It's a perfect night for football. Meaning it's a typical dead-of-winter St. Petersburg night, which is roughly analogous to early September in, say, Chicago. I'm cold, fingerless-knit-gloves cold, repeated-whiskey-nip cold, and thoroughly ashamed of it.
The 31st St. South Sports Complex, down by Pinellas Point Drive and the south St. Pete neighborhood known as "Pink Streets," is being put to good use. The main field plays host to an increasingly fevered flag football game being called by a surprisingly adept young announcer over the P.A. Nobody seems interested in the hot dog stand, but a decent Tuesday-night crowd lounges in the stands.
On one half of the adjacent practice field, guys in shoulder pads sit in a group, stretching, one leg out like they're shooting the duck at the local skating rink. On the other half, 30-some-odd women in sweats and shorts, most wearing bright red helmets, are arranged into five lines. The ones at the head of each line pump their legs, running in place, their eyes on the big man 10 yards in front of them.
"Breakdown!" hollers Bob Hernandez.
The women crouch, grunt, growl. Hernandez moves the football in his hand back and forth from right to left. The ladies' legs swivel to follow; their heads do not. He gestures over his shoulder with the ball, and they sprint past him. Now five more are up, feet alternately pounding the turf.
Hernandez raises his gaze past them, to a woman standing over on the sideline, panting and leaning against a friend.
"You feeling a little better?" he shouts.
She nods, weakly.
"A little out of shape?"
She mumbles something about being "fat."
"What did you say? Don't say that. I didn't say you were fat, I asked if you were a little out of shape. If you're fat," he bellows, laughing and pointing the football at his own waist, "then what does that make me?"
Those with the breath for it crack up. Soon, the last in line run their sprints, and everybody gets a short break.
These are the Tampa Bay Terminators, one of the 33 teams in the Independent Women's Football League. The IWFL is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to giving females the opportunity to play serious tackle football in a format comparable in style (if not scale, yet) to the NFL. Run by the team owners, the league was founded in 2000, and boasts Nike, who is producing an official IWFL football this season, as a major sponsor. This is the Terminators' second season; last year, they fell one game shy of a winning season, ending up 4-5.
"I really believe we'll make the playoffs this year, at least," says Helen Farias Sass, Terminators owner and general manager.
Sass' enthusiasm for football in general, and her team in particular, is palpable and infectious. She's a veteran ball player herself, having spent seasons with both the Women's Professional Football League's now-defunct Tampa team, the Tempest, and "another unnamed team" she'd rather not mention. A printer who works the night shift for a graphics company, she's certainly not in it for the money. In fact, every time I bring up money, be it with regard to herself, the players, or the coaches, she deftly deflects the question; her vague answers lend the impression that there's little, if any at all, but that she's working on something that might yield a bit more for the team.
She stresses, though, that that's not why these women are out here, anyway.
"We've got all kinds of professions out here. Some have husbands, some are mothers who come home from a full-time job, and cook dinner before they come out to practice," she says. "They want to make it work. They're outstanding.
"They realize that they have to break the ground [for women's football]. They came to play."
Out on the field, the players lay on their stomachs in a circle. One by one, they get up and run the circle, hurdling their teammates, and lie down again. Exhaled steam trails behind them. One trips on a body, and crashes into the next one. They help each other up, laughing.
"We had one go down last week, too," says Art Levy, conversationally.
Levy and his wife, Sharon, are in their second season of volunteering for the Terminators. Having discovered the team online, the couple drives in from Mulberry — easily a 90-minute trip each way — to help out.
"We love 'em. I'm hooked," says Art Levy, who tonight erects some ad-hoc goalposts for the team's kicker and shags her balls. "They play with heart."
The dozen or so onlookers lounging in the grass, the absence of glaring lights and practice uniforms, and the enthusiasm of everyone involved lends the entire scene a scrappy underdog vibe that's hard not to love. It's less reminiscent of an NFL practice than of a committed high school or competitive adult intramural team. Which is not to say in any way that they're not serious, or talented, or hungry; anyone who's played at such levels knows how intense they can be.
Sass, Terminators LLC CFO Linda Ferguson and Assistant GM Pat Carlton split their time between cheering the team on, and discussing the various details — getting a team bus, nailing down upcoming public promotional appearances, considering renting a billboard — involved with keeping the show running.
A few yards away, the Terminators keep sweating and scrambling. It's the second week of practice, and they're not yet wearing full pads (though they soon will be, as their March preseason game against the Orlando Starz and April-through-July schedule are fast approaching), so they break off into squads and drill, drill, drill. Hand-off drills. Line-of-scrimmage drills. Short pass pattern drills. Women of all ages, avocations, lifestyles, getting sore out in the cold, and coming back three nights a week.
Yeah, they came to play.
And Sass wants them to win. She unzips a duffel bag, revealing the Terminators' game-day garb — the Bucs uniforms from before their red-and-pewter makeover, the "creamsicles," donated by the team.
"Our goal," she says, "is to get these uniforms into a championship before they're retired."
Contact Scott Harrell at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].