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Women are taking a whack at football

INDIANAPOLIS - Lisa Watson has a husband and five kids at home, plus a full-time job. But her schedule gets really crazy in the summer and fall, when she becomes "Tank," a member of the Indiana Speed women's professional football team.

"I just make time, because I love it," said the 30-year-old Watson, dressed in pads and a helmet while taking a break from a sweltering August practice at a city park.

When football fans across the nation were gearing up for college football and the NFL, the 14 teams in the Women's Professional Football League had already begun their eight-week regular season.

They don't have prime-time TV spots or multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals. They don't draw huge crowds to their games at high school or small-college stadiums. Most teams - with names such as the Las Vegas Showgirlz, the Minnesota Vixen, and the Carolina Queens - don't make a profit.

But the women who wear these football uniforms aren't playing for fame. And with salaries sometimes at $1 a game, they certainly aren't playing for fortune.

"I got into it just for the love of the sport," said 41-year-old April Priest, a linebacker and running back who is also co-owner of the Speed. "I saw my first practice and was hooked."

Though women's football has been around for more than 100 years, the current incarnation of the WPFL began in 1999. The sport has come a long way since an 1896 exhibition game in New York City featured women in sailor suits and short dresses. Police stopped the game for fear of spectators crushing the players as they tried to get a better look.

Today, dozens of teams offer women the chance to play football in at least three different leagues, said Brian Wiggins, executive director of the Women's Professional Football League and owner of the Houston Energy.

"Women want to play," Wiggins said. "There's always going to be women's football."

Team members like the camaraderie they've found in a sport dominated by men. Women who have played sports all their lives enjoy the chance to continue their athletic pursuits after college.

Yet some say they're surprised by how demanding the game and the practices can be.

"I just thought it'd be fun," said Sandi Ballard-Groth, a 38-year-old wide receiver and co-owner of the Speed who played softball and volleyball in school. "I'm a football fan, and I always thought it'd be cool to play. I just didn't know it would be as intensive as this."

The women in the WPFL play by most NFL rules and, like the guys, they study film and pore over playbooks. The result is entertaining, full-contact football, said John Evans, coach of the Empire State Roar of Rochester, N.Y.

"These girls can hit," Evans said. "It's a vicious contact sport and they don't lay back."

Even so, teams don't put up NFL numbers. At the Speed's Aug. 18 season opener, Speed quarterback Cassie Longcore completed 7 of 18 passes for 64 yards and a 17-yard touchdown pass to lead the team to a 16-0 victory over Minnesota. The Vixen had just 96 yards of offense.

Still, Wiggins insists women's football is not a "sideshow."

"We're not powder puff," he said. "It's real women, real football. It's the real deal."

Real football means injuries. Watson recalls a game last season in which an opposing player was taken away by ambulance.

"People get hurt," she said. "There's pain. People break things, just like the NFL."

Ballard-Groth, who has a 12-year-old daughter and owns a graphic design and marketing firm, said the team is always looking for players to replace those who leave due to injury or for family reasons.

"Women's bodies aren't built - they aren't ready for football," she said. "We're lucky to have them three or four years."

Family members sometimes get concerned, but husbands, children, parents, and others are generally supportive, the women said.

"I'm just very proud of her," said Watson's father, Jerry Officer. "I get a little squeamish sitting there watching her, but she does pretty good."

Alex Groth, who used to help coach the Speed, said it's more fun watching Indianapolis Colts games with his wife since she joined the team.

"They watch a football game just like a coach would watch a football game," he said of his wife and her teammates.

Family and friends are part of the crowd at women's games, which typically draw a few hundred fans.

The Energy draw an average of nearly 2,000 fans in football-crazed Texas. At the Speed's first home game of the season, nearly 400 fans turned out.

Game tickets bring in some money, but teams search for sponsors to help pay the bills because it's an expensive endeavor.

Houston's budget last year was about $90,000, Wiggins said, and a single away game requiring airline tickets can set a team back $10,000.

The league doesn't keep track of player salaries, but Wiggins said many receive just $1 a game.

Some teams, like the Roar, require players to pay for uniforms and travel costs. The Speed take long bus rides (it took 12 hours to get to Carolina) to avoid expensive flights, and players concede they aren't always thrilled with the travel arrangements.

"By the end of the season you feel like you haven't been home very much," said Priest, an athletic trainer who played soccer, softball, and basketball growing up. "It's a little difficult to leave Friday night, travel all night, play a game Saturday, travel all night and get home Sunday. Monday morning is always the hardest. You're sore, you're tired."

But sacrifices are part of the game.

On some practice days, offensive tackle "Tank" Watson sleeps just a few hours in the afternoon when her young children are napping before heading to practice. Afterward, she returns home for a quick shower and then heads to her job as an animal control officer on the overnight shift.

"It's worth it," said Watson, whose children range in age from 2 to 12. "It's fun, it's good exercise, [and a] good stress reliever, which I need - big time."

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