A League of Their Own

The Missouri Prowlers are tilting more at windmills than at blocking sleds

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Everything is ready.

Two tubs of Gatorade -- one original recipe, the other orange -- sit on the first row of bleachers here at Versailles High School, right next to a box full of footballs and a portable stereo playing Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Coming."

Yesterday's rain has eased up, leaving the field muddy but manageable. These tryouts at Versailles (that's "Ver-sayles," in central-Missouri vernacular) are just a temporary affair. Joe Eldridge, general manager of the state's first -- and most certainly fledgling -- women's professional-football team says the Missouri Prowlers will use the Kennedy High School field in Springfield for games. "It's Astroturf," he proclaims. "Hopefully, in five or six years, we'll be able to build our own stadium with the help of the state."

He sounds serious as a safety blitz. Then again, he's wearing a Carolina Panthers jacket.

While the rest of Missouri goes ga-ga over the Rams the day before the Super Bowl, Eldridge is here, awaiting women willing to pay $140 for the privilege of landing a spot on his Women's Professional Football League team. So far, just two have shown up, leaving him 53 players short of a full roster. On the basis of e-mails from people as far away as Illinois and Colorado, he's expecting about 30. And so he and his assistants wait. Perhaps, they speculate, an ice storm in the Kansas City area is delaying traffic.

Not so in the case of Rebecca Jackson. A bartender for a Kansas City casino, Jackson drove three hours and got here right on time. She's more than ready. "I want to hit people," she explains. "It's the only time I can do it legally. Boxing's too much of a pain."

Jackson is a former high-school shot-putter who also played volleyball, but deep down she's always been a football player. She has no idea what position she should play, so long as it isn't center -- her father, a former high-school player, has told her that centers are prone to finger injuries. Concussions, torn knee ligaments and twisted ankles don't concern her -- she's competed against men in other sports and come out fine. "Just my fingers," she says. "Everything else is mendable."

Jackson really wants to play football, badly enough that she has considered moving out of Missouri. There are no fewer than seven women's football leagues in the country, but the closest team is in Tennessee. Last year, Jackson tried out for the Minnesota Vixens and New England Storm but backed out after injuring both quadriceps muscles. It may have been for the best. The inaugural season of the WPFL was hardly an example of how to succeed at pro sports. Promised $100 a game at season's end, the players got stiffed. Several games were canceled for lack of travel money. In Houston, cheerleaders from Hooter's, a team sponsor, quit three games into the season.

Eldridge isn't promising his players anything but a good time. Tryout fees will be used to buy equipment and pay other expenses. "If we have any money left over, we'll split it among the players," he says. His reason for starting the team is simple: "I love football." He's gone so far as to call Rams owner Georgia Frontiere for advice. He says she sounded curious and passed along the name of a guy who ended up designing the Prowlers logo for free.

Serious hip and head injuries sustained in an automobile accident cut short Eldridge's own gridiron career, ending his chances to play in college. Before that, he played wide receiver for the Eldon High School Mustangs. Now, he's unemployed but trying to land a job with the Missouri Water Patrol. He's not concerned about the WPFL's shaky record. "The league has restructured, and they've turned the league basically over to team owners," he says. "We vote on everything."

Cheerleading tryouts were supposed to have been held today, but cheerleaders for chick football are even scarcer than players. No one has come to shake her wares to the strains of Aerosmith or Mötley Crüe. An hour after tryouts were set to start, his two would-be players are getting cold and antsy. And so, clipboard in hand, Eldridge and his posse head to the field. En route, he tosses a ball underhand to Crystal Caldwell. It is the last reception she'll make today.

Caldwell ran track in high school, but she confesses she hasn't been too athletic for the past four years. "I always wanted to play," she says. "I just didn't know how. The opportunity wasn't there. I played flag football in junior high. That's a long time ago." She found out about today's tryout from a flier posted at Columbia College, where she goes to school. "I showed everybody at school," she says. "They just started laughing. My stepdad wanted to come out and laugh at me, but I told him to stay home."

