“John Unitas, Bart Starr, Roman Gabriel, Joe Willie Namath,” wrote the infamous, hard-nosed sportswriter Bud Collins in the December 1967 Boston Globe. “These are names you know, men you respect for their ability to handle a football as well as several words of English on a TV commercial. They are acceptable quarterbacks but they are sissies when you consider them against Marcella Sanborn, quarterback of the Cleveland Daredevils.”
Who—it was fair to imagine all of Collins’s readers asking—was this woman, or this team? Collins continued, praising Sanborn while deriding these legendary male football players: “I mean, do they play defense? No. They sit on the bench and try to remember their lines for the next commercial,” he wrote. “But Marcella Sanborn has no time off to recover from the bruises and scratches inflicted by predatory linebackers. She plays safety on defense. She is a 60-minute woman, and that is why Mrs. Sanborn, a makeup wearing pro football player, gets my annual Athlete of the Year Award.”
Marcella Sanborn was one of the first to try out for a new women’s football team, founded in 1967. In between raising her sixteen-year-old daughter, Claudia, and the hours she put in as a supply supervisor at the Ohio Bell Company, the thirty-nine-year-old Clevelander saw an announcement in the paper and thought—as so many women had before her—Why not? Having grown up playing football with boys from her hometown of Ury, West Virginia, Sanborn figured she was tough enough to hold her own.
Others, like Sanborn, tried out and made the team, too. Each one was ready and willing to ditch her everyday attire for cleats, pads, and helmets, and gladly take the field.
Originally, the team owner—one Sid Friedman, a fifty-year-old talent agent and promoter—imagined his players wearing tearaway jerseys and miniskirts. For him, the team was “a barnstorming venture more than actually competition.” Women like Sanborn and so many others answered Friedman’s ad that fall, and the newspapers eagerly announced there was a “gal’s team.”
But though the Daredevils team was supposed to be a gimmick, something changed along the way. The players made it real.
In many ways, the 1970s were the perfect time for a women’s professional football league to take hold.
American football is considered masculine by nature. It’s aggressive, violent, and tough, and requires a high level of endurance, speed, skill, and athleticism. These are all attributes that women are not expected to have—at home, in public, and certainly not on the playing field, if they are allowed on the playing field at all.
It isn’t just the concept of women playing football or being physical that has confounded men. Since the sport’s inception at the end of the 19th century, what has troubled men is the interest that women have shown in the sport itself.
“What is it? Why is it football takes such a hold on them,” asks a 1913 New York Times essay, “makes them new people, turns the rules upside down and complicates the woman problem a hundredfold? It’s a chapter the psychologists have yet to write.” The essay continued, insinuating that women were attracted to the physicality and aggressive nature of football due to innate, primal instincts. “The cave woman watched her man cleave his axe into a head of an animal, yowled and howled, with all the satisfaction of an appetite appeased,” it read. Even a hundred years ago, it seems—and despite the author’s ludicrous scorn and warped bigotry—women were “hungry” for football.
What men, and society in general, have failed to understand is actually far less complex and analytical. It’s rather simple. There’s something about the elements of football that appeal to the human psyche, regardless of gender. It’s a team-oriented sport that focuses on both physical and mental capabilities, and yet there’s an opportunity for players to shine in their individual positions. There’s a great deal of strategy to every play call, whether on offense or defense, and the tempo is fast-paced from start to finish. It’s also a lot of fun.
But women weren’t given the chance to experience football in all its glory and immerse themselves in the game. Instead, they were relegated to the sidelines while they watched their male counterparts take part in the enjoyment.
At some point, it was only natural that they began to whisper boldly to themselves, I want to do that, too. And in the 1970s and 1980s—against all the odds, against every prejudice—a league of women did just that.
In 1970, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an “Action Line” column that featured questions with answers by the editorial staff. One woman from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, had asked, “My brother says I’m a pretty good football player and I’m thinking of turning professional. Only trouble is, I’m a girl.”
The response she got was promising.
“You may not be able to break the sex barrier and join the Eagles, but there’s a place waiting for you on the Pittsburgh Hurricanes,” the editors replied. “Professional female footballers are the brainchild of theatrical agent Sid Friedman. [He] Recruited the first team—USA Daredevils— in Cleveland, O., four years ago as a comedy attraction. Girls didn’t think it was so funny; they wanted to play serious ball. Now, there are four teams in the all-gal league, including the Hurricanes.”
