Shannon Davis is entering her late 20s, but she has the wildly divergent aspirations more often articulated by little children who imagine a world brimming with possibilities. She wants to be an astronaut. And a professional football player. So far, she has managed to fulfill one ambitionand almost certainly, in an era when female astronauts are no longer a novelty, not the one you’d guess.
Davis, who sports flowing brown hair and a gentle Alabama drawl, plays quarterback in the rib-rocking, teeth-clattering world of the WPFL. What, you’ve never heard of the Women’s Professional Football League?
Well, neither, probably, had 99.75 percent of the rest of Nashville sports fans, at least not until last weekend. But that didn’t stop word from getting around to more than 80 women who took the field at Goodpasture High last Saturday morningthe kind of leaden-aired, shirt-soaking summer day that makes Nashvillians sentimental for Januaryin hopes of earning a roster spot on the city’s newest pro sports team, the Nashville Dream.
While you were paying attention to something else, the fledgling WPFL was awarding a franchise to the Dreamalong with 11 other organizations such as the Atlanta Amazons, the Columbus Valkyries, and the Lake Michigan Minx. To judge from their track recordlast year, the league fielded three teams, which barnstormed the country to gauge support for women’s pro footballthis is no powder-puff operation.
They don’t play with flags. Except for a slightly smaller football, they follow the same rules as the NFL. They wear helmets and pads. And they hit with the force of a 6-foot-3, 250-pound linemaner, linepersonwhich is about as big as defensive tackles run in the WPFL.
Davis can testify to the hitting. As the QB last year for one of the touring teams, the Minnesota Vixensand the first woman to throw a TD pass in a professional football gameshe absorbed her share of body blows and knockdowns. “So many skeptics think football is just for men,” she says. “After taking so many licks, I know girls can play.”
The league’s plan to open play in Octoberon Saturdays, directly against college footballreflects its lofty (some would say delirious) ambitions. In fact, right now the Dream is far from being realized. There’s no coach yet. (The tryouts were overseen by J.T. Turner, an NFL veteran who serves as the league’s commissioner and director of football operations.) As yet, the team has no place to play. (They’re negotiating on sites, says Dream owner and general manager Catherine Masters.) And there are no traditional salaries. (Players will receive a share of ownership in the league, and/or team profits, and/or a stipend for the games.)
On top of everything else, the results of last season’s exploratory tour were mixed. The WPFL drew crowds as large as 3,000, though only 150 turned out for one game in Chicago. (The league isn’t appealing to the same audience as college or NFL football anyhow, says Masters, undeterred.)
The team itself won’t be finalized until early August, after the last of three scheduled tryout camps ends. And any uncertainty certainly didn’t appear to matter to the would-be Dreamers who worked out for three sweltering hours on Saturday.
It was like every football camp you’ve ever seen, and at the same time, completely different. Like at every other camp, the players ran timed 40-yard dashes. They shuttled back and forth, again for the clock, along an imaginary line of scrimmage. They ran simple pass routes down the field. They included beefy behemoths and wiry darters.
But unlike other camps, something about football had attracted an entire field of women. For many, who had played tackle football as girls against their brothers or neighborhood boys, what drew them was a simple enjoyment of the game. But they came for a whole array of reasons.
For Rachel Knox, a former champion sprinter at Brentwood Academy and now mother of two small children, football was a chance to reconnect with a part of her identity. “I miss competing,” she explained. “The joy of my life is being a wife and mother. But after growing up as an athlete, it’s hard to leave that out for six years.”
For Michelle Thomas, it was about playing a game she enjoys at the highest level. In high school in Belle Gardens, Calif., she played in a football league that featured lots of contact, then played flag football as part of a college intramural team. When she heard about the tryout camp on a local TV news report, she knew where she would be Saturday morning. And she knew the positionlinebackershe would be aiming for. “I like defense,” she said, smiling. “I like hitting people.”
As with so many boys who play football, having a legitimized outlet for aggression also was a primary attraction for Jamie Charlet, who came to the Dream tryout with two of her friends from MTSU’s women’s rugby team. “I don’t know the first thing about football,” she admitted. “I just want to clobber somebody.”
For Charlet’s teammate, Kristy Estes-Adoff, the Dream represented a chance to be a professional athlete. “I like playing at a really, really competitive level where everybody really knows what they’re doing,” she said. “Plus, you would get to travel and get paid.”
For Kina Jefferson, who harbored no particular ambition of playing football, or any professional sport, trying out for the team offered a chance to prove to herself what she could do. “I saw it on the Internet last night,” she said. “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to come.”
But the longest, strangest journeyto Minnesota and backbelongs to Davis, for whom football has been a continuing presence in her adult life. At the University of Tennessee, she quarterbacked her sorority’s flag football team. As a structural test engineer at NASA’s Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, she continued to play in the space agency’s own intramural league.
When Davis learned last year that a women’s professional league was forming, she began looking for ways to work and play at the same time. And after landing a spot on the Vixens, she explained, “I applied at NASA for a full-time study program to finish my master’s degree in mechanical engineering. I took classes at the University of Minnesota. So I was a student by day and a football player by night.”
This year, Davis is hoping to earn the quarterback’s job with Nashville’s teama position that would allow her to remain much closer to home.
But in a different sense, watching her hum spiral after spiral down the field Saturday, Davis already looked very much at home. She seemed more at ease than most of her potential teammates, many of whom appeared a little shaky when it came to passing and catching the football. (“Don’t worry about any of that,” Turner told them. “We’re looking for the best athletes, not the best football players. We’ll turn you into football players.”)
Some of Davis’ comfort on the field, no doubt, reflects her experience. She doesn’t have to be turned into a football player; she already is one.
And if she doesn’t make the Dream, or if the WPFL doesn’t take off, she has realized one of her goals. The game is finite anyhow. After she finishes her master’s thesis, she plans to return full-time to NASA, where she has applied to the astronaut program.
Don’t try telling her that she won’t someday walk in space, or become the first woman to set foot on Mars. After all, they once said that girls couldn’t play football.