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My relationship with football started with an announcement during my second-period Outdoor Adventure class. It was my junior year in high school, and thirty students were laying, stomach-down feet-up, on the springy floor in the gymnastics room at the back corner of Fremd High School in Palatine, a northwest suburb of Chicago. Until that day, my relationship with football had been spectatorial.
It is convenient that I was raised in Chicago and married a Denverite; the blue and orange of the Bears transferred my loyalty easily to the Broncos. I get confused about whether Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton are the same person, except I know one of them is married to a woman from The Hills. I enjoy watching the NFL more than any other major sport—I like the constant action, the hair-trigger decisions, the flawless machinery of it all. But it was my time on the field as a teenage girl that gave me the love for the game I have now, even if that love has not found a home in just one team.
My dad, a child of the Midwest who had grown up a Bears fan, relished the chance to take his children to Solider Field when we were old enough. We went and, thanks to a kind (and wealthy) person at the church where Dad was a pastor, sat almost immediately on the fifty-yard line to watch the Bears battle the Detroit Lions.
I enjoy watching the NFL more than any other major sport, but it was my time on the field as a teenage girl that gave me the love for the game I have now.
My younger sister brought a book, not even bothering to feign interest. Our younger brother preferred basketball (this was the era of Michael Jordan in Chicago) but took, as boys seem to do, quite quickly to the game. And I tried. I tried to understand what was happening, to follow who had the ball and when the clock was running and why they kept sending the guy with the ball right down the middle of the field into enemy territory. I tried to stay warm, blowing on my hands and watching the short puffs of breath escape into the blue autumn sky. I tried to appreciate the beauty of Soldier Field (for this was back when it was Soldier Field), a place I had heard my male classmates speak of with reverence. I was ten years old and Jon Kuykendall, the cutest boy in fifth grade, had told me Soldier Field was his favorite place on earth. So I tried to make it my favorite, too, and took in the smells and the sights and the sounds.
But I was cold and confused, jealous of my sister’s book and my brother’s unforced interest. At school the next week, Jon asked me how the game went.
I shrugged. “Good, I think. Walter Payton scored a touchdown.”
The look on his face froze something deep inside of me. Oh, shit, I thought. Not Walter Payton. That wasn’t his name. Walter Payton was old. “I mean, not Walter Payton,” I said. “I was just thinking of him because . . .”
I couldn’t think of a reason. I was on swim team with Payton’s daughter for a while, and the way people talked about her, I assumed her dad was still a big football star. But the more I tried to explain my mistake to myself, the more I stammered in front of Jon.
“Kirk!” his friends yelled, calling him by the first syllable of his last name. “Come on!” They were practicing their skateboarding tricks, illegal at the school playground. He threw another confused look my way and walked toward the slope at the edge of the asphalt. My face was hot, flushed with embarrassment. It wasn’t the last time I would be caught trying to impress a boy, but it might have been the first.
Whiskey (neat), coffee (black), powder (puff)
Like many male-dominated enterprises, football became a woman’s game on account of World War II. South Dakota’s Eastern State Teachers School put on the first Powder Puff football game at the college level.
Only three men were enrolled in the school in September 1945, just after the war ended and at a time when many soldiers were still assimilating into regular life. So the women created a team of twenty-three, split into “Townies” (those who lived at home and commuted to school) and “Dormies” (those who lived on campus). A male librarian and referee, A.E. Swan, ended the game at halftime, when he “was tired and wanted to go home.” To the amusement of the spectators, the women touched up their makeup on the field, and the next day, a local newspaper wrote a story calling the team “The Powderpuff and Rouge Elevens.”
Like many male-dominated enterprises, football became a woman’s game on account of World War II.
The name stuck, and a strange phenomenon was born. Today, many schools nationwide feature Powder Puff as an annual game of flag football in which the girls play on the field and the boys become the cheerleaders.
Powder Puff appealed to me—I’ve had a lifelong predilection toward the tougher things. I liked the startled looks I got when I ordered my coffee black or, later in life, a glass of whiskey neat. And although I couldn’t throw a perfect spiral, I could always catch the ball pretty well. Playing football seemed to be a natural extension of the rough-and-tumble, low-maintenance persona I was interested in cultivating, all of which was more smoke and shadow than substance. But the intrigue was there, and I’m glad for it now.
Beyond the image, there is something about football to which I am very attracted, and I don’t just mean the cornerbacks in tight pants. (Although, Champ Bailey, if you’re reading this, give me a call. Strictly for professional purposes). It is the camaraderie of a locker room, the rituals and bonds and high-stakes plays that make teammates out of a group of people who might otherwise have nothing at all in common. I am a sucker for anything that makes friends of strangers, be it a bar or an AA meeting, a high school math club or a group of young women tying flags around their waists to venture out onto a field reserved the rest of the year for the golden boys.
For those few weeks, in that magic sort of way, we were friends. A sisterhood of the gridiron.
My best friend Kaitlin talked me into trying out for Powder Puff my junior year of high school. Kaitlin, the younger sister of two older brothers, was made for events like Powder Puff. She had years of trying to keep up with her brothers on the soccer field to recommend her to this endeavor. I was the oldest of three, more gifted in reading and writing than running and catching. But this was the push-pull of our opposites-attract friendship. As long as Kaitlin was there, I knew that, at the very least, we would have a lot of fun.
