It was a cold and rainy October night at Tremper High School’s Anderson Field in Kenosha, but fans with plastic ponchos over their camouflage jackets waited in a long line for brats, and the home bleachers were filled with families. Knit Packers caps were de rigueur, though up near the top of the stands, a row of men wore hard hats emblazoned with the home team’s logo. They danced an ugly, irregular YMCA, pausing to dip various snacks into cups of warm cheese.

Seconds before kickoff, the Wisconsin Riveters stood in a tight cluster, sending high fives all around. “Everybody hit somebody!” barked the coach, and his kick return unit sprinted eagerly onto the wet field.

A player standing near the bench turned toward a small girl who was running along the sidelines.

“Honey,” she called out, removing her helmet. “Where’s your hat? It’s cold. Run to mama’s car and get your hat.” Then she turned back to the field to watch her teammates run the opening kick to midfield.

The Riveters, by far the winningest pro football team in the Chicago area this year, are women. More specifically, they’re the National Conference champions of the Women’s Professional Football League, and this Saturday, November 9, they’ll take on the Houston Energy in Dallas for the national title. But football fans won’t be able to watch the game on TV–in fact, many still don’t even know the league exists.

Only four years old, the WPFL is the grandmother of the current women’s tackle football scene. But women’s participation in the game actually dates back to the dawn of the NFL. As early as 1926, the men’s teams sponsored squads of women playing tackle football as halftime entertainment. Throughout the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, girls sporadically infiltrated boys’ high school teams, although their involvement often led to controversy: in 1947, after a girl named Frankie Groves started a game at tackle for Stinnett High School, Texas instituted a ban on girls in high school football that wasn’t lifted until about ten years ago. The original Women’s Professional Football League formed in Cleveland in the mid-60s, but it remained mostly a rust belt endeavor, with teams in football-crazy cities like Toledo and Pittsburgh. Many of its players were absorbed by the National Women’s Football League, formed in 1974.

The NWFL began as a three-division, coast-to-coast league–the first women’s league of such breadth. But the prohibitive expense of national travel caused various divisions to spin off into separate leagues, and by 1986 the NWFL was down to six teams, all based in Ohio or Michigan. Two years later it broke down even further, when a couple of those teams decided to downshift to flag football.

In 1999, with interest in women’s ice hockey and flag football on the rise, Carter Turner and Terry Sullivan–two Minnesota businessmen with backgrounds in sports promotion and minor-league football–wondered if the time might be right to try again. To reassess the appeal of the idea, they assembled a crew of female athletes interested in playing competitive tackle football with the intent of staging a single exhibition game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The women were trained under former Viking John “JT” Turner, then divided into two teams: the Minnesota Vixen and the Lake Michigan Minx. The initial game’s success encouraged the founders to arrange a “barnstorming” tour that took the teams to Green Bay, Chicago, New York, and Miami.

The tour in turn generated sufficient media attention and corporate sponsorship–Coca-Cola and Nextel were early supporters–to allow the formation of an 11-team league with franchises spread across the country, from Los Angeles to New England. In 2000 the NFL brought WPFL players to Atlanta for a short exhibition game prior to Super Bowl XXXIV, and the following year invited the ladies to do it again in Tampa. Since those appearances, a few WPFL franchises have established loose affiliations with nearby NFL teams–members of the New England Storm, for instance, have attended clinics and promotional events alongside members of the Patriots.

But the league doesn’t have financial support from the NFL the way the WNBA does from the NBA. The annual operating budgets for WPFL franchises are often less than $100,000; by comparison, WNBA teams will spend $12 million just on player salaries this year, and the NFL salary cap allows each franchise a $71 million payroll. Still, given its relative stability and geographic reach, the WPFL has the potential to be the biggest success story in women’s football so far. And the Riveters, a new franchise this year, have the potential to be one of the most successful teams in the league’s short history.

Named for Rosie the Riveter, the biceps-flexing icon used to rally women to the workplace during World War II, the Riveters owe their existence to their 26-year-old general manager, Holly Barrett. An avid rugby player from Kenosha, she had no idea that women could play pro football until two years ago, when on a vacation to Nashville she learned about that city’s local franchise, the Nashville Dream. She immediately contacted WPFL honchos to ask if there were any plans for a team in Milwaukee or Chicago. She was told that the league intended to expand into the Chicago area, but as time passed and nothing happened, she began pestering them to let her lead the effort. Eventually they said yes. Lacking the cash to fund the team herself, she set about recruiting investors, corporate sponsors, and coaching staff as well as the 40 women on the roster.

“I started the team because I wanted to play football, not because I wanted to be the GM,” Barrett says, but a leg injury from a car accident this spring kept her off the field. Several of Barrett’s fellow rugby players have joined the Riveters, however, and she hopes to play next season.

