Second and Long: Can D.C. Sustain Another Women’s Pro Football Team?
One breezy October Saturday at T.C. Williams High School, some 300 yards from the Titans' roaring fortress and around the concrete bend, the Washington Prodigy were late.
"Don't walk!” head coach Keith Howard yelled at one straggler sauntering onto the browning practice-field grass. “I’m glad you're here, but don’t walk!” The picture wasn’t quite what the team’s glamorous fliers might have suggested.
When the Prodigy were born in the summer of 2012, general manager Jordyn White needed players. But with no photos of the fledgling squad to use, she looked for her flier model where anyone else would: on Google Images. And so, a year later, the Prodigy’s players are still cracking up at White’s final product.
“She looks nothing like us!” a couple cackled when another flier was handed out after that October meetup, the Prodigy’s third open tryout ahead of their second season.
They weren’t wrong, either: Despite White’s ultimate choice of a scantily clad blonde, the full-contact Independent Women’s Football League has more in common with the NFL than it does with the Lingerie League. The players all wear clothes, for one, and the Prodigy linebackers, well, look like linebackers.
Indeed, in their inaugural season, the team looked like the real deal on the field, walloping the Carolina Queens 48-0 in its season finale and earning a surprise playoff berth. The problem wasn't the football, then; the problem, essentially, was everything else.
While NFL stars are banking millions, Prodigy players have to pay $650 per season to play, and none of that goes to the team’s unpaid coaches and front office. Everything is done for the "love of the game," as team owner Tiffany Matthews puts it. But that love takes its toll.
“We are literally putting in the equivalent of full-time work for this,” says White, who also had to play defensive line and sing the national anthem before every game last season. “[But] we owned a team, and we ran it, and it did not bomb. That’s pretty cool.” The key to avoid bombing in the future, though, is making sure to recruit enough players for a healthy squad—which is all the more difficult in a town that already has an established pro women’s football team, in the DC Divas.
For now, the Prodigy are hoping they'll keep getting by through word of mouth and slapdash marketing campaigns. And, for now, that continues to be a tenuous venture: If either fails, it remains to be seen exactly how long their football love affair can last.
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While the October practice may have been framed as a tryout—one of four the Prodigy held between Oct. 4 and Nov. 9—no one was actually getting cut. That’s one of the founding principles of the team, according to Matthews, but it’s also one heartily reinforced by last year’s lessons.
With only 13 or 14 healthy players at any given time last spring, the Prodigy frequently had to play through injuries in their first season. Gwen May—who played a year with the Chicago Force of the Women’s Football Alliance before moving to D.C.—got hurt in the middle of a game in 2013 and, rather than leave the field, simply switched positions.
“Coach was like, ‘OK, you’re not playing defensive end.’ And that was it,” May said. “I had to play center the whole way through.”
And while White sang the national anthem, Matthews had to moonlight as ticket-seller, linebacker, running back, and concessions manager, all in addition to her real job as an Alexandria firefighter. Somehow the stress hasn’t stopped Prodigy management and players from reupping for a second go-round.
A handful, in fact, even made it out for the "tryout" at T.C. Williams to get in on some of Howard’s offseason conditioning. Among them were the biology teacher known as Professor; one player who famously cried on the first day of practice in 2013; May, a sign-language interpreter; a lawyer; a mechanic; Joy Henry, a PNC Bank co-worker of Howard’s and a former sprinter at Penn State; and a dancer the other players curiously call Face.
The new faces were the focus, however, and that tryout introduced two, including 29-year-old running back Tiffany Cox. Discharged from the Navy earlier this year, Cox was already playing in D.C.'s flag football league when friend and fellow rookie Chontelle Sherrod told Cox about the Prodigy. With flag winding down now and the IWFL not starting until March, the two seasons won’t overlap.
And tackle, Cox theorized, should actually play more to her strengths. “In flag, I’m running with the ball and I’m about to make a touchdown, but they done took my flag,” Cox said. “I figure if I was playing contact, I’d still be running.” With practicing in pads forbidden by the league for another month, it’ll be a little while longer before Cox can see if she was right. Sherrod, for her part, was counting down the days.
