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Baltimore's Lady Birds Hit the Gridiron

Tanya Bryan, president of the Baltimore Nighthawks - Steve Ruark
Tanya Bryan, president of the Baltimore Nighthawks - Steve Ruark

It's a late winter evening and eleven players line up on the field at an indoor sports complex in Westminster. The players typically wear purple and black, but today they don their practice gear: mostly all black. From thighs to shoulders, pads cover their bodies. Mouthguards protect their teeth. Helmets hide their faces. A voice calls out, and they listen, bending their bodies into intimidating stances. Finally, the signal comes, and the play begins. The ball is snapped. The line disperses�some act as shields against would-be opponents, others as targets of the impending action. The quarterback throws the ball, a perfect spiral soaring through the air, which lands in the hands of a teammate. If this were a game, one might hear grunting, smacking and a whistle blowing after players are tackled to the ground. The competitors remove their helmets, revealing long, wavy tresses or strands pulled back into ponytails or tight buns. This is professional football, but it is not the NFL. These are skilled players, but they are not men.

Not just a man's game

The Baltimore Nighthawks, part of the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL), is a professional women's tackle football team founded in 2007. The team is made up of 35 women from 19 years old to their 40s. The players range in size from five feet two inches tall to six feet three inches tall and 120 to 300 pounds or more. They hold jobs in diverse career fields�from law enforcement to the medical profession. Some are teachers; some have Ph.D.'s; some are moms. But they all come together for the love of a game. And although football is often considered a male-dominated sport, these female athletes in Baltimore are setting out to sack that stereotype.

The Nighthawks are all women, but the game they play is similar to the game men play. The IWFL incorporates a combination of NCAA and NFL rules, although women's teams kick off from the 40-yard line instead of the 30-yard line. Teams play on regulation fields with the same positions and point scale. "The contact is still the same," says Regina Nolan, 41, who plays tight end, wide receiver and free safety. "The technique is still the same. Still, if you miss a block, someone's going to sack the quarterback." To accommodate women's hands, the football the IWFL plays with is smaller than a men's football but larger than a youth football. The women also use standard equipment with many players wearing youth gear for a better fit and others wearing additional padding around their chest and abdomen for extra protection.

One of the major differences, however, is the players' experience in the sport. While a handful played football on recreational leagues or school teams of predominately boys, most excelled in other sports before joining the team. "It's not like with men's football," says Tanya Bryan, CEO and founder of the Baltimore Nighthawks. "They've had the opportunity to play it since they were five years old." For many, this means learning the basics of the game on a professional team. "Essentially, we're having to get caught up," Bryan says, "on everything you would have learned during pee-wee [youth football], during high school, during college in a very short span of time." In order to learn, it takes commitment and desire. "This game is not for everybody," Bryan says. "If you're not willing to give it 100 percent, you have no business playing football."

Hut one, hut two...

Once the Nighthawks step onto the field, they don't receive any special treatment. Nolan says they aren't treated as women, they are treated as football players. "[The coaches] don't want to hear no whining," she says. "They don't want to hear no complaining. You're a football player. They want you to be tough like a football player."

And when it comes to tackling, these tough teammates don't hold back. Nolan calls it her stress relief. "Women are hitting just like men are hitting," she says. "It's the same excitement. It's the same adrenalin. It's the same type of intense attitude. We have that same attitude as we get out there, and we want to tackle somebody, take somebody to the ground. It's no different."

But just like in men's football, injuries can happen. Last year, Nolan suffered a fractured rib. Bryan says knee injuries are also common in the league, but the rate is about the same as in other sports. "I'd say the frequency," she says, "isn't any higher than you would find in women's lacrosse or in women's soccer."

During their three years, the Nighthawks have faced criticism about playing in what some might call a man's sport. "You cannot change the mind," Bryan says, "of someone who's not open to a new idea to change." But others are curious, and when they do watch the Nighthawks play, they see the blocking, the pounding and the scoring just like in a men's football game. "I think once people come out, they're really impressed," Bryan says. "And they really just enjoy the game. And it's no longer about 'oh, it's women.' No, these are football players. And this is good football."

And as word spreads about the team, their fan base is building. Supporters check out games on Art Modell Field at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore. Some followers even travel to different states as players match up against other teams in the league.

Sports pioneers

But for all of their hard work and dedication, the women of the Nighthawks are not compensated. Eventually, Bryan says the goal is to reach the point of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), which pays its players. Until then, team members rely on their passion and love of football. "The satisfaction is winning," Nolan

says. "The satisfaction is that little girl coming up telling you she wants to be like you and be a football player, and you're a role model to her."

Last season, the Baltimore Nighthawks' record was 3-5. This season, the team hopes to improve its standing. "We're looking forward to having a wonderful season this year," Nolan says. "�and having a good time, having fun, enjoying what we're doing." But they also have higher expectations. "I'm looking for a championship ring," Bryan says. "If that's not what you're looking for, I don't know why you are playing."

So just because the Ravens' football season is over, you don't have to put away your purple and black. "This is Baltimore," Bryan says. "I want people to know that they can have purple Friday all the way through spring and summer."

The Baltimore Nighthawks' regular season runs April through June. Playoffs and the championship game follow. For more information, log onto http://mybaltimorenighthawks.com/ .

1. Tanya Bryan, president of the Baltimore Nighthawks
2. Baltimore Nighthawks head coach William J. Epperson, right, brings his team together before an Independent Women's Football League game against the Philadelphia Firebirds Saturday, April 3, 2010 at Mervo High School in Baltimore.
3. The Baltimore Nighthawks' Regina Nolan runs through Philadelphia Firebirds' Dot Trippett, #30, and Deidre Cargile, #27, on her way to the end zone.
4. The Baltimore Nighthawks' Regina Nolan
5. The Baltimore Nighthawks, in purple, take on the Philadelphia Firebirds in an Independent Women's Football League game Saturday, April 3, 2010 at Mervo High School in Baltimore.
6. Regina Nolan, #80, of the Baltimore Nighthawks talks to a huddle of teammates
7. The Baltimore Nighthawks' Lil Drumgold, #11, and Cathy Oparaocha, #3, run to congratulate Regina Nolan, #80, after Nolan scored a touchdown
8. Carolyn Few, #68, slaps hands with her Baltimore Nighthawks teammates while being recognized as a 2009 league all-star

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