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The D.C. Divas have been among the better women’s football teams in the land for years. And by last season, there was only one impediment to their being recognized as the very best: the Detroit Demolition.
The Demolition, four-time defending champion of the National Women’s Football Association, had lost only one game in the franchise’s history. And in the 2005 national semifinals, the Demolition whupped the Divas 38-16.
But this year was going to be different.
“We made a lot of changes,” says Donna Wilkinson, one of nine original Divas still on the roster. “And all our changes, everything we did, was to beat the Demolition.”
Among the moves: Wilkinson—the team’s best all-around athlete, top all-time leading rusher, and the first NWFA player ever to gain 1,000 yards in a season—switched to linebacker.
And in many respects, the changes paid off: Last year, the Divas’ opponents managed two touchdowns. In 2006, D.C. gave up just one: The Baltimore Burn managed to get in the end zone in the season opener.
The Divas blanked everybody else on the schedule.
Before the July 8 quarterfinal playoff game with the Chattanooga Locomotion, Adrian Mobley, owner and coach of the Burn, the Divas’ rival-turned-whipping-girl, predicted more of the same.
“It’s gonna be another shutout, and the Divas are gonna score 40 or 50 points,” said Mobley, standing by the gate of the Prince George’s County Sports and Learning Complex, the Divas’ home field. He held an envelope with tickets for a host of Baltimore players who’ve made the trip down the B-W Parkway and paid $15 to see their division rival.
Mobley should’ve called Vegas. Even with Wilkinson sitting out to rest her knee, the Divas thrilled the crowd of several hundred patrons by stomping the Locomotion 40-0 in a game nowhere near as close as the score. The Divas’ roster was twice as big as the Locomotion’s, and the Divas’ players were twice as big as the Locomotion’s—even the home team’s cheerleaders appeared larger and more mobile than the Locomotion’s defense. (Really.)
With just the semifinals—against the Columbus Comets at home on July 22—and the championship game left, the Divas have outscored the opposition 427-6.
Everything now points to the Divas winning their first league title at the NWFA championship game, the SupHer Bowl, scheduled for Aug. 5 in Pittsburgh. The team’s general manager, Rich Daniel, says he convinced players to march with him in the recent Takoma Park Fourth of July parade by telling them the stroll would prepare them for their own victory parade after the SupHer Bowl.
But if the Divas do indeed get to hoist the championship trophy, it will feel hollow to many of the veterans. Just as the Divas felt prepared to destroy their nemesis, the Demolition took its championship belt and 42-game winning streak and jumped from the NWFA to a rival semipro confederation, the Independent Women’s Football League.
Ric Flair, the Socrates of pro wrestling, once explained a champion’s quest thusly: If you wanna be The Man, you gotta beat The Man. Following Flair’s wisdom, the Demolition’s exodus deprived the Divas of their chance to be The Man.
“It’s a disappointment,” says Wilkinson. “At some point, we’re going to have to play Detroit again.”
Detroit hasn’t missed a beat in its first season in the new league. Heading into the IWFA semifinals, the Demolition is again undefeated and has outscored opponents 391-21.
An NWFA–IWFL matchup would seem like a dream come true for women’s football, a distaff version of the AFL–NFL tussles in the late 1960s that led to a merger of the two leagues and football’s ascension over baseball as the Great American Pastime.
But while the Divas’ players are sure up for such a game, management won’t entertain the thought.
“We can’t do it,” says Divas owner Paul Hamlin, who bought the team because his daughter Allyson is its QB. “Sure, it’s a letdown that Detroit left. They crushed everybody but us. But, contractually, we aren’t allowed to play teams from other leagues. It’s not going to happen.”
While playing outside their league is out of the question, playing outside their gender isn’t. Absent a showdown with the Demolition, the Divas and others in the NWFA apparently believe that competing against men is the best way to bring attention to their product. In 2004, the Divas went up against an all-male squad put together by the Sports Junkies, a local morning-zoo-type radio team, but got whupped badly.
“They didn’t bring out scrubs and play us,” says Wilkinson. “Over half that team had college-level experience. And a man who’s outweighing a female by 100 pounds, well, I don’t care how good you are, the man’s gonna win.”
But the game drew a crowd reported at 8,200, so the Divas didn’t mind the lumps. Catherine Masters, commissioner of the NWFA, apparently took notice of the attention that game got. After last year, she agreed to let her players participate in The Gender Bowl, a TV reality show that climaxed with a game between NWFA veterans, about half of whom were Divas players, and an ad hoc squad of middle-aged men who, according to the script, “never realized their dream of playing pro football.” Roger Lodge, the brilliant, greasy MC of the absolutely seminal dating show Blind Date, was brought in to call the game, taped in August at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
“I didn’t even know there was an organized women’s tackle football league until two years ago,” says Gender Bowl producer Joel Raatz. “That fascinated me. And I figured that the only way any traditional football fan would respect women was to see them play against men, to see if they held up.”
Raatz hasn’t yet found a buyer for what he says was “150 hours of footage” that his crew shot of the women and men preparing for and playing the big game. The game was tied 6-6 until the last play, when the men scored a touchdown that (wink wink) was controversial. He’s using the ending to pitch a rematch to the networks. He envisions that game will feature the exact same rosters as the original and will take place in September in Hawaii.
“There’s a 100 percent chance this will be on television, on a national network,” Raatz says.
By the time Gender Bowl II comes off, the Divas should have steamrolled their way to their first SupHer Bowl title. That win will make D.C. even more attractive to prospective NWFA recruits, says the Burn’s Mobley, and will widen the divide between the Divas and everybody else in their division. But he’s not convinced that what’s bad for his team is bad for the game of women’s football.
“They’re the only elite team in the league now, with Detroit gone,” says Mobley. “They’ll crush everybody. But I don’t know if you can say that that domination is bad. How could it be bad? Right now, nobody’s watching anyway.”—Dave McKenna