“I like tackling and contact and just, like, the idea of hitting somebody—more so the idea of being hit,” she said. “I like that shit. I can’t wait.”
No American colleges or high schools currently field a women’s football team, but women have played professionally in the U.S. since 1965, with the formation of the Women’s Professional Football League. Other, mostly short-lived leagues followed, including the National Women’s Football League in 1974.
The District has hosted a professional women’s team since 2001, when the Divas joined the now-defunct National Women’s Football Association in 2000. Following a 2006 NWFA title, the Divas moved on to the IWFL and later joined seven other franchises in a jailbreak for the newer WFA in 2011. Matthews, a defensive star for the Divas at the time, would stay two more seasons, the lack of another team in the area leaving her little choice.
But in June of 2012, Matthews decided she’d had enough.
“A lot of decisions were made that didn’t seem to be made with the players’ best interests in mind,” she said, citing burgeoning internal politics and a string of questionable coaching hires. “I just couldn’t go on any longer.”
White felt the same way. So the duo contacted the IWFL and recruited Howard, a Catholic University assistant and former head coach of the Divas, to lead the new squad. The league, eager to fill its D.C. void, pushed for the newly branded Prodigy to be ready to go by the following season; all told, from inception to creation, the team was built in about two months.
That April, on the historic first play in franchise history, Howard was forced to call timeout: After performing the anthem, White still hadn’t gotten into her uniform by the time the whistle blew. The Prodigy defense was a player short when Howard managed to flag down an official.
Despite the inauspicious start, the Prodigy finished the 2013 season with a record of 3-4 and snuck into the IWFL playoffs—only to forfeit their first-round game in Montreal when they didn’t have enough players with passports to make the trip.
Having sufficient depth and not making cuts is mostly a necessity for the team’s sake, then. But it’s partially for Howard’s too. “We've gotta—gotta—have high twenties, low thirties [in terms of players], or else I'm not gonna coach,” he said flatly as he observed another running drill. “I can't have that wearing on my conscience."
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Even with the stiff competition for players from the Divas, Matthews and White are confident in the Prodigy’s unique selling points.
From a fans’ perspective, with the Divas playing their home games in Landover, Md., the Anacostia-based Prodigy are the only professional football team located in the District itself. The team has sought to capitalize on that by partnering with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, a deal that includes White often singing the national anthem before home games at Verizon Center—in exchange for having the Prodigy logo displayed for those 60 seconds on the jumbotron.
For prospective players, the Prodigy offer a much better shot at early playing time, something that won over younger Divas players like Henry.
“It was really gratifying to give girls who may not have had an opportunity [a chance] and teach them from scratch,” White says. “The Divas have always been, over the last eight years or so, pretty stacked. They’ve had girls with a lot of experience, some excellent athletes. Unless they are just stellar, out-the-box amazing rookies, a lot of times they fall through the cracks.”
The Prodigy didn’t have nearly enough names on their roster to worry about that last year. But at the final tryout on Nov. 9 at Anacostia High School, the team welcomed 10 new players, its largest yield of the fall by far.
"Woo! You're a fast little one, ain't you?" Face remarked as she underthrew newcomer Kara Gulvas, a former goalkeeper for Gallaudet University’s soccer team.
First-season trial run behind them now, the Prodigy finally have the right people in the right places. With the team now boasting a roster of 35 players, Matthews—for the first time since starting with the Divas a decade ago—won’t take the field this upcoming season and will focus on management instead. She's already sent multiple emails out to make sure everyone gets their passports long before their first game.
The Prodigy will next host a mini-camp from Dec. 6 to 8, but, until then, the coaches tell them they’ll have to keep up with the conditioning on their own time. For now, with the team’s second campaign still a little way off, that extracurricular work is a grind.
Starting in March, with games and travel and more regular practices, it will become even more of one. But the Prodigy will do it anyway. “I love being a part of something so strong," says White. "I love the family feeling, the connections."
“We’re probably,” she adds, “all certifiably insane.”
Photos courtesy Washington Prodigy