Barrett cajoled Craig Scheff, a veteran Milwaukee high school football, baseball, and basketball coach, into leading her inexperienced team, and the Riveters organization quickly adopted his intensity and focus. He doesn’t get paid, and neither do his assistants, yet all contribute countless hours of preparation and practice time. Scheff says they haven’t adjusted their tactics in consideration of gender.

“I’ve approached this just like coaching a guys’ team,” he says. “At first our practices were all about conditioning. We’d run. We toughened them.” The Riveters have practiced at least three times a week since May, and the sessions often exceed three hours. Though early practices were dominated by sprints and conditioning drills, recently the team’s been focused on the repetition and execution of key plays and formations.

“Coach forgets we’re women,” insists Megan McCallum, a 24-year-old linebacker from Edison Park who makes a 75-minute trek to Kenosha for every team event. “He treats us just like guys, talks to us like guys.”

“He thinks about football all the time,” adds offensive lineman Valerie Moore, 27. “I remember when we were in the airport after the New England game.” The Riveters had won 27-7, but Scheff was still coaching. “Everyone was tired, but he was down in his stance pretending to block a garbage can, going over technique. He’s all football.”

Scheff instituted a kinetic running offense that relies on misdirection, presnap motion, and play action, as well as the dynamic athleticism of a crew of shifty wingbacks. He explains the process of teaching this complicated game to a gang of neophytes in coachly cliches that belie the work behind it. “It’s just about putting people in the right spots, that’s all,” he says. “We developed a belief system and built the thing from the ground up. Each week we add more. Everything has been as team oriented as we can make it, too. Somebody screws up in practice, everybody runs the play again.”

The players, who range in age from 18 to 38, have followed disparate paths to the same improbable place. Quarterback Amy McCarthy is an attorney by day. Guard Nancy Diaz drives a bus. Other Riveters are teachers, accountants, students, and mothers; running back Brenda VanCuick is a firefighter. While few had anything more than casual football experience when they joined, most have extensive athletic credentials. Running back Cindy Herr played basketball at Indiana University, and cornerback Elaine Gonya, who was a two-time All-American heptathlete at Otterbein College, coaches women’s basketball at Carthage College. Defensive back Katie Kennedy competes in rodeos, and McCallum played soccer at Saint Norbert College.

“When I graduated, I knew there was a women’s pro football team in Minnesota,” says McCallum. “I thought about moving up there, but I came back home instead. I knew that when women’s football came to Chicago, I’d do whatever it took to play.”

The Riveters work overtime to recruit and keep their fans, lingering after games to sign autographs and indulging alongside spectators at postgame parties. Kenosha is warming to them–average attendance at games is around 1,500, which is pretty good by league standards, though not quite as good as the 2,000-plus drawn by the WPFL teams in Dallas and Houston. Still, says Moore, who works as a Wal-Mart cashier, “the men at my other job, they all say we’re not going to make it.” None of her male coworkers has shown up at a game yet.

Most Riveters maintain day jobs, since they’re only professional by the strictest definition. “The league requires that we get at least $1 for each game, so we’re all pretty much resigned to the fact that we’ll get a $10 check at the end of the season,” Moore explains, laughing. (The WPFL requires that payment be withheld until the end of the season, in part to prevent teams from overspending.)

The players aren’t in the game for the money, obviously–but for some, participation has been rather costly. “I was working as a personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach,” says McCallum. “But I sorta lost that job. They wanted me around 60, 70 hours a week, but I’m committed to this team. Football comes first. Now I don’t really have a job–just a pro football player, I guess.”

In just six months, the Riveters have evolved into a stylish and disciplined unit. Entering their final regular-season game on October 12 against the Missouri Prowlers, an expansion team based in Springfield, they were 9-0 and excited at the prospect of finishing their season undefeated. The home bleachers were bustling despite the frigid weather, and the women quickly lit up the field. Their second play from scrimmage was a 55-yard touchdown, run to the wide side by running back Stephanie Ledvina. Their third play was a frantic 61-yard cut-back run by VanCuick.

A stout female fan in full Packers regalia leaned over the railing and bellowed, “Good blocking, ladies!” People say this at Bears games all the time, but in Kenosha it wasn’t a joke. Riveters blockers drilled the Prowlers linebackers on every run.

On defense the Riveters were powerful and aggressive, tackling in fast, angry swarms and clawing at the ball. After the Prowlers went three and out–in one of their most successful series of the night–the Riveters returned the punt to their five yard line.

Then, on Wisconsin’s fifth play from scrimmage, Herr plowed into the end zone. She also scored on a short run on their seventh play.

After a Missouri turnover, McCarthy handed off to VanCuick, who raced to the right with the Prowlers defense following. McCarthy sprinted left, outrageously alone, and VanCuick lofted a pass back to the quarterback for a touchdown. Toward the end of the quarter, VanCuick, who also plays linebacker, recovered a Prowlers fumble and returned it 35 yards for another touchdown. With less than a minute remaining in the first quarter, the Riveters led 46-0.

