I’m garbed in a linebacker's bulky shoulder pads, peering out through a heavy iron facemask, helmet to helmet with a defensive lineman. It's shortly after noon in Bullhead Park, the stomping ground of the New Mexico Burn, the state's proud professional women's football team. It's hot in the helmet. The air is thick and smells like my breath.
I start hunched over with my first two fingers on the ground. What's about to happen has been explained to me. The weight of my gear pulls me toward the earth, almost like it wants me to eat grass in front of these athletes. I know when the whistle blows I'm supposed to shove past this person, a player about my height but with at least 30 pounds on me. She's been doing blocking drills since March. Stay low for a couple feet, linebacker coach Chuck Wellman told me quickly, but then straighten up so the defender won't just push you forward. Muscle by her, tap the dummy a few yards away, and you're done.
The field looms, pads and helmet—the same as those worn by men—like dumbbells on my neck and shoulders. I'm top-heavy from them, and untrained, so I can't imagine it would take much of a shove to make me belly flop on the grass.
You could hardly call me a football fan, or a sports fan, really. If you ask me who I'm rooting for when one of those big games rolls around, SuperBowl or World Series or the NCAA Tournament, I might answer with a team that's not playing or worse—one that doesn’t exist.
My elementary school days were spent avoiding sports, sending around petitions against P.E., hiding to read fiction or fantasize about a pet tiger that might rip apart my more sportsmanlike classmates, the in-shape bullies who liked teasing arrogant, bookish brats.
The whistle blows. I don't stay low as instructed. I step left, and she's on me, pushing hard on my chest pads.I shove back, but to no avail. I grunt, actually grunt, and have a moment to think, "Wow. I just grunted," before I'm shuffled off to the periphery at a wide angle, up the field but somehow as far away from my target as ever. Turning quickly, almost 360 confusing degrees, somehow, I actually get over there and tap the thing. It seems like many minutes have passed, but really it's just been a couple, maybe one or two? Less?
"Wanna try again?" the grinning defensive coach asks me. My heart's beating so hard, I can feel it in the bridge of my nose. Now, I'm not in terrible shape. I've been running seriously for some months now, upping my mileage every week. I thought I'd be able to take this. But that was trial No. 1. I'm sweating inside someone's borrowed gear under the midday summer sun—and I've got two more hours to go.
It used to look so dull to me as a spectator, with long milling-about periods punctuated by moments of activity. Little did I know how much exertion that anaerobic activity required. The players don't baby me, but they're not brutal. “You know I’m gonna hit you, right?” one asks through her mouth guard as we wait for that shrill whistle to blow.
Before my one measly practice is over, all the joints on my left arm (wrist, elbow and shoulder) will be jammed and aching. I will also have smashed the fingers on my right hand between my face mask and another player’s as I did my best to stop her from creaming the quarterback. That was my job, offensive coordinator Fred Moses explained before the play. Everyone around here talks about “jobs,” about doing your job, a very specific task for each player in each play.
Before the day is out, I will have had a pass thrown right between my hands as I run for my life away from a larger-than-life defensive line. That will be me “not doing my job.” The football will appear as a surprise, a split-second relief through the haze of my adrenaline and panic, shot perfectly from a skilled arm. And I'll watch it fall right between my palms. And hit the grass. Three times.
I curse. Try not to make eye contact with the other players. They say, "next time," and pat me roughly on the shoulder as they walk by. And as you, reader, laugh to yourself about what a terrible football player I am, just try to imagine running offense in an arc at an angle, the quarterback behind you. You avoid the defenders in front of you, freaking out and moving as fast as you can. The coach told you to look over your shoulder for the ball while you're sprinting, and though your vision is severely limited inside that million-pound helmet, the pressure's on to catch the thing.
How are you supposed to get used to all this gear? I ask a player between panting breaths. I'm gulping stagnant air. "Wear it around the house for about a week," she advises. What I'm getting at is that one part of the problem with my football practice was that I'm bad. The other part was that they're good.
Bertha Rivera runs back a kick.
Beat, But Not Defeated
They haven't won a game yet. That's the thing that's plaguing the Burn, a perfectly named team that practices for hours every week in the heat and altitude of New Mexico. "One, two, three" calls a player as they stretch at the beginning of practice. "Burn!" the team answers.