Over the course of a decade, women’s football teams sprung up across the country. Many were no more than local affairs. And while some teams knew and played one another, others seemingly arose of their own accord, fulfilling the wishes of their players. Some—spurred by the ambitions, but not the brains, of the agent Friedman—dreamed of a national women’s football league to mirror the NFL itself. For a time, this dream seemed far from impossible. And eventually, it became a reality with the formation of the National Women’s Football League in the early 1970s.
In the press, the players’ looks were always described before their playing abilities. The women had to answer questions about whether playing football meant they supported women’s lib. They always had to talk about what their (male) partners thought about their affinity for this contact sport, even though the league existed in a post-Stonewall world and many of the teams served as safe places for lesbian women to be themselves.
The women competed against each other. In some cases they even hated each other. Some teams didn’t even know others existed, because they never played each other at all. But what they all had in common was a love for a game society told them they shouldn’t (and couldn’t) be playing.
Even as they battled each other on the field, players also battled for control of the league and their teams off the field. In some cases, they took on the male owners; but most often, they were subject to the whims, decisions, and financing of the men bankrolling and coaching the teams. The men in women’s football controlled the money, and they weren’t willing to invest the same resources or long-term capital, or provide the same number of chances that men’s teams are given. The women played, and practiced, and hurt their bodies, often for no payment at all.
Still, in at least 19 cities around the United States, from 1974 to 1988, the women of the NWFL broke the mold for what a football player was supposed to look like. Thousands of people came to watch; perhaps to gawk at first, but then, in the end, to cheer on the players. Though the fanfare wouldn’t last, the players got to experience what it felt like to hear the roar of a crowd whenever they scored a touchdown or won a game. And it was exhilarating.
They were Linda Jefferson, the best halfback to ever play the game, who had five straight seasons with the Toledo Troopers where she rushed for over 1,000 yards and averaged 14.4 yards per carry. She would go on to become the first Black woman inducted into the Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame and one of only four women in the American Football Association Hall of Fame. They were Oklahoma City Dolls quarterback Jan Hines, who led her team to delivering the Troopers their first loss after five undefeated seasons, as well as the Dolls’ own undefeated season during which they allowed opponents only eight points all year. They were Rose Low of the Los Angeles Dandelions, a first-generation Chinese American and multisport athlete who legitimized the game during TV appearances alongside Billie Jean King. And they were Trooper Mitchi Collette, who has become a legend in the sport and has kept a women’s football team going in Toledo for fifty years.
In many ways, the 1970s were the perfect time for a women’s professional football league to take hold. It was during the pinnacle of second-wave feminism and the women’s liberation movement, and women were gaining ground in athletics, as well. The passage of Title IX in 1972 and Billie Jean King’s victory in the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973 set the stage perfectly for the NWFL to debut the following year. But perhaps the world wasn’t as ready for the league as the athletes may have hoped.
Though it didn’t last, the legacy of the NWFL and its players endures today. More and more, women are becoming an integral part of professional football at all levels, from reffing and commentating to coaching and being NFL owners. There are at least four women’s football leagues operating in the United States today, none of which would have existed without the NWFL.
Even while relegated to the sidelines and lacking equal opportunity or access to participate in its evolution, women have persistently managed to find a way to immerse themselves in the sport. Today, statistics show that the number of girls who play eleven-person football is on the rise, while the number of boys is declining.
This is a trend that’s only increasing: The Utah Girls Tackle Football League started in 2015 with fifty girls and grew to over four hundred by 2018, doubling in size each season. All-girls tackle teams have also popped up in Indiana and Georgia. Beverly, Massachusetts, has an all-girls flag football team. And in February 2021, Nike announced that it had partnered with the NFL in a multiyear initiative (with five million dollars in funding) dedicated to growing girls’ flag football in high school athletics. This rapid expansion can be credited to the increasing visibility of girls who play: if you see it, you can be it. And none of it would exist at all without the women of the NWFL paving the way.
Today, because of Title IX and the women who were determined to make an impact in women’s sports, there are ten times as many girls participating in high school athletics as there were in 1972. That’s an increase of more than 1,000 percent. The NWFL and the women’s opportunity to play were both the result of the women’s athletic expansion and equality movement, and also made them active participants in it.