When VanCuick returned an interception for a touchdown on the first play of the second quarter, fans shouted, “Pull the starters, cripes sake!” Scheff soon did, and the Riveters began trudging between the tackles and running down the clock. The overmatched Prowlers did the same, though not for the same reasons. Despite pulling their punches, the Riveters beat Missouri 67-0.

On October 26 they drubbed the Syracuse Sting 31-6 to win the National Conference, and this weekend they’ll face the defending two-time league champs in Texas. While the team prepares for the big game, the Riveters office staff is scrambling to capitalize on its success. “We need broadcast exposure from somewhere. I’m trying to get people to come out,” says Theresa Glass, sister of Riveters defensive end Theonita Cox and the team’s volunteer head of media relations. “I’d love to get a Bear or a Packer to come out just for the coin flip, to wave to the fans. I’ve written newspapers, I’ve written Oprah….We need corporate sponsors, too. Can’t get enough.”

Current sponsors include local radio stations, restaurants, gyms, and a Nike factory outlet. The Riveters rely on their generosity to equip players, offset travel expenses, and promote the team. “I think the [current] sponsors will come back next year,” says Barrett. “A lot of larger companies and potential partners have been watching us. They want to see what kind of organization this is, make sure we’ll be around before they commit.”

“These girls are doing what men were doing for football back in the 20s, the 30s, getting it started,” says Glass. “All I’m saying is, we’re winners. And as soon as I hear some guy say, ‘Women can’t–‘ I give them a free ticket. Come on out and see what we can’t do.”

Though women’s football is more popular than ever before, its growth as a business enterprise has been fitful and decentralized. In 2000 Catherine Masters, owner of the Nashville Dream, pulled out of the WPFL over structure and scheduling disagreements and started a new National Women’s Football League, which now includes 30 teams spread across the northeast, midwest, and south. The Independent Women’s Football League, founded the same year, has 21 franchises in North America and Canada–and operates as a nonprofit. Carter Turner left the WPFL in early 2001 to start the Women’s American Football League–which shut down a year later, after he became embroiled in a power struggle with commissioner Cyndi Dwyer.

Several smaller and/or regional women’s pro leagues have also come and gone in the past few years. Those still around include the eight-team Women’s Affiliated Football Conference (a sort of holding pen established to provide structure for teams considering membership in one of the bigger leagues), the five-team American Football Women’s League on the west coast, the six-team Women’s Football League in the southeast, and the eight-team Women’s Football Association in the Pacific northwest.

Like the WPFL, all these leagues recruit athletes from other sports; women’s football has no feeder program. Some, including the NWFL, have started outreach programs to try to develop one.

Ironically, though, the biggest obstacle to the game’s success may be that it’s essentially the same violent, faceless game of football that men play. (With one minor exception–the ball is slightly smaller–the WPFL abides by NFL rules.) The most profitable women’s pro sports are still driven by individual personalities and sex appeal–it’s more than a coincidence that in both tennis and figure skating the women still wear short skirts.

The WNBA has made great headway for women’s team sports, but it didn’t so much as sign a player until the entire concept had been approved by the NBA’s Board of Governors and major TV coverage had been secured. The NWFL, by contrast, has unwisely pitted itself against the NFL, which has objected to trademark infringement in the league’s name, the name of its championship game, and some team logos. The young league recently published a paranoid rant of a press release on its Web site suggesting that the NFL is preparing a hostile takeover.

“The NFL didn’t care a hoot about us until we got the betting line on our SupHer Bowl,” Masters is quoted as saying. “Within three days of that announcement we started getting letters (faxes) from their legal department telling us they didn’t like the SupHer Bowl name, several of our team’s logos and the name of the league itself. We agreed not to use the SupHer Bowl name and we asked the owner’s with the logos in question to submit new artwork. But, when it came down to changing the name of our league, we said ‘no.’ The NFL not only knew about us for over two years, but even wrote us a congratulatory letter wishing us success in our upcoming 2002 season. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see what the bottom line really is. The NFL is teaching women to watch and play football. They watched and waited until we did all of the work, made the league and our name successful and now want to come in and take it over.”

The NFL has in fact been wooing female fans–developing official merchandise for women, sponsoring workshops for women, and developing a Web page called NFL for Her, which covers women “who may not be running into end zones, but who keep the NFL running smoothly.” The site profiles female flacks, female reporters, female lawyers, players’ mothers, coaches’ wives, and cheerleaders, but a link that commands the reader to ‘Play Football!’ leads only to a solicitation for the NFL’s Flag leagues and Punt Pass & Kick programs for kids.

But any suggestion that the league has a real interest in helping women play tackle football is still optimistic conjecture. To further the radical notion that great football is a thing worth watching no matter who’s playing it, the women’s pro leagues will need to coalesce, bringing the best possible talent to the most accepting local markets. The NFL will take notice as crowds grow and jerseys sell.

In the meantime the Riveters, with their inventive, aggressive, and exciting play, are doing their small part.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Fogelman.