Heart of Darkness: Pecovsky-Bentley stifles her athletic resolve until sunset.
Heart of Darkness: Pecovsky-Bentley stifles her athletic resolve until sunset. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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As the sun sets on her football career with this weekend’s Sup-Her Bowl game, Rachelle Pecovsky-Bentley has been taking a lot of time checking out the sunsets.

Well, the D.C. Divas’ retiring star checked out what time the sun sets, anyway.

She can tell you without hesitation, for example, when sundown took place on July 11 in Massachusetts, site of the Divas’ last-second, come-from-behind thriller win over the Boston Militia that earned the Divas a trip to the IWFL’s championship game.

“It wasn’t until 8:22,” Pecovsky-Bentley tells me.

And that explains why she didn’t play at all in the semifinals game. So had the Divas lost, Pecovsky-Bentley’s run as a player would have ended with her not even in uniform. But, perhaps with some divine assistance, a teammate returned a kickoff 85 yards with just 40 seconds left in the game for the win.

So Pecovsky-Bentley lives to play another game. Well, another half-game, anyway.

The tale of what will be her 10th and final season in women’s tackle football goes like this: Pecovsky-Bentley’s a Seventh-day Adventist. Adventism calls for followers to honor the Sabbath from sunset on Fridays through sunset on Saturdays. That means honoring God, not running for daylight on a football field.

Divas home and road games are played on Saturdays and typically have kickoff times of either 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.—or right in the Sabbath’s wheelhouse.

The game days and times have been the same since Pecovsky-Bentley joined the squad in 2006, after starring in Philadelphia and Delaware, but she played alongside her teammates and prayed later.

“In the past, quite simply, she let football mean more than faith,” says Divas Coach Keith Howard.

But during the last preseason, Pecovsky-Bentley decided she was no longer willing to put gridiron before God. She went to Howard and told him she would be of no use to the squad, because her beliefs would cause her to miss too many training camp workouts and games.

By then, Pecovsky-Bentley had long proven her devotion to the Divas. And the coach wasn’t quite ready to let his star give up the game.

“So we made a deal,” she says. “I’d honor God and play football.”

She’d grown up the eldest of three daughters of a football-loving father outside Philadelphia and was very athletic in high school and college. Her jock résumé while at nearby Ursinus, an NCAA Division III school, includes perhaps the oddest combo of honors ever found: “I was nationally ranked in both the balance beam and the shot put,” she says. Take that, Yang Yilin! (Pecovsky-Bentley was Centennial Conference shot-put champion four years in a row and still holds the school and league records in the event with a toss of 45 feet, one-and-three-quarter inches in 1994.)

After a few years of flag football in Philly-area leagues, she started playing tackle football with the Philadelphia Belles in that team’s inaugural season of 2001, leading the squad to the league championship that year. In 2006, she moved to Newport News, Va., to be near the man she would marry. She wasn’t near ready to give up the game, however. The Divas were not the closest women’s football team to Newport News—there were a couple of fledgling female squads in the Tidewater region—but Pecovsky-Bentley knew that D.C., where undefeated regular seasons were the norm, had perhaps the best organization in the game.

So through an entire preseason and regular-season schedule, Pecovsky-Bentley commuted to Divas practices in Upper Marlboro on weekdays, then again to the games on the weekends. And she did it all, as the cliché goes, for the love of the game: The Divas players and coaches are technically a professional team and by league rules can be paid, but none are.

“That was 178 miles each way, at least three days a week,” she says. “It seems crazy to me now that I did that. But I wasn’t ready to stop playing.”

With the time and effort came glory. She rushed for 186 yards and three TDs in the 2006 Sup-Her Bowl, good enough to win the MVP of the Divas’ first and thus far only championship. The performance earned her a blurb in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” section. She’s now the Divas’ second-leading rusher of all time.

Her husband, who is in the military, was transferred to the D.C. area a year later, and Pecovsky-Bentley stuck with the Divas. But earlier this year, after weighing her spiritual and athletic situations, she decided to call it quits and went to Howard to let him know.

He wouldn’t have it.

So Howard and Pecovsky-Bentley came to an agreement—spelled out in an e-mail to each other—that she wouldn’t be required to attend any practice or portion of a game that conflicted with the Sabbath. And the team wouldn’t hold her religious observations against her.

“I said, ‘Let’s see if we can work this out,’” Howard says. “I wanted her to put faith first, and stay with the team. And we agreed that if ever there was any question about what she should do, we’d open up that e-mail and talk about it.”

Every week during the season, Pecovsky-Bentley would consult the sunset charts and let the games start without her. She’d wait off-site and pray, then the moment the sun went down, she’d put on the uniform and get to the field.

“It’s like a superhero showing up when Rachelle would arrive at the field,” says Rich Daniel, the Divas’ general manager. “That’s a big lift to the team.”

“They really didn’t need me for many games this year,” laughs Pecovsky-Bentley. “By the time I showed up, we had the games won.”

But there’s always a chance her talents and experience could tilt a game. So Pecovsky-Bentley stayed with the team, and things went smoothly for all concerned as the Divas notched another undefeated season.

Things came to a head, though, in the semifinal game in New England, with the kickoff scheduled for 6 p.m. and sunset, as Pecovsky-Bentley memorized, more than two hours later. Coach and player consulted the e-mail they’d written to each other and decided that she wouldn’t even make the trip with her team.

“That was tough,” she says. “But we looked at what might happen, and the best-case scenario would have meant I’d come in with about two or three minutes to play.”

As it turned out, the game against the Militia indeed hinged on the final few moments. Pecovsky-Bentley says she didn’t even listen to the game online or otherwise try to keep up with what was going on until the sunset. “If I was going to do that, I would have just gone to the game. But I wanted to honor God,” she says. “But around 8:30, I was texting and calling like crazy.”

She found out from her calls and texts that her teammates were celebrating an amazing finish—“an ESPN Classic game,” says Howard—that puts them in the final.

Thanks to the Miracle in Massachusetts, Pecovsky-Bentley will be clock-watching one more time. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. CDT. She thinks she’s going to be able to honor her savior and still get in for about

a half.

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