We are Powder Puff, we are America
So I packed a bag for Powder Puff practice, which was to begin on a Tuesday afternoon early in my junior year. I put running shorts and a sports bra into my Jansport backpack (even at 16, the sports bra was more for decoration than practicality). Before second period, I went into the girls’ locker room, a nondescript room painted in more shades of beige than the students at our mostly white high school. I opened the lock on my locker, put my tennis shoes in my backpack, and shut the locker door.
This particular Tuesday, our Outdoor Adventure class met indoors, in the gymnastics room. The floor was blue and springy. Thick ropes hung from the ceiling for climbing. The walls were dotted with fake rocks, and we would be scaling them in a few weeks. I tried not to think of my fear of heights as we splayed out into an imperfect circle.
I don’t remember what we were talking about when the speaker flickered. I remember I was daydreaming about Powder Puff, wondering what position I would play, hoping for wide receiver. It seemed like an important position, and well suited to my catching skills.
“Um, good morning. Good morning, students.” Shirley Mertz, the principle, had an unmistakably nasal affect, so that “good morning” sounded more like “gahd mahrning.” No one took her very seriously. There was even a band called Murley Shertz. They played local events, and played the name off like it was a tribute to the principal. Everyone knew the joke was on her.
“There has been a small plane that hit a building in New York City, the Empire State Building.” Whispering could be heard in the background. “I’m sorry, the World Trade Center. It sounds like it was a small passenger plane; they’re not sure what happened. We just wanted to keep you aware of the situation. We will let you know if there are any further developments.”
By lunchtime, the whole story had become clear. The terrorists, the Pentagon, the plane downed in the field in Pennsylvania. There was still plenty we didn’t know: Osama bin Laden was a name foreign to our lips; we hadn’t heard about the people who helped crash that plane headed to the White House; we didn’t know if so-and-so’s cousin, who lived in New York, was okay. All afterschool activities were cancelled.
War makes strange bedfellows, they say, and now war and football had brought twenty-six young women together.
Powder Puff practice started September 12, and the events of the day before had imbued us with a special sense of significance. I couldn’t articulate why, it’s just that everything took on a new meaning in our country those next few weeks. It wasn’t that we felt unsafe or in harm’s way; it’s that for a few weeks, we all bought into that we-are-America attitude that was so virulent post-9/11.
I’m not going to analyze that attitude now. I’m sure others have, and better than I could hope to. I’m just describing the way things were, and they were unified. War makes strange bedfellows, they say, and now war and football had brought twenty-six young women together. We weren’t in the same situation as our South Dakota predecessors, but their spirit was as present as the autumn chill in Illinois. We were less cautious about crossing social boundaries as a result of the national tragedy, and we gave each other more leeway than usual. We were part of a nascent sorority, young and sure of our need for independence, sure of our fear of what was next, sure of our burgeoning friendships. I liked that.
The gridiron sisterhood
Our first days of practice were eerie. Our school was directly under the flight path for many westbound flights from O’Hare airport. For days, though, not a single aircraft made its way overhead. Periodically, between reminders to keep your fingers on the laces when you threw and girls tripping over their long sweatpants, we would look up to the sky just a little while longer than usual, and shake our heads. “Weird,” we would say. Heads would nod.
It wasn’t that we felt unsafe or in harm’s way; it’s that for a few weeks, we all bought into that we-are-America attitude that was so virulent post-9/11.
Courtney Davis was assigned wide receiver, and with good reason. She was beautiful and charismatic, but most of all, she was a track star. She could run and jump with the best in the state, while I routinely pulled ten minutes on our biannual mile-long runs for Physical Education class.
I was assigned the less glamorous role of safety, which I still do not really understand. It involved a lot of standing around behind the line of scrimmage, kind of like what I imagine a goalie does during soccer (a sport I gave up on at eight years old after getting kicked in the stomach twice by a member of my own team, the Royal Babes). I knew I probably wouldn’t get the ball much, but I would be covering the girls on the senior team, trying to make sure they didn’t get the ball.
My role was marginal, but it was in becoming the safety that I fell in love with football—or at least, with the idea of football.
September afternoons in suburban Chicago are alternately sweltering and bone chilling, and we brought both massive jugs of water and extra fleece jackets to practice. In the exceptional quiet of no-fly week, we took over local parks, running plays while elementary school kids watched from the playground. We saw the oak trees turn from summer’s bright green to yellow, then red, then brown in the compressed season of the Midwest known as autumn. We smelled fires of leaves, which is second only to the briny ocean in terms of evocative and lingering scents. We ran to warm ourselves when it was cold and ran until we almost passed out when it was hot. Our hair, tied up in ponytails, grew slick with sweat as we threw and caught and ran until the sun went down behind the neighborhood roofs. We drank water and Gatorade and went to bed exhausted and woke up sore.
Now, we were less shy and standoffish in the halls at school, where the people you acknowledged were your form of social currency. We were nerds and athletes, dancers and writers, boring and fun, pretty and plain. But for those few weeks, in that magic sort of way, we were friends. A sisterhood of the gridiron.
As you might suspect, the sisterhood didn’t last forever. A few weeks after the junior class won in the greatest upset in sports history, the bonds of circumstantial camaraderie loosened and we all went back to being high school girls. I played Powder Puff again the next year, a little less wide-eyed about what the season meant. But playing football, however perfunctory and nonviolent these games were, gave me a lasting interest in a sport that mere spectatorship couldn’t conjure up. It gave me an understanding of the magic of those long-shadowed afternoons and the friendships forged in crisis, even athletic crisis, and the need for pump-up music and pep talks and solidarity. And now, when I go to a game, I don’t wish for a book.