Players and Coaches Wanted: On the Beginnings of Toledo’s Pro Women’s Football Team
Stephen Guinan on the Women Who Heeded the Call
When the advertisement ran in the Toledo Blade in the summer of 1971, Players and Coaches Wanted for Professional Women’s Football Team. A Connecticut judge was mulling over a suit filed by a group of girls seeking equal opportunity to play sports. The judge rejected the complaint, ruling, “Athletic competition builds character in our boys. We do not need that kind of character in our girls, the women of tomorrow.”
At the base of the conveyor belt on the floor of Edward Drummond Libbey’s glass factory, Lee Hollar waited for a window to emerge. Hollar worked the bottom of the line, hoisting sheets of raw, soft glass and locking them to A-frame racks to cool. Storefront windows, windshields, skyscraper siding, all born of an industrial cauldron of pressure and heat.
As the only woman at the white-hot center of the Glass Capital, Hollar absorbed the taunts of the men around her. Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen? They laughed. Must be that time of the month. Hollar didn’t flinch. She understood it was the way of things. It was a man’s world, and she chose to work in the depths of it. Along the lines of the relentless, screaming machines, the discourse was exempt from the proprieties of civilian life. Launching a complaint about abuse was not her place. Besides, to whom would she complain?
She was the outlier, the anomaly. Among her three sisters, Hollar was the only one who didn’t wear dresses, who didn’t play with dolls, who didn’t scream at the rock ’n’ roll idols crooning on the radio. When she was twelve, her parents didn’t like that she preferred to play in the streets with neighborhood boys. They didn’t like her propensity for jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. They didn’t like the name their three other daughters called her: tomboy. They enrolled her in the Patricia Stevens Finishing School. After a six-week course on how to walk into a room, how to sit while wearing a dress, and how to move your hands while speaking, the instructors gave up. “She’s not for us,” they told Hollar’s parents.
“I’m just not into the frilly shit,” Hollar said.
The declaration confirmed what Hollar had known all along: I am not like them, she said. Her father understood. He allowed her to follow in his footsteps, into the garage. She learned to change oil, to replace brakes, and to reassemble an exhaust system. Her hands were calloused, her fingernails painted with dirt. Before her first year of high school, she and her father built an engine from the crankcase all the way to the cylinder head of a ’56 Buick Special.She couldn’t believe the words she was reading. It was like a dream come true.
After she stacked tons of sheet glass for eight hours, Hollar played center field at night, under the lights. Detwiler Park, downriver from the factory, hosted men’s, women’s, and co-rec leagues. When games had finished, Hollar would remain to practice, for the joy of it, finding a fly ball rise above the lights of the refinery and tracking it to her glove, then shifting into the technique she had mastered and uncoiling a line drive, on one hop, into the catcher’s mitt. She dreamed of throwing a football, like she used to when she was a girl in pickup games in the neighborhood sandlot.
In between first and second shifts at the factory, the Toledo Blade arrived. In 1971, the daily was the dominant media bar none. The map of the Blade’s reach stretched from Monroe, Michigan, to the Indiana border to Sandusky, Ohio, in the east and Lima in the south. It landed on the hundreds upon thousands of doorsteps in the city, and in small towns like Swanton and Port Clinton and Clyde. Unfolded, the paper was nearly a square yard, on durable bond paper averaging thirty pages. It was not only news of every kind but entertainment, advertising, and classifieds.
The sports desk at the Blade ran a dozen writers deep. Their readers gobbled up stories of the major professional sports, especially the NFL and Major League Baseball, plus stories on the next tier: golf, boxing, tennis, bowling. With Toledo being a stepsister to Cleveland and Detroit, its newspaper’s beat writers covered the professional teams for both markets: the Indians, Browns, Tigers, Lions. You could count on a story of Toledo’s International Hockey League team the Hornets, as well as stories from Toledo’s high school giants like Libbey, Whitmer, DeVilbiss, and Scott. The Blade was the medium in which Hollar followed Chuck Ealey and the University of Toledo’s incredible three consecutive perfect seasons.
One day before heading to the fields Hollar sat down on her front porch to unwind in the breathable evening air. She unsnapped the rubber band from the Blade and found the sports pages. She couldn’t believe the words she was reading. It was like a dream come true.
