Real push-ups on my toes (not my knees), situps in the mud, a freezing 800-meter run...all this glory in pursuit of a story about playing on an all-women's tackle football team.
Despite my athletic ability progressing little beyond stumbling around right field for my fourth-grade softball team, I found myself at the old Whitaker Junior High field last Saturday morning in sub-freezing weather. Thirteen years after I'd flubbed my last fly ball, I was in Northeast Portland with about 15 other hopefuls at the final tryout for the Portland Shockwaves, the city's female tackle-football team.
Underdressed in a college sweatshirt, yoga pants and the same Adidas running shoes I've had for the past six years, I was surrounded by women wearing Under Armour gear, actual cleats and football gloves. While contemplating the upcoming humiliation and pummeling, I got two pleasant surprises: The tryout would be strictly non-contact. And it turns out I'd already made the team.
"Here's the thing—everybody gets on," said head coach Chad Howard. "This is more to see what kind of shape everybody's in." Sadly, I already knew that answer.
Most of the other women were actual athletes, having played other sports before turning to football.
"I didn't realize how much pent-up aggression I had till I came out" for tryouts, said one of the returning players, Heather White, laughing.
White wasn't alone in her relish of contact. As we stood on the frozen track waiting to try out, one newbie, who went simply by "Crider," yelled out, "I just want to hit somebody! I don't even fucking care, I just want to hit somebody!"
First football lesson learned: Stay away from her.
But despite my hesitance to explore my inner aggression, a growing number of women are playing the typically male-dominated sport. The Shockwaves were created in 2001 and are among about 30 teams in the Independent Women's Football League (iwflsports.com)—in which more than 1,000 women are playing from Portland to Miami in a Western and Eastern conference. The Shockwaves even made the playoffs last year ("See Jane Play," WW, July 12, 2006).
When the tryout for this year's team started, we tested our vertical jumps and discovered how many situps and pushups we could do in one minute. We also did a shuttle run and two timed races.
After proving that I did not, in fact, have "mad hops," but instead just average vertical jumping ability with a leap of 14 inches, it came time for situps and pushups. Looking around, I realized we were expected to do them in the muddy field. Perhaps sensing my skepticism, assistant coach Tim Lycett shouted, "Welcome to football, ladies! We play in the mud; you'll practice in the mud."
I felt like I had been transported to the set of Varsity Blues. Lycett was every bit the archetype for a football coach—dressed in a maroon track suit and matching baseball cap, he continued to shout sports clichÉs throughout the tryout. I did 17 pushups and 46 situps, a little worse than average.
Next: the shuttle run. Remembering the nightmarish exercise from grade-school gym class, I dreaded this most of all. Running between the cones, I tried to remember the coach's advice: short, choppy steps, and keep your weight over your toes. But with my uncleated shoes, I still slipped in the mud at each cone. Despite my dead-slowest time, it was not an embarrassing repeat of my younger days. With teammates shouting words of encouragement, I already felt part of the "team"—even just for one day.
We ended with two timed sprints and an 800, which I survived. With this tryout and the previous two, the team had a couple dozen new players plus the 20 veterans.
"You guys are officially Shockwavians," Coach Howard told us.
I couldn't help but smile. Maybe I was more of a "team sports" person than I'd thought. Maybe I did have hidden aggression. Maybe I would take part when the practices started for the eight-game season at the end of January.
Sunday morning, with aching shoulders, abs and legs, I decided to resign myself to being a spectator. But for one morning I was a player.