesbian players as a marketing nightmare. Still, for some, having lesbian players on a team and selling femininity are at odds. It's as if no one's ever heard the term "lipstick lesbian."

"You're not very feminine in football equipment," says Robin Howington, who also plays on her Houston team. "It's not like basketball where you can look very feminine. You can wear pretty shorts, have your hair done.

"Tina Thompson wears lipstick," she adds, pointing to the Women's National Basketball Association. The WNBA's enviable relationship to the moneyed NBA is a model for a unified women's football league. A future WNFL.

How to capture the imagination of fans for a new sport and its players, how to make clear this isn't a football drag show, is uncharted terrain. Last month, Miami QB Anita Marks, who plays for the IWFL's Miami Fury, decided to try the old-fashioned way: She posed for Playboy.

The Knighthawks and the WPFL are trying to make the game family fare. No surprise, then, that the first women they put in front of the TV cameras were working mothers: running back Desiree Belliard and hard-hitting Nadia Delco. Belliard is a nurse, the mother of a teen daughter, and one of the fastest Knighthawks. Delco, whose husband Bashu is the special teams coach, is a swift, aggressive defensive player. Both have compelling stories. Both could, but won't, give Marks a run for her money in the looks department. And each is the real deal on the field.

Keeping it comfortable for everyone: that might be the managerial mantra for the Knighthawks. This can entail holding an after-game gathering at a joint where kids are welcome, but then pumping up the volume at a party put together by Womyn of Distinction, a promoter that often does lesbian events.

"I set the tone," Roach-Canty says. "Business is business. If you do something stupid or unprofessional, then you're going to hear about it. Act appropriately. Be smart. I will always say that. To my straight people, I say, Be smart.' It's about respect."

It seems to work for the Knighthawks' chemistry. "On this team," says Lydia Vargas, "they don't care what your preference is."

Arlene Locklin and Sophia Russell are team captains. Spectators can spot running back Locklin on the field because of her copper Nikes, and her style of running.

It's signature stuff: a powerful dash wide, then a sharp, relentless cut upfield. Off the field, it's the platinum blond, trim 'fro that gives her away.

Number 3, Russell is nearly as easy to make out. She's the tall, trim safety who can play wide receiver too. Although Russell, a caseworker at J-Top, the Juvenile Transfer Offender Program, has lived in her townhouse apartment near the COFCO Chinese Cultural Center for four months, it still has that just-moved-in feel. The only clutter is the forlorn torso of a shoulder pad, a kind of impromptu sculpture, set in the middle of the floor near the glass fireplace.

When Locklin arrives at Russell's home, she comes up the stairs, cell phone pressed against her ear, recounting the Austin game, which they'd just won 20 to 6. Turns out she's talking to her older brother, Kenny. He coaches Palo Verde High's football team in Tucson, where they grew up.

"I hate when he comes to the game," she says. "He's so critical. He wants the game tape before anybody else. Then he'll say you need to do this, you need to do a little more of that."

She hates it but she doesn't. "It's good to have someone like that to talk to. There has to be something I'm doing wrong. There must be something I can do better. If I was perfect, I'd be making a touchdown every carry, and I'm not.

"I thought I was going to be a safety. Really. I didn't want to get hit. I did not want to get hit." She smiles with gap-toothed pleasure. "My idea is that I wanted to hit someone."

Football is, of course, all about hitting -- and a little bit about avoiding being hit. And these girls can hit. Their smackdowns are loud, chastising, bell-ringing shots.

There is no Knighthawk who will not expound with a kind of amazed pleasure on the subject, from the wee Mouse (Jennifer Haskin, who at 5'4" and 120 pounds is the slightest person on the team) to the bejeweled Chocolate Thunder (Erika Carver) to House (all 5-foot 9-inches, 270 pounds of her).

The first game in Dallas, linebacker Lisa Jones plowed into an opposing player. Three different teammates have recounted this collision as if auditioning for some play-by-play gig at ESPN. "There was a girl in Austin," says Russell. "Nadia got a good hit on her. She was rolling on the ball, trying to get up, eyes rolling back of her head. I stood above her, saying, Fight it! Fight it.'"

An opposing lineman called Mary Jo Naberhaus a bitch. "Bitch!'" Naberhaus recounted. "And I thought to myself, That's not very nice.' And then I go to her, Hey, we're all bitches when we play this game.' And she went, You got that right.'"

As for the privilege of hitting or being hit, "I know if I'm not there, I'm not getting any better," Russell says. "That's what we talk about when we talk to the ladies. We know you're not getting paid. You knew that coming out here you weren't going to get to quit your job. But there was something that kept you out here, something that you used to keep coming out here. That's the same something you need to continue the season. Whatever that was that you used to convince yourself that you can do this is the same thing you need to call on."

Russell ends her mini coach's speech. "I know we're not going to get paid. But the competition -- I'm all there. Checkers. Jump rope. . . . You say there's a winner and I'm going to be there."

