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Taken By Storm

Norwich women tackle a boys' game: football


Published November 27, 2002 at 5:00 a.m.

A 25-yard pass brings the New England Storm close to midfield. "Hold the line, Sunny," the coach hollers, pacing the sidelines, headset poised, fists clenched. A bad snap on the next play drags the Storm back to the 17, with 30 seconds in the quarter. "Come on, Storm," screams a fan. "Don't give up." But they can't get a first down on third and 25, and the first half ends: Syracuse, 14, New England, zip. The Storm plod back to their locker room under the aluminum stands of Hormel Stadium in Medford. The Boston skyline blinks through the southern uprights as daylight fades.

The New England Storm is a franchise of the Women's Professional Football League -- a.k.a. WPFL. Its players are all female. Its owner is a woman and so is one of its coaches, who hails from Brattleboro. Among the budding professional women's leagues scattered around the country, the WPFL is probably the most organized and promising. Just like the NFL, it has two divisions, and within those divisions, east- and west-coast conferences. They have playoffs like the NFL, and the season culminates in a championship match-up between the best teams from each division.

This, however, is not Foxboro Stadium. The scene at Hormel Stadium is very different. No cushy seats, no $150 sweatsuits for sale, no deluxe skyboxes. The smallish crowd is, however, very enthusiastic. They know their players and they know football. They're getting a good dose of a separate, not-quite-equal brand of the sport. It's a lot like the WNBA: Players get up-close and personal with fans that are fanatical and vociferous. Players have fun on the field, but they clearly take the game -- and their mission as pioneers in women's contact sports -- very seriously.

The women seem to come in two body types: the long and lean quarterbacks, kickers and running backs; and the robust, rock-hard linebackers, nose tackles and centers. What they lack in experience, they make up for in speed and agility. Though their play execution might not be letter-perfect, the game is exciting, see-sawing back and forth, fates turning on a dime.

Among the Storm's 40 players is a network of athletes from Norwich University. Jessica Rodriguez and Nicole Skeller are Norwich alumnae who currently live in Northfield, and Kelly Kane just moved from there to Boston; Anna Gleisberg is a Norwich student. Unlike their male counterparts, whose salaries are as inflated as their pecs, these girl gladiators of the gridiron are only nominally professional. "We get one dollar per game," Rodriguez confides. She brightens, adding: "If we score a touchdown or block a kick or something like that, we get bonuses. If we score a touchdown or sack the quarterback, we get $25."

The bonuses are fleeting, however. A bad move on the next play scotches the extra cash. "We do it because we love it," Rodriguez explains.

When he's not whipping up the Storm, coach Jonathan Gates is a semi-pro player and the defensive coordinator for an NFL farm team in Massachusetts. He prowls a tight circle in front of his players in a crowded cinderblock room that smells like gym socks. "They are not playing brilliant fucking Vince Lombardi football," he says, pointing in the direction of the field, "just regular shit. Fourteen points. There's a shut-out on the board."

Gates, a husky, 40-ish African-American guy, is fuming. He takes off his Storm cap, mopping his brow. Holding the brim, he emphasizes each word, jabbing the cap in his players' faces. He's muscular. He's mean. He means it: "No excuses. No. You fucked up. You're saving it. Are you shitting me at the line of scrimmage? I'm tired of watching some 130-pound safety force us into third and eight." Clearly, the coaches don't mince words with their female athletes; they use the same locker-room language that goes for the guys.

"Everything is the same as in the men's game," said Rodriguez. "Same rules, same field. We run the same plays as the Patriots. There's only one thing that's different: the football." Women use a youth-sized ball on account of their smaller hands.

Storm linebacker Nicole Skeller was a nose tackle on her high-school team. "It was okay," she says of the experience. "You lose friends. You gain friends. Some people's dads didn't like it that I was a starter; but my coach was excellent. He knew I was an athlete and could handle it."

Skeller's father, a major sports fan, had been prodding her to try out for the Storm for three years. Finally, in May, she went to Worcester to compete for a slot on the team with 50 other women interested in joining the New England roster. She got picked.

Watching some raggedy plays, it's obvious these women haven't been living and breathing football since they could walk. It's a Byzantine game with complicated rules and set-piece plays that aren't easy to slip into.

They hit hard, however, and they throw hard. The Storm quarterback lets fly some beautiful, rocket-fast passes. The kicker boots long, accurate ones. The air resounds with crunching helmets and pads, grunts, curses and, occasionally, the soft, sweet thump of a perfect pass landing in a player's hands.

The women don't get a lot of time to practice. They're literally learning on the fly, following a crazy schedule. During the season, the Norwich women carpool to Boston Mondays and Wednesdays for practice. They head out at 3:30 p.m. and practice till 10, then roll back into Northfield at 1:30 a.m. Away games are even more time-consuming. "We have single-day travel," Skeller explains, noting the team leaves from Boston. "We leave Northfield at 5 a.m., get on the plane. We fly, play, fly back, drive, and return home at 5 a.m."

Exhaustion is not in the playbook for these women. "There is a sense of passion you feel when you step out on the field," says Gleisberg. "The way I feel is intensity, absolute brute strength. You prepare yourself to go to battle every time.

"People think women aren't physically able," Gleisberg continues. "They think we're more likely to get injured. I think the opposite. Women have will power and inner strength. Women have a greater sense of inner drive, greater pain tolerance, perseverance. Women listen better and self-critique, so they recognize faults more easily and work harder on improvement.

Gates' half-time remarks do not take gender differences into consideration: "This game is inherently in here," he says, pointing at his heart. "You go out and earn your checks, because you just lost 'em. You are going to come out of that huddle like your asses are on fire. Teamwork‚ on three." The women shove their hands into the huddle and roar.

Back for the second half, a Storm player picks up the ball on a bad kick. "That's how you fuckin' do it," Gates hollers. The tailback sneaks over the goal line. The kick is good. The Storm are back in the game.

The quarterback, braid falling out of the back of her helmet, rolls back and fires one off for a first down. Her arm looks like a bazooka. Stormy sound effects come over the PA. The fans pound on the metal stands. A 15-yard pass brings them across midfield, but the quarterback is down.

The Storm have to send in their second-string quarterback. Fortunately, this girl got game. They score another touchdown to pull within one point of Syracuse. "It is our game now, ladies," Gates says, beaming on the sidelines. But Syracuse blocks the extra-point kick. The score stalls at 14-13, and the clock runs out.

The crowd is disappointed. The Storm have a rep for coming from behind. Everybody was hoping for a turnaround, but it hasn't happened tonight. Undeterred, a legion of fans crowd the fence as the players come off the field. They shout at their first-name favorites, give them high fives, offer advice and consolation. Unlike the mob at Foxboro, which has a preponderance of testosterone, this group is decidedly co-ed, with a lot of little girls sporting Storm gear.

"Word gets around. We get groups of girls coming into the locker room, saying, 'I wanna play.' All they wanna do is talk football," Skeller says.

Her reasons for playing are simple: "I don't wanna look back saying, 'I did not,' wishing I had. It's one of those things at this time in life and society of women embracing what women can do.

"You can jump into any softball league; but this is women's professional football," Skeller adds. None of the other leagues are as good as this. None of the other teams are sister teams to the World Champion New England Patriots. This is the league to be in. This is the team to be on.