Saturday Night Lights A self-proclaimed smash-mouth women's league had a not-so-smashing debut

October 17, 1999

An untold number of Minnesotans, having glimpsed the towering
lights shining down upon Energy Park Drive in St. Paul last
Saturday evening, had to be wondering the same thing: What's
going on at Midway Stadium? Two months ago those lights would
have signaled a home game for the St. Paul Saints, the
independent Class A-caliber baseball team that draws more than
6,000 fans a game. The curious who answered the lights' call on
Saturday--2,463 and three camera crews in all--had a chance to
get early membership in what may become another cult following.
On a baseball field lined with hash marks and flanked with
temporary goalposts, 80 women, averaging 5'8", 168 pounds and 25
years of age, suited up for the inaugural game of the
grandiosely named Women's Professional Football League. In the
first stop on their seven-game, three-month barnstorming tour of
the Midwest and the East Coast, the Minnesota Vixens and the
Lake Michigan Minx put on pads, skullcaps, helmets and snarls,
shrugged off their sex-kitten nicknames and proved themselves
capable of the type of "full-contact, smash-mouth football" that
league CEO Terry Sullivan has been promising since he and
business partner Carter Turner announced the formation of the
WPFL last year.

It was only last winter, when the WPFL began sending press
releases, that women 18 and older learned that the opportunity
to play tackle football existed beyond the backyards and living
room rugs of their childhood. At tryouts held in the Twin
Cities, Miami and Daytona Beach last summer, about 360 women
showed up. Last week, after final cuts, the survivors were split
into two supposedly evenly matched teams. They knew that part of
the crowd at Midway would consist of beer-bellied naysayers
expecting the type of football played by boys' high school
jayvee squads. For these players, whose friends and family
members hoisted handmade signs in the stands, this wasn't merely
their pro debut. This was the first play of the first organized
tackle football game of their entire lives.

Minx wide receiver Wendy Brown, 31, a heptathlete in the 1988
and '92 Olympics and the former world-record holder in the
triple jump, was the league's Jerry Rice in waiting. Playing
golden girl was Vixens quarterback Shannon Davis, a 28-year-old
NASA engineer with a right arm capable of 50-yard heaves and
calves as thick as her Arkansas drawl. Minx linebacker Jane
Bolin, 24, took a leave of absence from her senior executive
position with Campaign Media Analysis Group in Washington, D.C.,
while Miami resident Kertria Lofton, 33, the Vixens' top
receiver, moved with her 12-year-old daughter, Ashley, to Maple
Grove, Minn., where she got a warehouse job. Two Vixens and two
Minxes, unable to find housing, have moved in with Turner, his
wife and three children in their two-story house in the
Minneapolis suburbs.

The unsalaried players will each pull in a profit share of .25%,
which should amount to between $100 and $500 a game. Each of the
league's seven coaches and various assistants also will get a
cut. "We're avoiding front-loaded costs," says Sullivan, "the
thing that has brought so many leagues to their knees." While
the players say they're not in it for the money, they do gripe
about equipment. "Terry's cheap," says Minx receiver Sheri-Lynn
Knudson, who, at 23, is one of the youngest players in the
league. "We're wearing used pants from the University of
Minnesota, and nothing fits right."

Despite an opening ceremony that included Vixens linebacker
Merrill Camel--firefighter by day, VFW bartender by night and
full-time parent to a teenage boy--revving up the crowd with a
sideline spin on her Harley, the first moments of the league's
first game weren't much for the record books. The undersized
WPFL ball kicked off by Missy Bedwell of the Minx wobbled for 20
yards, hit the dry sod and bounced twice before being swarmed on
by a passel of skittish-looking Vixens. Soon, however, Brown
snagged a 27-yard touchdown pass for the first of her eight
receptions and two scores. Behind quarterback Missy Boyd, a
feisty scrambler with a quick release who was 12 of 29 for 179
yards, the Minx maintained a steady attack, highlighted by some
sharply executed swing passes and sweeps. On defense Lake
Michigan forced three fumbles, and the Minnesota special teams
failed to catch a single punt. In the fourth quarter Minx
running back Tangela (Tango) McCall (60 yards on 12 carries)
bellowed at the Vixens, "You've got motorcycles, you've got
cheerleaders, but you've got no game!"

The first game of the WPFL ended 33-6, with the Minx in a
victory heap at midfield and a few Vixens brushing away angry
tears. Although the moment was historic, it was not a first. On
July 22, 1973, at Long Beach Veterans Stadium, the Los Angeles
Dandelions were defeated 16-12 by the visiting Dallas
Bluebonnets in the debut of the National Women's Football
League, a six-team outfit that folded after three years. Why try
again? "It just made sense," says Turner, who with Sullivan
hopes to expand to six teams in 2000 and 12 in 2001. "I mean,
women are competing in everything these days, why not football?"

On Saturday night at least, under the lights of Midway Stadium,
there was only one career path in which three Vixens water girls
were interested. "The minute we turn 18, we're definitely going
to try out," said Char Strait. "Watch out for us on TV."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY VINCENT MUZIK TRESSING DOWN While the Minx' Jodi Anderson got her coif under wraps, the ponytailed Davis (7) had a hairy night. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY VINCENT MUZIK ROARING START After Camel's ride, Boyd (11) led the Minx to victory while Denise Cohen and the Vixens were hurting. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY VINCENT MUZIK NAME GAME Pregame chalk talk didn't help the Vixens, but Minnesota had its moments on defense.

"The minute we turn 18, we're going to try out," said one water
girl. "Watch out for us on TV."