Hit Like A Girl

By Art Martori, February 2016 Issue.

Nevitt Park in south Phoenix is a broad expanse of yellow, signaling the onset of winter and approach of the 2016 season for the Independent Women’s Football League, one of three full-contact, 11-on-11 semi-professional organizations in the United States with exclusively females taking the gridiron.

The Phoenix Phantomz, one of the two teams like this in Arizona, is holding its first tryout. Some 25 players are competing for six open spots in this year’s starting lineup. Dry grass swirls around their feet as Phantomz hopefuls run through drill after drill, split into groups for the offensive and defensive lines, and skill positions such as quarterback, receiver and the defensive secondary.

Standing in three rows, like Marines on parade, women trying out for the offensive and defensive lines await the coach’s go word, and then break into menacing crouches, palms out, sliding left or right to funnel imaginary opponents.

Photos courtesy of the Phoenix Phantomz.

Nearby, offensive and defensive skill players stand in separate groups. Opposing pairs run long, straight routes beneath a coach’s lofting spiral, and one group or the other gives an enthusiastic cheer as passes result in receptions, deflections or interceptions.

It’s a clear day in late November, with temperatures hovering around the mid-60s, cool enough for comfort with the intense physical activity, warm enough in the low sun to warrant frequent water breaks at coolers set up on the park’s industrial concrete tables.

Lounging nearby on a folding chair is general manager Tabitha McBride. To the veteran players she’s known affectionately as “Momma Tabs” for her dedication to the team. McBride’s duties cover scheduling tryouts and practices, reserving venues, hiring volunteer coaches – many with professional experience – and recruiting a support cadre that includes medical trainers and an administrative staff. McBride also remains active in Phoenix’s LGBTQ community, which she estimates to make up about 90 percent of the team.

Undoubtedly, the Phoenix Phantomz might seem a bit cliquish to outsiders – a sort of social organization for gay women. But not all of the players identify as lesbian; some of them maintain serious girl-boy relationships. And those most active in the Phoenix Phantomz demonstrate a level of commitment and skill that’s not only indicative of real-deal football players, but of competitive athletes in general.

At one point, a curious woman walks up to McBride to inquire about the goings-on. She’d like to play, but knows little to nothing about football.

“Don’t worry,” McBride offers her a matronly smile. “We can teach you everything you need to know.”

McBride steers me toward two of the team’s veteran players: co-captains Amber Hartley, #37, who plays both offensive and defensive line, and Desiree Belliard, #44, a fullback on offense and linebacker on defense.

Hartley owns where she walks, with a deliberate gait, broad shoulders and broad jaw, her brow perpetually furrowed beneath a backward ballcap worn low. Belliard has sincere, dark features, hair always pulled back tight into a ponytail and, as Hartley jokes when we meet up later, “the best ass on the field.”

1,000 Percent Committed

I catch up with them some weeks later at Hamburger Works, a popular stopover for fans at nearby Phoenix College’s Hoy Stadium. Throughout the restaurant hangs football memorabilia of St. Mary’s Catholic High School and Brophy College Preparatory, whose devotees fill this place each year for the rivalry game across the street.

Desiree Belliard (42), fullback/running back/linebacker, during the 2015 season.

I want to kick myself as I approach the table, realizing I proposed a time that coincides with the Arizona Cardinals’ eventual 27-to-3 pounding of the St. Louis Rams. It’s not a problem, though, for Hartley and Belliard, Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders fans, respectively. They admit it’s just another lazy Sunday, one of few remaining before Phantomz football consumes much of their free time.

Although both veterans insist they’re “semi-retired” – and unsure if they’ll play in the upcoming season – what immediately follows are the kind of eye-rolling chuckles that usually go hand-in-hand with little white lies.

Indeed, what becomes more apparent the more we talk football is an enormous dedication to the game, to their team and to the community surrounding Phoenix Phantomz football. That’s what keeps them coming back. But it’s not for everyone.

Many women quickly discover they can’t balance the commitment required of a semi-professional athlete with another full-time job; the veterans estimate it can cost players around $600 to equip themselves the first time, with team dues on top of that.

“Once football starts, we are 1,000 percent committed,” Hartley says.

A few struggle with conditioning and technique. Then there’s always that first bone-jarring hit on the gridiron, a snot-bubble-inducing epiphany that you simply aren’t cut out for full-contact football.

“We tell them to get the initial hit out of the way,” Belliard says. “You have padding and a helmet on for a reason. It’s not going to hurt ... that much.

“You can kind of tell, when they’re inching to the back of the line because they’re watching others get laid out,” Belliard says of terrified rookies. “Then all of the sudden something hurts and they can’t participate in the drill,” she laughs.

Holding a special place for Hartley are the ones who can’t keep it together off the field. Phantomz players are a social group. Playing for the team means there’s a certain amount of prestige.

But with Momma Tabs’ considerable work to establish the Phantomz within the LGBTQ community comes the expectation that players act as ambassadors, especially when they’re wearing team gear. Condolences to anyone Hartley catches engaged in “jackassery” after too many drinks.

“I’ve physically carried someone out of the building because of how they were acting,” she says. “I have no problem putting someone in their place. The way I look at it, Tabitha has worked very hard to get the team’s name out there, and us as older players have worked our butts off to get recognized. We’re not gonna let some punk, some bad decision, affect what we’ve worked so hard to build.”

Amanda Davidson (2), running back/wide receiver, during the 2015 season.

