Paper Lioness: A Report From the Line of Scrimmage

I've never felt so sheepish in my life. In my notes from my initial tryout with the Chicago Force women's tackle football team, it says in all caps: "WHAT AM I DOING????"
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Honestly, I've never felt so sheepish in my life. In my notes from my initial tryout with the Chicago Force women's tackle football team, it says in all caps: "WHAT AM I DOING????"

For a story for ESPN the Magazine, I'm pulling a George Plimpton and practicing with the local sports team you never heard of.

But you should have: The semi-pro team has been around since 2002 and last year they finished second in the 51-team International Women's Football League.

They lost the championship game in overtime to the Dallas Diamonds, whose tailback "was like tackling a horse," according to former safety and Force co-owner Linda Bache, who suffered a career-ending concussion in the game and is still feeling the effects.

I wonder what I'll be like to tackle. And I am not alone: I've practiced at quarterback a half-dozen times, though not in pads yet, but I've already been startled by a nurse named Jennifer who screamed in my face as she charged me from her cornerback position. "We were told we can hit you," a defensive tackle told me with a grin, "and I won't lie to you, I wasn't unhappy to hear that."

My offensive teammates are more encouraging. "You can do it, Dave!" my charges tell me when they return to the huddle to try the play one more time after I inexplicably throw the ball straight into the ground.

I've bonded with J.J., the mysterious Mohawk-wearing voodoo running back who at the rookie tryout handed me a small plastic Egyptian Anubis doll and told me it was good luck. Later, I'd learn that J.J. knows from good luck. When I asked her what she does for a living, she told me she does nothing. "I'm very lucky," she said.

Amy's a three-year veteran but she's new at center and not sure of her shotgun snaps. "Was that one okay?" she asks me after the whistle blows. But I have to confess to her my head is so full of things to remember that I don't remember catching the ball at all.

My favorite target is Albiona Zhubi, whose cocky smile says "wide-receiver" and whose legs and hands are good enough to make my worst throws look as good as my best ones.

I'm so awed by the Force's starting quarterback, Samantha Grisafe, that I can barely bring myself to talk to her. She played QB on her men's high school football team.

"Have you ever heard of such a thing?" I asked my photographer pal Bruce Bever.

"Yeah," he said. "But only on That's Incredible!"

There's the ripped rookie Karyn Silvestri who's filling Bache's shoes. There's squeaky-clean Charbie the architect/linebacker, there's the power-lifter offensive linewoman who questions her own commitment but who is the only one who does, and there's the petite 44-year-old rookie who I call Mary Patter, because she's always talking--asking the coach questions, encouraging her teammates, talking technique or making a friendly crack.

I'm growing fond of these women.

I'm taken aback by the amount of time they put into this, many of them driving an hour each way for two- and three-hour practices, most of them on weeknights. And they each raise or pay about $800 for the privilege.

I'm touched by their earnest love for tackle football and gratitude for the chance to play it. (It's only football, you say? Earnestness and gratitude are hard to come by these days and you take it wherever you get it.)

And I'm relieved that I'm getting fewer looks that say, "Who's the dude who didn't get the memo?"

In one important way, I'm just like them. Only for me it was just my own adolescent timidity that kept me from trying out for my junior high football team. Now a 39-year-old who has taken ten thousand snaps in his living room but never one in a real game, I'm losing myself in the rigorous demands of thoroughly learning the half-dozen plays that I'll run in the team's public preseason scrimmage on April 5.

Repeatedly, I have to remind myself that I'm here to write a story. And I've got to remind John Konecki, too, who's a head coach first and a media relations man last. "If you write about my signals," he told me, "I'll come over and turn your house upside down."

Reluctantly, Coach and I have agreed I'll only attend one of the team's three weekly practices--a less disruptive schedule for both of us--and he's said that yes, he can prepare me to play in the scrimmage, and maybe even play well.

But he's a football coach and he can't help it: My dilettante ways, and the way they're retarding my learning curve--it's getting on his nerves. "I try to be patient," he told me after a recent practice.

But the rest of the time he's apologizing to me about not having time to give me more individual coaching aside from his day job at Crete-Monee High School.

As for me, the adventure is already as bittersweet as it is fun: Whenever I'm not feeling anxious about slowing my teammates down, or worried I'll fail to portray them accurately in my piece, I'm anticipating the sadness I'll feel after that April scrimmage, when the exercise is all over for me and the journey is just beginning for them.

Force Family Win, on three!

Watch here for another report or two along the way.

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