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Ezra Cooper may be the only football coach in America who can tell his players he wishes they’d play more like women and really mean it.

Cooper is in his second year as an assistant coach for the Jaguars of Falls Church High. He is also head coach of the DC Divas, the local entrant in the 29-team National Women’s Football Association (NWFA).

At Falls Church, he’s in charge of the defensive line. Last week, his outmanned boys squad couldn’t stop Mount Vernon’s running game and lost at home, 42-0.

“We didn’t have it tonight,” Cooper said after the game. The loss left Falls Church at 1-5 on the season. It’s a good thing, then, that Cooper has another team to coach.

Bill Parcells, when he was with the New England Patriots, once famously insulted Terry Glenn by referring to his underperforming receiver as “she.” That pronoun would only be a compliment coming from Coach Cooper’s lips. In his four years in charge of the squad, the Divas have never been outmanned. His 2003 team, playing a spring/summer schedule, went 7-1 in the regular season before bowing to the Philadelphia Phoenix in the semifinal round of the NWFA playoffs in a 36-32 thriller.

Cooper will be with the Jaguars on Friday night at Yorktown, his alma mater (class of ’92). Then on Sunday, he’ll be in Landover, as the Divas hold their first tryouts for the 2004 season.

He’s used to pulling double shifts on the gridiron: In high school, Cooper played for the varsity football team and the marching band. So while the rest of the team received halftime instructions and cooled off in the locker room, their offensive guard would stay on the field, strap on a big bass drum, and pound out the school’s fight song.

On paper, his two current football jobs aren’t nearly as dissimilar as lineman and drummer. But though the Jaguars and Divas both play under the same rules, Cooper says, coaching boys and women are two very different ballgames. In fact, the only glaring similarity between Cooper’s coaching gigs is that he didn’t take either for the money: Like all assistant coaches in Fairfax County, he gets a very small stipend for his duties at Falls Church; the time and effort he puts into the Divas are volunteered.

But Cooper’s day job in the payroll department of a government contractor can cover the bills. He took up coaching for other sorts of rewards.

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“With the women, the appreciation of what we’re doing as coaches is much more obvious,” he says. “I can always see how dedicated they are to learning the game and how they’re looking for anything I can teach them….Their dedication really has rekindled my passion for the game of football. They love the game, and they’ll tell you that, and it shows with their approach to every practice. With the kids, I know that they appreciate the efforts of the coaches—or at least I know that they’ll appreciate the coaches years later when they’re long gone from high school—but let’s just say their appreciation isn’t as obvious.”

The attitudinal differences aren’t a matter of chromosomes. “I’m dealing with adults with the Divas and kids [at Falls Church]” Cooper says. “The age and maturity are much more important than the gender of the players. Teenagers, no matter what sex, have an invincibility complex—I remember being their age, so I know it’s always been that way. For any high-school coach, that’s something you have to accept.”

But gender isn’t entirely irrelevant to the Divas’ devotion, Cooper theorizes.

“Women have been denied access to the game of football for their whole lives,” he says. “And now that they have that access, I think they feel like whatever time that they have left to play it is precious. And they tell me that. The opportunity came too late for generations of women, but the players on the Divas are going to take advantage of whatever time they’ve got left. They look at themselves as pioneers, athletic pioneers. And I think that’s what they are.”

Gayle Dilla, a 43-year-old offensive linewoman for the Divas, confirms Cooper’s thesis.

“I think Coach Cooper tries to bring the same schemes and drills to the boys as he does to us,” Dilla says. “But the boys have grown up playing football; they’ve had other football coaches and other opportunities to play. We’ve only had Coach Cooper, and he realizes that we’re taking it all in, everything he has to teach us. I think that’s what he or anybody else who gets into coaching desires from his players, to find somebody who’s going to trust him, to accept what he has to offer. We all trust Coach Cooper.”

Dilla says her family members have hinted that they’d prefer that she give up football, and common sense tells her she should quit the game, too. But as preparation for the 2004 season begins, Dilla has told Cooper that she won’t be hanging up her cleats just yet. She credits—or maybe blames—the coach for her decision to suit up for another season.

“Playing for Coach Cooper has been a great experience, and I’m not ready to give it up,” Dilla says. “After last season, I told my husband I’m going to keep playing football until either I’m pregnant or I’m not starting. I gave him a whole month to get me pregnant, but he didn’t. I’m playing!”

Cooper is expecting up to 300 women to go out for the team this year. That would be the biggest crop of prospective players in Divas history. He says he’ll pick the top 60 athletes in the bunch, then “try to find a place on the football field for them.” —Dave McKenna