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Tempest tossed in home opener

Enthusiasm, uncertainty on display as WPFL debuts in Tampa.

By FRANK PASTOR

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000


TAMPA -- Fifteen minutes before the biggest game of their lives, 40 women wearing helmets and shoulder pads were crammed into a narrow hallway between their locker room and a high school gymnasium.

Quarterbacks Gayle White and Janet Small pitched a football to each other. Players tapped their helmets, stomped their feet and exchanged chants.

Suddenly, Tampa Tempest assistant coach Walter Grant entered the hallway.

"Ladies, put 'em on and strap 'em up," he said. "Everybody ready?"

The chants stopped. A single player stepped forward.

"When they call us onto the field," she asked, "where are we supposed to go?"

Tampa's first foray into women's professional football came Saturday night at Chamberlain High School. It saw the Tempest lose to the Miami Fury 34-22.

It was full of exciting runs, great catches and big hits. At times, it looked remarkably like the men's game.

But, like the pregame introductions, it also had its share of confusion. Coaches called players to the sideline to make sure they lined up right. Flags flew after almost every play.

This is not your father's football game. Or, if the members of the Women's Professional Football League are to be believed, is it your mother's.

Women's football has been around since the 1920s. But the WPFL claims to be different from those that collapsed under the weight of financial and/or credibility problems.

Unlike past leagues, the WPFL puts women into positions of power. They serve as coaches, general managers and owners.

Instead of using equipment handed down from high school and college programs, the teams have contracts with major equipment manufacturers. With the success of the Women's National Basketball Association and the start of the Women's United Soccer Association, WPFL hopes for the popularity and visibility its predecessors lacked.

"This is a chance to make history and to show the men we could do it also," Tempest offensive lineman Joyce Baham said.

Players range from professionals who run their own businesses to homemakers to recent college graduates. Only two of the Tempest's players have played organized football, though most come from athletic backgrounds.

Jennifer Dillard, 18, was a record-setting placekicker at Mount Pleasant (N.C.) High. She passed up a soccer scholarship to Wingate University to play football.

"This is my dream here," she said. "I never thought I'd have the pads on again."

Running back Rewa Mitchell, 29, left her 8-year-old son, P.J., in the care of her mother and sister in Atlanta. But the former marketing specialist for an insurance company will have to delay her dreams for a year after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in practice.

"I didn't really worry about my place on the team," she said. "I was just disappointed about not being able to play."

Baham, 39, of Tampa traded a $13-an-hour job as a case manager at the City of Tampa Recreation Department for the league's $100-a-game salary.

Tempest general manager and coach Holly Dawn Hewlett said the league will have to draw between 4,000 to 5,000 fans per game to break even. About 1,200 fans -- predominantly female -- showed for the Tempest's opener Oct. 21 in Minnesota.

Saturday's attendance was estimated by league officials at 1,500.

Hewlett said her dream is for women to be given a chance to compete for spots on NFL teams:

"It's not a matter of women taking over. It's that women have these skills and they're given a chance to show them."

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