A minute away from the Citrus College stadium -- "Home of the Fighting Owls" -- Monica Kutchinsky pops in AC/DC and cranks up "Back in Black." The Jetta rumbles into the parking lot, where teammates are lounging against or sitting in their cars or tossing around the Nike pigskin. The playlist goes on. Axl Rose. Michael Jackson sends his challenge out into the smooth afternoon air, "You wanna be starting something." In response, House walks over to the car, reaches in and cranks it up a notch.

"Listen up, ladies," coach Derek Rodriguez says in the airless locker room. "Let's do this tonight."

The players are a combination of relaxed and attentive. "Have fun like I said before. We have a very, very, very good chance of winning out. But we need to start tonight. Don't take this team lightly at all. They're in their own crib. You know how that is when you want to defend your own turf. Come out hitting hard.

"Defense, I'm calling the plays, so look at me. Offense: same as always. No bickering tonight. Start it up right now. Start having fun, right now. Enjoy the weather. Score first. Win first. Battle all night long. Win the battle, win the war. All right. Accept nothing less than perfection."

They draw into a knot. "Everybody, could you grab somebody. Please, grab a hand, grab a jersey."

They recite the Lord's Prayer. "Amen" is drowned out by whoops and the report of clapping.

"Silent going out. It's Game Time. Put your game faces on. Silent but deadly." Rodriguez is still new to the art of haiku chutzpah. "Team on three. One. Two. Three. TEAM."

It was not the Knighthawks' finest hour. They won -- 27 to 0 -- but they didn't play sharp. Starting quarterback Paige O'Hanlon was distracted, possibly because her mom and twin sister, also a quarterback, were in the stands. When she got her shot, Kutchinsky was uneven.

After the game, Naberhaus, Kutchinsky and Schmelzer head to Motel 6, where a number of teammates are staying. Schmelzer flops on one of the beds in wide receiver Julia Kelly and linebacker Glenda Taylor's room. She covers her head with a pillow. Kutchinsky and Naberhaus take turns using the shower.

Some of the team convenes at an Applebee's across the parking lot. It is past 1 a.m. when the three climb into the Jetta.

Schmelzer hadn't suited up because of an ankle injury (and this unsportsmanlike truth: No injured player should take a chance when the Amazons could be handled by the healthy or merely hurting teammates).

She lasts about an hour on the road before relinquishing the steering wheel to Kutchinsky. "I'm a firefighter; I'm used to getting only three hours of sleep," Kutchinsky keeps saying. Naberhaus has already taken out her contacts and wedged the pillow under her head. She'll be crashed if there's a crash.

On a stretch of road 65 miles outside of Blythe, the fuel warning light comes on.

"Oh, crap," Kutchinsky says. "Oh, crap." She then begins a soliloquy of faith and disaster befitting Abraham.

Fifty miles. Thirty miles. Eight miles. Around five miles, Schmelzer is awakened. Around four, a prayer is said. Blythe glows.

There have been moments over the course of the Knighthawks' winning season where the dance between Knighthawk bravado and doubt has been extreme. There were the back-to-back losses to Houston. Later, in Austin, the Knighthawks got the feeling that the Rage hadn't really expected them to show up, like maybe they might run out of money and be forced to forfeit. A possibility.

But two nights before that scuffle, at 10 p.m. on a Thursday, there the team was, at the Tempe Sports Complex fields. The lights had been extinguished, and in the darkness of the parking lot stood players, cell phones in hand working the hotels and motels of Wimberley, Texas. They made it to Texan Stadium.

The Rage, which played in last year's WPFL Super Bowl, was brought up short. The Knighthawks scored on their very first possession. It happened so fast that Rodriguez nearly missed it. "I had turned around and was talking to a player. All of a sudden I hear this shouting and clapping and see Arlene going 56 yards for a touchdown. The very first play of the game," says Rodriguez. "Oh, it demoralized them. They had no clue. They didn't want to be out there."

It has become do-the-math time. Two weeks ago, the Dallas Diamonds gave the Knighthawks something jagged to think on, when they topped the Knighthawks 27 to 22.

Now, the Knighthawks need to win their remaining games, both against the Amazons. The Diamonds have to win their next two games, both against the Energy. One is tempted to heave a sigh of relief at that scenario. The Knighthawks have to hope Houston (undefeated at 27 games and counting) is invincible. At least until they've dispatched Dallas. This is sports cliché and the unknown all wrapped into one.

And the "ladies" know it. "They're a quarter of an inch away from tasting it," says Rodriguez. "We have a lot of hungry girls."

In the car on the way back from lunch one afternoon, Red Jansen remembered like it was an afterthought the most important thing to her about this whole crazy undertaking.

"Not too long from now they're going to remember these years as the pioneer years," she said. "Some little girls are going to feel the way about us that I did about women softball players. And I will have been a part of that history."


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