Football Is Football

It’s not difficult to comprehend how challenging it is to play for the Phantomz – the roster cuts, the cost, the commitment, the blood, sweat and tears. But then, consider what it’s like to coach the Phantomz.

Most of these players didn’t grow up idolizing NFL greats or skinning their knees in front-yard tackle-football games, like so many boys have. You can’t expect female players to come into it with a built-in understanding of playing the game. And you certainly can’t expect to be able to handle them with the kind of Bill Belichick-esque directness that boys might expect.

“You can’t talk to women the same way you talk to men,” Hartley explains. “You can’t coach them that way. You can yell and scream at a man, and he’s just gonna be like, ‘OK.’ A girl is probably going to get emotional. She might cry. She might tell you to eff off.”

The veteran players give credit to head coach Donnie Meader, a man who they say balances his deep knowledge of the game with an innate ability to connect with players who might be intimidated or just plain lost.

When I catch up with him on the phone, Meader says it’s not that big a deal coaching women. Coaching is coaching, he says, and football is football.

“Football is football. Whether it’s male or female. You still put the helmet on. You still put cleats on,” Meader tells me. “I coach the same way whether it’s high school kids or adults. I coach hard, but I coach fair. There’s no need for [yelling at players]. I hated when I had coaches like that. You can’t constantly do that with players. You have to approach it with a different mannerism. Make it fun, but get your point across.”

Meader, a special educator, also coaches offensive and defensive line at Phoenix’s Barry Goldwater High School. He’s a former collegiate player who continued his football career professionally overseas.

This year for the Phantomz, Meader tells me, look for the pistol offense with a 4-3, one of the most common defensive sets in football.

The pistol offense has emerged in recent years as a popular hybrid of the shotgun, typically used for passing, and sets that favor running plays. In the pistol, the Phantomz are able to effectively pass or run, and Meader can adjust based on what he sees on the field.

“[Calling plays] basically depends on what you have and knowing your players,” Meader explains. “The pistol set gives you more options.”

But even with his easy-to-adjust sets, Meader says he sometimes sees confusion on players’ faces as he explains plays. That’s where his co-captains come in. Rather than holding up practice for a detailed explanation, enter Hartley or Belliard, Meader’s co-captains, who are astute when it comes to seeing when a teammate needs one-on-one attention.

“It helps a lot. Desiree and Amber are great to have around,” Meader confirms. “Those are my coaches for public relations with the players. When I’m going over my whole schemes and players get those perplexed looks, that’s where they step in.”

The co-captains say they also pay close attention to players’ technique. With teammates, it’s an opportunity to share something that might otherwise take years to learn. It can also be a huge advantage when they’re playing against women with little experience. Hartley says she’s quick to tip off coaches when she knows she has that type of an advantage.

“Being on the line, I can tell what direction they’re going because they only have one move,” Hartley explains. “I can go back to the coaches and tell them this hole is going to be open all day. I’m going to own this girl because she’s doing the same thing every time.”

Favorable Odds

It’s a cold day for the Phantomz second tryout, early December with lows in the mid-40s under a slate gray sky. The players, as usual, are enthusiastic and attentive. Meader and Hartley are demonstrating some of the finer points of playing on thte line. Across the field, quarterback candidates lob long bombs to closely guarded receivers.

Serena Smith (43), fullback/tight end, and Amber Hartley (78), offensive lineman, during the 2015 season.

Bundled in thick winter wear, McBride observes nearby. She says she’s pleased by the strong turnout, as fewer players than expected dropped out. Usually, she says, quite a few have quit by now, so it’s hard to get a good idea of how the roster might develop come their first practice.

“Once January comes, they see the commitment and how we work out,” McBride says. “We get a lot that go, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that,’ and they drop off.”

Hartley and Belliard both say the level of physical conditioning required to play is often the thing that leads players to quit. Most women come out for the team because they want the full-contact experience of hitting and tackling, but become discouraged once they realize endurance, not just toughness, is a huge part of the game.

The veteran co-captains say they stay in pretty good shape throughout the year, rather than rushing to get fit once the season starts. Hartley hits the gym at least three times each week, focusing on cardio and a few strength exercises, like deadlifts and squats. Belliard also tries to get into the gym at least a couple times a week, and also hops on the treadmill during her lunch breaks or runs bleachers at a school nearby.

Still, Hartley says, it can be a shock to realize what it’s like to maintain this kind of activity.

“Your body’s like, ‘What the hell?!’ Your muscles are working differently,” she says. “It’s a whole different kind of preparation.”

Meader notes this year’s strong turnout bodes well for the upcoming season. Although it’s early and anything could happen, Meader maintains his hope of developing a strong offensive line, adding that most teams falter in a couple key areas: sloppy play on the line and simply not having enough players to keep rosters full.

He says this year’s key matchup will come when the Phantomz take the field against the Utah Falconz, a team that lost last year’s championship game but prior to that went undefeated, putting up 50 to 60 points per game as they took down opponents. According to Meader, the Falconz have all the right resources.

“Numbers make a big difference,” he says of the Falconz’ deep roster. “They’re really well coached, too.”

The Phoenix Phantomz take on the Utah Falconz Apr. 9, with the time and location still to be determined. Already looking ahead, Meader says his returning players, matched with a strong crop of rookies, might be the right combination for a good year.

“I like our odds,” he says. “The outlook for the season is looking pretty nice.”

For more information on the Phoenix Phantomz, visit phoenixphantomz.com, like Phoenix Phantomz on Facebook or follow @PhxPhantomZ on Twitter.

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