“In a very few years from now, professional football could be changed in a big way, regarding women participants. Under Title IX, women must be given equal opportunity in athletics, in public high schools and universities,” a woman named Pam Royse wrote in a 1978 Toledo Troopers’ game program. “And so it may be, that out of Some-Town, USA, comes a new breed of female football player. Having had the advantages of competing with and against men, she is physically better for that experience.”
During the Super Bowl LIII telecast in February 2019, Antoinette “Toni” Harris—a little-known female community college football player at the time—appeared in a new Toyota commercial. The commercial celebrated Harris, who played free safety on defense, as the first woman in history to be offered a college football scholarship in a full-contact position from a four-year university. By the end of her community college football career at East Los Angeles College, Harris had received six scholarship offers. In February 2020, she appeared in the “NFL 100” commercial spot opening for Super Bowl LIV, alongside a handful of NFL legends and football trailblazers.
It’s not hard to look at Harris’s recent achievements and trace them back to the NWFL. East Los Angeles College (ELAC) is the same school that Rose Low attended when she first started playing football for the Los Angeles Dandelions, a team that formed in 1973. It’s an uncanny connection that threads far deeper than most people realize.
When you look at professional football today, women are involved in nearly all facets of the game.
“When I was a student at ELAC in the early seventies, one of our female professors and coaches, Flora Brussa, went to Washington as part of a team to write Title IX. That law made it possible for our women’s sports program to begin,” Low explained. “When that door opened for us, who would have imagined that a female would play on the men’s [football] team 50 years later and then be offered a scholarship to play at a fouryear school? Maybe because a few of my schoolmates and I dared to play tackle football back then, a seed was planted for the women who followed to try.”
Harris isn’t the first woman to ever play football on a men’s team at the college level. And she isn’t the last. Sarah Fuller, a senior at Vanderbilt University and goalkeeper on the women’s 2020 SEC Champion soccer team, became the first woman to play in a football game in a Power Five conference in November 2020 when she successfully executed the kickoff at the start of the second half, cementing her place in the history books. She also became the first woman to score in a Power Five conference when she flawlessly kicked an extra point during a game in December that same year. But without those who came before Fuller and Harris, particularly those women who played in the NWFL, their achievements may not have been possible.
Royse predicted this very scenario: “Our new breed of athlete goes to college somewhere on an athletic scholarship. She is a good athlete, no doubt about it, and after college she decides to make a career in football. Shortly afterward, a men’s professional team takes its cue, realizing the publicity advantages of having a woman on the team. They offer her bigger money than a women’s team could ever dream of doing.”
But Royse cautioned women against taking that step, believing that when “a woman crosses that line in professional football, she takes with her everything the women’s teams have fought for and won.” Royse saw this crossover coming, where women would become athletic and talented enough to compete on men’s football teams, but that wasn’t their overall goal. The goal was to develop and grow the NWFL to such an extent that women wouldn’t have to compete on men’s teams—they’d have a thriving league of their own. “That woman” who joins a team of men “may gain a fabulous salary, but at the expense of her integrity, and that of every woman athlete,” Royse reasoned.
When talking about the legacy of the NWFL, we’re not just talking about women’s football specifically. We’re talking about the women who continued to pave the way for women in football, just as those who came before them did. When you look at professional football today, women are involved in nearly all facets of the game—media, promotion, coaching, ownership, social media, photography, broadcasting, and analysis.
In September 2020, history was made yet again when two women—Jennifer King for the Washington Football Team and Callie Brownson for the Cleveland Browns—worked on the sidelines as assistant coaches while longtime NFL referee Sarah Thomas was on the field. It was the first time three women stood tall on the gridiron in substantial roles during a regulation NFL game. Thomas also became the first woman to referee the Super Bowl, when she served as a down judge in Super Bowl LV.
The evolution of women in football didn’t start with the NWFL and it didn’t end when the NWFL folded. But it will always remain a significant point on the vast timeline of women’s football history. The women of the NWFL were the first—but they have not been recognized or included in the narrative of achieving the milestone of playing professional football.
This article has been excerpted from Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League by Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo. Copyright © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.