And they burn, fierce as ever, but that cranky two-season losing streak hangs over every player, aching in their trick knees and sore backs, sacrifices to a sport that still hasn’t rewarded them with anything but a 0 in the “W” column. Most of the line has had one, if not two, knee surgeries, and still they've returned for another season. But that ugly 0 grows heavier from game to game, season to season, says team owner and second-string quarterback Christie Moses.
And the 0 was still in place after the Burn’s 2007 season opener against the Los Angeles Amazons. On Saturday, Aug. 18, the Burn suffered a huge defeat, 64-0, and racked up some serious injuries on an already understaffed team. Offensive lineman Melissa Lucero broke a rib; wingback Joslyn Gutierrez broke a collarbone; and cornerback Brenda Kuligowski probably sprained her MCL. “Everybody’s disappointed in the score,” Moses says. “We’re just trying to pick each other back up and get ready for Saturday.” The Burn faces the Houston Energy on Aug. 25 at Wilson Stadium.
“You go out there, and you’re fired up. You start the game and think, ‘We’re going to win this game. We have this chance.’ Then things start going the wrong way,” says Moses. “They start scoring. You start throwing interceptions and fumbling the ball, and it just … you can see it in the team. You can see the level of intensity on the field just drop.”
It certainly doesn’t help that for the Burn’s first two seasons, their opener was against three-time league champions, the Dallas Diamonds. "They all tower over us," says Moses. Still, this, she says, is the year the Burn puts at least a 1 in that W column.
Her husband, Offensive Coordinator Fred Moses, is less sure. "I feel positive about it, but I'm not going to ... after going through year one and year two, you feel positive about that, too. I just want to see them perform; I want to see how they do." A win, he adds, "is not just about me saying it."
There's a difference this year in the level of commitment from the players, says Monica Sedillo, who also goes by Rock. She's been on the team all three years, and this year, she says, prospects are good. "The first year, a lot of people were like, 'Oh, this will be cool,'" she says. And she's not the first to complain of lackluster perseverance by former teammates.
There's been a lot of turnover on the Burn, enough so that sometimes it feels like starting from square one every season. "They didn't think, 'I'm going to have to work out all the time and run and wear pads and get hit and break things and tear things and all of the stuff that goes along with it,'" Sedillo says.
Some of the novelty has worn off, and the Burn could hit its stride in its third season with players that understand the commitment. With a roster of 30 when there's usually a dozen more, commitment means everything. Many in the Burn's ranks are forced to be two-way players, playing on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. This keeps them on the field for much of the game.
"Part of it is recognizing the talent you have and making sure you have the right system in place. It's about coaches. It's about players," says Coach Moses. "All of the stars have to line up for that win to happen, but at the same time, you have to force your will on the situation."
Cathie McKenna, the Burn's new quarterback and vital instrument in the team's revamped offense, isn't thinking about the losing streak. "We have the chance to go out there and prove that we're a better team than anybody's seen."
Players and coaches huddle up at the end of a practice before the season opener against the Los Angeles Amazons.
Hit. Don't Get Hit.
“Two weeks,” Christie Moses tells the team as members gather round at the end of a preseason practice. “In two weeks and one hour, we’re going to be suiting up.” That first game against the Los Angeles Amazons was a home game. That meant tons of work for Moses, who owns the Burn. She’s responsible for finding a place to play, hiring a security force, organizing merchandise and ticket sales.
Three years ago, Moses knew she wanted to start a business. She told her husband Fred her ambitions. “I’ll support you 100 percent,” he told her. "I thought she was talking about a restaurant," Offensive Coordinator Fred Moses says. But after coming across the Women’s Professional Football League (WPFL), Christie, a longtime football fan, knew what she wanted. “He thought I was crazy,” she says. “He was a little shocked.”
Christie Moses played football most of her life, from the time she was 8 or 9 years old “when I realized what it was and how it actually worked.” She played in the park against whoever, wherever she could. By middle school, she was playing against high school guys. “That was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t to this level. It was two-hand touch. They didn’t want to hurt the girl."
The women get hurt sometimes, but that's the game: Hurt or be hurt. When Fred Moses first heard of the WPFL, one of three professional women's leagues in the country, he was incredulous. "It's one of those things that's hard to envision unless you've actually seen it." Fred and Christie were invited to watch the championship game that year. "I realized it wasn't the Lingerie Bowl. This was truly women playing football."