Under orders from Eldridge, Jackson and Caldwell affix numbers to their chests -- they are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively -- and pose for mug-style photographs. Eldridge sets up four cones near the end zone, marking the corners of a large rectangle. Jackson and Caldwell take turns alternately running, then backpedaling, around the rectangle's perimeter. The next exercise consists of dashing 10 yards, picking up a football from the ground, then running back to Eldridge, who sneaks occasional peeks at photocopied pages from a coaching book, Drills That Make a Difference.

Eldridge tells Caldwell to get up a head of steam, then block Jackson, who stands a few yards away. After bouncing off Jackson, Caldwell wraps her arms around her opponent's torso and tries dragging her down. In no danger of falling, Jackson merely looks down at the woman hanging from her. Then it's Jackson's turn.

"How far can you throw?" Eldridge asks David Clemens, the team's Webmaster, who suddenly finds himself being recruited to play quarterback. Eldridge tells Jackson to count to 10, then rush Clemens, who will attempt a pass to Caldwell. "You want me to take him out?" Jackson asks. Affirmative. Jackson tugs her wool cap a bit lower toward her eyes and leans forward, hands on knees. Reciting the numbers silently, she possesses what may be the fastest 10-count in athletic history. With no one between her and the quarterback, Jackson chases Clemens out of his make-believe pocket. The pass is in the air before Caldwell turns around. The fluttering ball lands 2 yards behind her. They do it again, with a scrambling Clemens overthrowing Caldwell by at least 3 yards. Stretching for the pass, she falls to the mud. She quickly picks herself up and trots back.

"How'd you do?" Caldwell asks Jackson. "He won't let me tackle him," Jackson complains. "Nothing like applying a little pressure." Caldwell looks at Clemens. "I think we need a better quarterback," she observes. A sheepish Clemens apologizes. "I'm just the Web designer," he explains. "That's all right," Caldwell says soothingly.

The next drill is simpler. Caldwell takes a handoff, then runs toward Jackson in the secondary. Jackson easily pulls her to the ground, finishing the tackle with a flourish that provokes a shriek as Caldwell nearly flips. She hitches up her sweats as she rises. "I almost lost my pants on that one!" she exclaims. And her leg hurts. "She grabbed my ankle when I flew over her," she says.

Juli Stutesman watches all this from the end zone with her father, Nick. They've known Eldridge for several years. Juli has competed in a "punt, pass and kick" competition -- a contest of basic football skills open to both sexes -- set up by Eldridge, who has asked her to be a Prowlers team assistant. Two years ago, she won a championship on her school's flag-football team. Now, at 16, she is retired, except for Sunday games played on sandlots. "She's always been interested in football," says her father. "Age-wise, she's participated in what she can participate in." Under the official rules, women must be 18 to play in this league.

Nonetheless, Juli is soon on the field, covering Caldwell on pass plays. She proves a smothering defender, always ending up between the receiver and the ball. She switches places with Caldwell and snags a few passes -- including some errant ones -- from Eldridge. "Try out?" Eldridge asks with a smile that says he knows she can't resist. "She should," Caldwell answers. "She caught the ball. I haven't caught one all day."

Juli looks at her father. Rules notwithstanding, there is precedent in the WPFL for underage players whose parents sign waivers. "He [Eldridge] says the Houston Energy has a 16-year-old playing for them," she pleads. The answer is a definite "maybe." "You'll probably have to talk to your mother," says Nick Stutesman, who played ball in high school and college. After some quick pointers on proper technique, he sends his daughter out to play quarterback, despite her protestations that she can't throw the ball. She proves a promising passer, hitting Caldwell in stride as she runs across the middle. "You say you can't throw?" Eldridge asks. "No -- trust me," she says. Eldridge isn't convinced. He sets up four cones about 10 yards away and tells Juli to hit them. She doesn't, but she comes close enough -- if the cones had arms and could jump, these would be completions.

After two hours of drills, they call it a day. Caldwell looks tired. "I've got to work out a little more, that's for sure," she says. Jackson says she feels great: "I'm smiling, ain't I?"

Training camp begins in April.

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