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In his long, Emmy-studded run producing sports for WJLA’s news department, Rich Daniel covered title fights, Super Bowls, World Series, and the all-star games of pretty much every major pro sports league.
Daniel left the TV gig in January after nearly 20 years. These days, he can usually be found somewhere near the D.C. Divas, the local franchise in the National Women’s Football Association (NWFA), the nation’s primary female pro-football confederation. He’s officially director of media relationswhich means he tries to convince old friends and competitors in the local media to scare up a piece on the team. But Daniel also takes on such chores as loading and unloading equipment or helping the coaching staff get its electronics set up on game day.
He isn’t getting a dime for his Divas duties. And he’s not asking for one.
“My job at Channel 7 was to tell interesting stories, and that was a blessing,” Daniel says. “I’m trying to do the same thing with the Divas. There are a lot of great stories here.”
He’ll be telling some of them in a still-untitled (and, as of last weekend, unfinished) documentary that will premiere on Comcast next week. He shot the footage while following the team for the last two years; the inspiration to make the picture, and to make himself a sort of Boswell for the lady ballers, came to him as he watched his very first Divas practice while producing a WJLA piece on the team in November 2001.
Among the stories Daniel wants told is that of Gayle Dilla. When she signed on to play offensive tackle for the Divas in the 2001 season, the team’s inaugural campaign, Dilla was a 40-year-old financial adviser who, like most of her teammates, had never played a down of tackle football. Now she’s a 42-year-old financial adviser and a hard-hitting football player.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be proud of weighing 240 pounds,” says Dilla, the oldest Diva. “But I am. This is a game for big girls. And I love it. Every year, I line up and say, ‘I can’t believe I’m playing football!’ I only wish the game was there for me sooner. I’m still learning so much. I’m still learning how to hold!”
Daniel says Dilla’s performance last seasonshe returned to the playing field within weeks of tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee in a game against the Baltimore Burnleft him as awe-struck as that of any athlete he’s ever covered.
“Anybody who thinks that women’s football is some sort of powder-puff exercise should come watch Gayle Dilla play,” says Daniel. “When she blew her knee out against Baltimore, it was clearly a bad injury. And when they went on to win that game, the entire team held their victory huddle around her. She was crying; her teammates were crying. The head coach told me that scene, the team rallying around an injured player, rekindled his passion for football. That was, for me, the most moving moment of the season. The only thing that comes close was that doctors told her she’d be out for the season, but after missing only one game, she was back on the field. Playing with pain is one thing, but I’m not sure how Gayle did it.”
Dilla confesses there was more than intestinal fortitude to her quickie comeback. “Have you ever had a cortisone shot?” she says with a laugh. “Anybody who hasn’t, should! Oh my god, I went from not being able to walk to feeling like I was 20 years old. Too bad those shots are so bad for you.”
She’s certainly not playing through pain for the money. The NWFA is technically a professional league, but that means only players can be paid. In most cases, they’re not. “On our team, the only way to make money is to sell season ticketsthen you can get a percentage of that,” says Dilla. “To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what the percentage is. I’ve never sold one.”
Players are even responsible for providing their own health insurance. Such conditions make Daniel all the more willing to donate his time and art to the cause. Though Daniel’s documentary will focus almost entirely on the Divas’ 2002 campaign, he’s still shooting the team.
And the Divas are telling him and anybody paying attention an entirely new story this season. After Saturday’s 74-7 whupping of the Erie Illusion at Eastern High School, its home field, the team is 5-0 and alone atop the NWFA’s Mid-Atlantic Division.
New players such as Jayme Morrison, a rookie guard who had her first start alongside Dilla in Saturday’s blowout against Erie, are helping the Divas charge toward their first NWFA championship, what they refer to as the “SuperHer Bowl”: “My moms is supportive of me playing football, just because she’d be supportive in whatever I do,” says Morrison, 26. “But my older brother thinks it’s great. He’s at the games yelling, ‘Hit her! Don’t get punked! Hit her harder!’”
The lineup spot now being filled by Morrison came open when the Divas lost a star lineman to a condition that has never landed an NFL player on the disabled list: pregnancy.
“But she had the baby two weeks ago,” says Dilla. “She could be back any time. I know I would be.” Dave McKenna