At the time of the Connecticut ruling, one in twenty-seven high school girls played sports. For university students, the number was lower. Lower still was the number of women after college who could be counted as athletes. Like Hollar, women who competed didn’t mind that they were a minority, or that they weren’t supposed to build that kind of character.
Deb Brzozka played volleyball in high school, albeit only through intramurals or gym class offered by the Catholic schools in which she was brought up. For Brzozka, the Girls Athletic Association (GAA) was the official-sounding organization that served girls who wanted to compete, like a designated bathroom or drinking fountain. Brzozka might find a page in a yearbook devoted to the GAA’s activities as she would for clubs that sang or made pottery. The page may or may not have published the GAA’s stated mission: to give female students the chance to participate in physical activity, like camping or going on bike rides.
At the end of the volleyball season, Brzozka turned in her volleyball jersey only to pick out the same jersey for basketball. The season consisted of a single game against the other GAA team from her high school. Tetherball and four square were sanctioned sports under the GAA, whose moderators volunteered to give their time to organize games out of the goodness of their hearts. It was common for the GAA volunteer to double as the coach, the commissioner, and the referee. Crowds for GAA games were nonexistent. Waiting for her turn to enter the game, Brzozka looked around the gymnasium: There is no one here, she thought, as though girls competing in groups was not to be watched.
Virtually no records were kept of statistics or scores or of events having taken place. Because why would you? And when the girls finished in the gymnasium doing their girl things, they were scooted along to make room for the boys and a committee of coaches and assistants to practice for the game on Friday night.
Pam Schwartz could never go all out. GAA volleyball felt like extended gym class. Participation was encouraged but not competition and winning. Keeping score was optional. The version of basketball she played forbade anyone from taking more than three dribbles in a row without passing. She felt as though she was on a leash, unlike the no-holds-barred games she played after church with the neighborhood boys, unlike the pad-popping physicality of her high school’s football games. She knew there was something more to sports than the inhibited, quadrille-like experience of the GAA.
Schwartz had grown up with four brothers and six sisters, crammed in a house on the other side of the river, between the oil refinery and the Hunt’s tomato-packing plant. On patches of green earth adjacent to the alley behind the house, the neighborhood kids convened. A caste system formed as it did at church, with the boys at the top, dictating teams, rules, lineups. As arguments broke out over the relative balance of teams, Schwartz waited her turn in the paltry shade of a chain-link fence.
One day the game regressed into primitive, every-man-for-himself rugby: Schwartz jumped into the fray, desiring not to carry the ball but to use her height, her strength, and her wit. She grabbed hold of a boy by his shoulder, leveraged her weight, and buried him.
Sharing a bedroom with five sisters meant Schwartz could only shower on certain days. Dinnertime was a free-for-all; the last child at the table was left with the scraps. Same for laundry: a clean school uniform for Most Blessed Sacrament Elementary or Cardinal Stritch Catholic was up for grabs. After dinner the girls cleaned up while the boys huddled around the black-and-white television. One night her brothers told Schwartz to come look: There were women football players. They were watching Marcella Sanborn and Sid Friedman’s Cleveland Daredevils on The Mike Douglas Show. Someone said the women looked funny, dressed in shoulder pads and football pants, trying to be like men. They’re not trying to be like men, she thought. They’re trying to be football players.
Instead of promoting girls’ team sports, high schools opened their doors for one-night showcases, featuring tumbling, jumping rope, or vaulting. Marsha Dobbins and Nanette Wolf performed a gymnastics routine at the event that promoted a healthy, feminine display of sports. It was called the Circus.
And then there were the uncounted. Many girls avoided the halfbaked measures of the GAA. Earning a blue ribbon for tetherball did not inspire imaginations like the full-scale productions the boys enjoyed, nor was it enough to risk the stigma of being labeled different. As the judge ruled, the court or the field or the pitch wasn’t a woman’s place. Instead, they played in the margins, out of sight, in playgrounds and back alleys and overgrown city parks and country pastures. Jackie Allen played in the fields around her farmhouse out in Delta. In the spring, she played basketball and football in driveways or empty fields, like the one behind the Colony Theater.
