One solid helmet shot and Gina Smith’s chest protector was done for, split clean across the right pectoral. With a muffled “crack,” so went the introduction to women’s professional football for the Oro Valley “all-around jock” and mother of six.
Just three days from the Arizona Wildfire’s season opener in Modesto, Calif., she stood winded after sprints but revitalized by the prospect of a full-contact gridiron experience.
“That’s awesome,” she quipped, looking over the damaged gear. “I’m just so ready for the game.”
Back in March, Smith stopped by a Wildfire promotional booth during an Arizona Diamondbacks spring training game. That’s when the prison nurse — who climbs nearly 90 flights of stairs each shift — found the perfect outlet for emotions coiled up during an unfolding divorce.
“Hey, where were you 20 years ago?” Smith recalled of that initial meeting with a laugh.
Hard-hitting ladies like Smith inspire Wildfire team owner Anne Flanders-Doland’s 16-hour days promoting and fielding the upstart National Womens’ Football Association (NWFA) squad — one from an 8-year-old league of 35 teams nationwide.
“This is just truly a dream and a desire that these women have had ever since they were little,” Flanders-Doland said. “It’s a dream people have told you don’t bother having.”
Sporting an eight-week season capped by wildcard-style playoffs, the NWFA mirrors the play of their male counterparts. A couple minor rule changes apply — notably, using a youth-sized ball to accommodate the women’s smaller hands.
Flanders-Doland involved herself in the sport during 1998, when her San Francisco women’s rugby team flew to Florida for tryouts with another upstart ladies’ pigskin league.
She’d never play, though. Flanders-Doland headed for the “front office” during the last tournament of her rugby career, when she fractured her pelvis in four places.
After landing in Tucson with her domestic partner Jenn Flanders-Doland, the two began an earlier incarnation of the Wildfire, which averaged about 800 spectators per game, much to the pair’s surprise.
But Anne was forced to hand the team off after suffering a massive heart attack in 2006 — on Super Bowl Sunday.
While Anne recovered, the Flanders-Dolands launched www.womensgridiron.com, a Web site dedicated to the sport, to stay connected until Anne felt ready to take the reins of another squad.
“Truly, I love it and it’s what we live for,” Flanders-Doland said. “I don’t understand it, and people think we’re crazy.”
Her team’s inaugural — and respectable — 4-5 record in mind, Flanders-Doland recruited former Marana Broncos coach Joel McMillion for this year’s go-around.
The retired Tucson police officer and eight-year veteran of the youth football organization now volunteers six days a week teaching the ladies “Football 101.”
McMillion’s coursework includes more than conditioning and X’s and O’s, though he’s proud of locking the ladies onto 30 different plays. He stresses an aura of professionalism and discipline in the women, who he admits require a different touch than teenage boys.
“They’re realizing all these things are what they have to do to succeed out there on game day,” McMillion said. “But I tell them not to create any mountains they can’t climb just yet.”
After a string of shaky coaches — including one who sat and sulked on the bench a couple years back — Flanders-Doland beams at her new skipper’s abilities.
“He’s really been the difference, and I know this season we’re going to be competitive,” Flanders-Doland said.
With that spirit, Flanders-Doland scored another coup, securing Cienega High School’s lush new turf field for home games, which she expects will draw about 1,000 spectators per outing, based on the turnout from those early days at Oro Valley’s Ironwood Ridge High School.
“We’ve given out 2,500 free tickets just to have people come,” Flanders-Doland said. “Because I know they will love it once they’ve seen it once.”
She also shifted the recruiting efforts from bars to gyms and athletic events to nab women with more physical prowess and athletic zeal.
The outcome showed during a recent night practice at Jacobs Park, when 21-year-old Wildfire quarterback Amber Seowtewa displayed consistency in her passes, tossing her receiver several well-aimed shots of 25 yards each.
But during their first game last Saturday against the Modesto Magic — a chilly 27-degree affair — the only score the Wildfire managed during a 20-6 defeat was Seowtewa’s 37-yard fumble return.
To their credit, all the Magic’s points came during the first half, before the Tucsonans acclimated to the cold and lost the Week One butterflies, Flanders-Doland said.
“It was just a matter of getting the jitters out,” Flanders-Doland said. “We’re real happy and proud otherwise.”
Smith’s kids, like many of the ladies’ families, are proud, too.
Smith taught her boys most of their football smarts and reinforced her own with doses of Madden 2008. Her kids return the favor by hanging ever-lowered tennis balls from the ceiling, teaching her to aim for the waist.
“Even my ex-husband’s on the bandwagon now,” Smith said.
Smith’s Northwest-side teammate Hope Lockwood has come full circle, as well. As a kid, Lockwood played sandlot ball, but parted ways during middle school, when boys were assigned uniforms and positions, while girls took seats in the bleachers.
Now, after a long sedentary period, the 42-year-old Mary Kay cosmetics consultant pulls grass and mud from her helmet as an offensive tackle and nose guard for the Wildfire.
“It’s really nice to dress up in makeup and be a girl,” Lockwood said. “And it’s really nice to stretch the other side where I can go out and be physical and get dirty.”