Many Burn players have never played football before, and the adjustment to the brutal sport can be a difficult one, says head coach Dominic Juarez as he watches the untangling of a four-player pileup at the end of the field. "My first game was a YAFL [Young American Football League] game," he says. "You get used to it. A lot of these players go straight from never playing to all-out contact, take-each-other's-heads-off football. It's nerve-racking. You're afraid to get hit. You don't want to get hurt."
Though the players might seem broad and strong—a couple of them are more than 6-feet tall and 250 pounds—the Burn knows itself to be an undersized team physically compared with others in its league.
If you're hitting first, you're less likely to be injured. That's Coach Moses' message to a 50 percent newbie team as players huddle at the end of a practice a week before their opener. "It's not necessarily hitting hard, it's hitting hard consistently. You can't take plays off. You take plays off, and you get hurt. If you're not hitting, you're getting hit. If you're not applying the force, the force is being put on you."
You don't have to tell that to Rock. "They like me in the middle because I'm tall," says the 5’11” center. "I like to fight with people." All the fighting happens on the line, she says. "It's hand-to-hand combat. It gets to that," she says. Rock, who spent years as a corrections officer, fears for the rookies. "Some of the other teams play really dirty," she says, aiming helmets or shoulders at opponents' knees, twisting while tackling or taking cheap shots by working fingers through a face mask to jab an eye or throat.
The Little Girls Are Watching.
They've told Crihanna Smith the scary stories of dirty tackles and injuries. But her biggest fear isn't getting hurt. The 6’2”, 280-pound defensive end just wants to do her job. "I'm afraid everything's going to go out the window," she said at a weekday practice before her first game.
Smith never played football, though her brother played through high school. He was a defensive end, too. It's not that Smith's never been around the sport. She saw plenty of it growing up. Her husband enjoys watching the game on TV. "I'm just one of those wives that the husband watches football and I'm catering to the guys." A coworker told her about the Burn. Smith had just had a baby and wanted to get in shape. As big as she is, football seemed right up her alley, she says. "This is something to separate myself from my family a little, to get outside of the house and do something for myself," she says.
Smith has two little girls, and she's eager to have them come watch their mom suit up and beat on some opponents. Just like Rock likes the thought that little girls on the sidelines at Bullhead Park might be inspired to play. "It's nice to know even when we're out there practicing, and they've got all those YAFL kids practicing, those little girls that are cheerleading are going, 'Hey, I didn't know I could play football, too.'"
The Burn practices amid soccer teams and YAFL younguns in the park by the base, the coaches' words often cut off by the sound of roaring jets. Because it's professional football, owner Moses pays players $1 a game—it's more symbolic than anything else.
But there's something to being the first. Three-season Burn vet Michele Turner remembers their first home game; 1,000 people in the stands, and all of them waiting in a thunderstorm through a one-hour lightning delay. When the Burn finally took the field, the crowd roared "like we were the frikkin' undefeated NFL champions," Turner says. "They were just so happy to see us."
Turner, also called Scrappy, hears from women all the time who say they wish the Burn had gotten off the ground when they were younger. "There's a lot of women that have always wanted to play but never had the chance," she says.
She gets choked up when kids ask her for her autograph, she laughs. Still, Scrappy's ready not to lose, and that's a feeling deep in every Burn veteran this season, she says. "It's great to have people say, 'You have so much heart and you keep going,' but you know what? At the end of the day, if you don't have a W on that scoreboard, it don't mean shit, because that's what people remember."
Rock echoes that sentiment. "I hope we prove people wrong," she says. "That's what I'm hoping. People are either expecting the same as the last two years or worse, and they're going to be surprised."
The Burn's Season
Aug. 25 Houston Energy, Home (Wilson Stadium)
Sept. 1 Las Vegas Showgirlz, Away
Sept. 8 Houston Energy, Away
Sept. 22 Dallas Diamonds, Away
Sept. 29 Las Vegas Showgirlz, Home (Milne Stadium)
Oct. 6 Los Angeles Amazons, Away
Oct. 20 Dallas Diamonds, Home (Milne Stadium)
All games start at 7 p.m. Gates swing wide at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults or $5 for kids. An adult season pass runs $32, a child season pass goes for $16. Family season passes cost $72. Go to www.nmburn.com for more.