Observed from afar, there was little evidence suggesting that what Eunice White was doing had any significance. There were no coaches instructing, no assistants tracking progress, no referees judging, and no audience cheering. There were no seasons, no tournaments, no leagues, no statistics, no official games. Yet if a congregation of boys agreed to smash into one another on a vacant lot, that was where you would find White, spending endless summer afternoons playing the indigenous sport of tackle football.
These athletes, like Lynn Juress, hadn’t considered football necessarily a gender-specific activity. It was the only sport Juress had ever played, in backyards in Jackson, Michigan. She’d also spent ten years of her life among men welding together torque converters in the Chrysler plant.
One of the designer footballs manufactured in the swamp featured bleached white leather, easier to see at night, under the lights. In 1945, the ball was used in an exhibition game between the Green Bay Packers and a team of all-star veterans. Nancy Erickson was nine years old, and she would remember the game for the rest of her life. Her uncle, an All-American who served in the navy, played in it, and after the game he gave her a scuffed white football autographed by both teams. The next day she was the most popular kid in school, showing off the football signed by champions. She kept the prize in her room, like a trophy for the sports she never had the opportunity to play. For Erickson, the ball was a treasure, a sign of the future.Someone said the women looked funny, dressed in shoulder pads and football pants, trying to be like men. They’re not trying to be like men, she thought. They’re trying to be football players.
But the best Erickson was offered was baseball, and her uncle found her a place on an all-women’s baseball team in Kalamazoo. The Lassies had barnstormed the Midwest during the war, and the story of their league would be told in a movie years later, about a group of female baseball players and their curmudgeon coach. The title of the film, A League of Their Own, bespoke the desire of women like Erickson to carve out a place in a sport they weren’t supposed to play. Over the next thirty years, she bounced around a string of teams in the Amateur Softball Association, the only organization to stage sports for girls in the open air. She amassed scores of trophies over the years but none as memorable as the autographed football. One day as she arrived at the Detwiler diamonds, her teammate Lee Hollar was discussing not the upcoming softball game but another sport, the one Erickson had been waiting thirty years to play.
“Well, it’s about time,” Erickson said.
Some felt disparity in other ways. Lora Jean Smalley had also played GAA volleyball and basketball at Whitmer. She won recognition as one of the best athletes in the school. She did not win a scholarship, like many boys received, but paid her own way at Ohio University in Athens, where she played club basketball. She also won the affections of a man who would watch her play on the hardcourt. After dating him for a few months, Smalley tried to break it off upon returning to campus for the winter semester. On a mild January night in the courtyard outside her Copeland Hall dormitory, Smalley attempted to sever ties. Her boyfriend told her if he couldn’t have her, no one would. He pulled out a .22 caliber revolver he’d brought from home in Cleveland, raised it point-blank, and shot Smalley four times.
The first bullet hit her in the chest, the second in the mouth as she turned to run. The third struck her in the back, and the fourth in her neck. She collapsed in a pool of her blood, convinced she was dead.
She woke up in Sheltering Arms Hospital, where she would remain for weeks, enduring astonished looks from doctors and nurses at her incredible survival. The bullets had by some miracle avoided her vital organs or were slowed by her muscle structure working like Kevlar. The surgeons removed three slugs on the operating table, but the fourth round, the one that pierced the second vertebra in her neck, was fused into the bone. Extracting the lead would likely break her spinal cord. So the doctors left the bullet in place, where it would remain for the rest of her life.
For Smalley, the slug haunted her as a cruel memento. She marveled less at her recovery from four gunshot wounds than at the consequences facing the man who gave them to her. Her ex-boyfriend pleaded not guilty. During the pretrial hearings, a psychologist hired by the defendant’s family testified that the man who unloaded four rounds into the woman breaking up with him was incapable of causing harm. The defendant told the judge he had no intention of killing her. Judge John Bolin allowed him to plead to a lesser charge, “shooting without malice.” He was sentenced to one year in the county jail, four months of which he’d already served.
When Smalley read the Blade, the idea of suiting up in football armor came to her. She wasn’t thinking of beauty pageants or go-go dancers. She wanted to hit someone.
Excerpted from We Are The Troopers: The Women of The Winningest Team in Pro Football History by Stephen Guinan. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.