Saturday’s 30-18 win leaves the D.C. Divas one victory away from a berth in what is officially known as the 2004 Dickens Energy Cider Women’s Pro Football Championship. Those who prefer the distaff version of the gridiron game, of course, are far more likely to call it the SupHer Bowl.
An hour after the final gun, owner Kelly George takes a short break to celebrate.
“This team, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says George, holding a plastic cup of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
George’s game-day preparations started at 8 a.m., some 14 hours earlier. Now she has to make sure all the vending tables and unsold T-shirts and beer bottles get carted away from Eastern High School, the Divas’ home field. Even when the heavy lifting is finished, her night won’t be: She’s expected to stay at the squad’s official after-party at a downtown bar until last call.
George says she’s sleepy, but she’s not close to complaining.
The look on her face, when there’s not a beer or a cigarette blocking the view, only affirms her earlier assertion: It’s the best thing she’s ever done.
Though the Washington Redskins owner doesn’t load boxes onto trucks after home games, George’s football-ownership tale has some things in common with Dan Snyder’s. She had no connection to the sport before becoming an owner. She was merely a fan of the Divas before she bought the franchise from the fledgling National Women’s Football Association (NWFA) before the 2002 season. A very big fan.
“I came to a Divas game, bought season VIP tickets, and was completely hooked,” says George, who when not on Divas detail operates her own tile business in Northern Virginia. “I started talking to other owners in the league about getting involved, and next thing I knew, I bought the team.”
George also shows some of Snyder’s business sense: “The very first thing I did when I bought the team was apply for an [Alcoholic Beverage Control Board] license,” she says, taking another hit off the plastic cup. “Now we’re the only team in the league that can sell beer.”
Before George threw her money into the D.C. franchise (she won’t reveal the amount she paid for the team), NWFA brass considered disbanding it for lack of a local owner. With three straight playoff appearances, the squad has been among the best in the 37-team league, the premier women’s football confederation on the planet, since her takeover.
Yet the on-field success and steady fan support—management estimates that “about 1,500” folks of all ages, genders, races, and orientations show up for Divas home games—haven’t translated into attention from the local mainstream media. But George denies her franchise is being undeservedly ignored.
“I wish it were different, and I think we’ve got a great story to tell,” she says. “But I don’t think [local dailies and TV stations] have anything against us. I try to look at it like we’re paying some dues now. Women’s football is all new to people. Eventually, as this sport grows, maybe when we’re playing in our own stadium, maybe with some involvement from the NFL, they’ll pay attention to us.”
Though the Divas have made the playoffs the last two seasons, they’ve yet to make it to the SupHer Bowl.
There’s still lots of hope for this year, however. The Divas destroyed all foes during the 2004 regular season, going 8-0 with four shutouts—D.C. outscored Mid-Atlantic Division rival the Roanoke Revenge by a combined score of 140-0 in their two meetings.
The record, combined with the ridiculous scoring differential, earned the Divas a bye in the first round of the NWFA playoffs and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
The home field paid off hugely during Saturday’s playoff game, in which the Divas faced the Southwest Michigan Jaguars. Divas’ penalties and one big turnover handed the visitors a 12-6 lead at halftime, the first time all season that D.C. had trailed so late in a game. Quarterback Allyson Hamlin, a Prince George’s County cop who wears Johnny Unitas’ No. 19 and normally can be counted on to throw as efficiently as the Colts’ all-timer, was having her first lousy outing, and holding calls were keeping the Divas’ normally overpowering running game from gaining ground.
But during the break, head coach Ezra Cooper—a buddhaesque figure whom the players, to a woman, describe in saintly terms—did something he hadn’t done all year. He cussed out his team.
“I think I scared some of ’em,” Cooper would say later. “I guess they weren’t used to that from me.”
For whatever reason, the Divas came out like a different team. They scored on their first two possessions of the second half and never looked back. When Hamlin threw a long touchdown pass—with just over four minutes remaining—to seal the win, stacks of placards reading “9-0!!!” suddenly appeared all over the home grandstand.
And about 1,500 fans launched into the wave, with their signs held high. Folks who were strangers at the opening kickoff high-fived and asked each other, “You coming to the game next week?”
The Divas could use all the support they can get. As dominant as the team’s been all year, in women’s football circles, it’ll still be regarded as a, well, Debbie-and-Goliath story if D.C. gets to the SupHer Bowl. The Divas’ foe in this weekend’s semifinal tilt will be the Detroit Demolition, whose players have enjoyed a 29-game winning streak and are two-time defending NWFA champs. The Demolition won its last four games of the 2004 season by a combined score of 297-0. The D.C.-Detroit winner will travel to Louisville to face the NWFA’s Southern Conference champion on July 31 for league, and therefore world, honors.
Yet when he gathered his team at midfield after the win over Southwest Michigan, Cooper didn’t seem concerned by the might of the Divas’ upcoming opponent or the magnitude of the next game. He instead opened his postgame speech by telling his players how sorry he was for the outburst he had hit them with at halftime. The team, however, wanted no part of Cooper’s apology.
“It worked, coach!” the Divas screamed as one. “It worked!” —Dave McKenna