Danielle’s football dreams
Sacramento Sirens give local women a shot at gridiron glory
Valley High School’s defensive line faces Elk Grove High School’s offensive line. It’s a tense moment for nose guard Danielle Carter, who’s down in a four-point stance, both hands against the ground. She puts on her game face to intimidate the center directly across from her. It’s already the third quarter. Does he even know he’s facing off against a girl?
The offensive line readies itself for the coming play, looking for weaknesses in the defense. Glaring across the line at Carter, the center eyes his opponent aggressively, until he notices something unusual about her. He peers through the rungs of her facemask. His own game face falters. His eyes become huge while he stares. Maybe he glances down at her chest or remembers something feminine about the shape of her hips. Through nothing but muscle memory, the center snaps the ball back to the quarterback the way he’s supposed to. He stands up to block, but it’s like he’s standing there in shock. Carter glides right by him.
She relates this moment, and others like it, beaming with pride at her gridiron memories.
Danielle Carter played football near home with her male friends long before they got to high school. With their support and their friendship, she did something few girls would attempt. As a sophomore, she joined the junior varsity football team under Coach Derrick Brown. Her father forbade her to play as a freshman, but the next year she went behind his back to begin practice. Like the guys on the team, her father soon came to accept that a woman could be an asset on the football field—the problem was the attitudes in the opposing teams.
Once, warming up before a game, Carter remembers practicing long snaps. She had to bend so far forward that she could look between her knees to see someone standing yards behind her. For comfort, she took off her helmet and laid it on the bench. Her braid of dyed red hair lay brightly against her jersey. Turning around to check out the opposing team, she saw one head turn. Her eyes locked onto those of the other player as he squinted forward and then reared back. He tapped the guy next to him, who turned around. A third noticed and turned. Soon everybody, including the coaches, was looking at her. “I like being the center of attention,” she says, remembering, “but honestly!”
Thinking about that season, she comes to the conclusion that “most of the guys fell into one of two camps. They either thought, ‘Let’s kick her butt to get her off our field,’ or they thought, ‘Let’s go easy on her because she’s a girl.’ ”
Those in the first camp could be dangerously aggressive. Previous opponents have suggested that she risked being raped after a game. They’ve grabbed at her crotch, called her a bitch, shoved her in the back and hit her in the chest. Carter speaks about it with no sign of malice. These are just intimidation tactics.
Even her own teammates, guys she used to fish and play with, would occasionally focus on the fact that she’s a girl and go too easy on her. Once, she grabbed a teammate’s facemask and demanded to know what he was doing. She needed to be tested and tried, as readily as anyone else out there. This wasn’t about some statement for women’s liberation. This was about football.
After spending her junior year at another school, Carter expected to be able to play varsity football when she returned for her senior year. Coach Jay Whinery, Valley High’s new varsity coach, apparently thought differently. Not familiar with her earlier attempt, he didn’t take her very seriously when she talked about showing up on the practice field. Concerns for her safety were raised. Though Whinery never told Carter she couldn’t play, Carter got the impression that even if she worked her butt off with the rest of the team, she’d be on the bench for the season.
Coach Whinery denies that he tried to discourage Carter. He remembers that she joked about coming out to play, but he admits that he never took her very seriously. “I’ve never been around girls who ever even thought about it,” he said.
After looking closely at her situation, Carter decided to give up. She’d miss hearing young girls refer to her as their hero, and she’d miss the envy of older women who grew up without the benefit of Title IX, the law that equalizes women’s and men’s sports on federally funded campuses. But she could focus on other athletic opportunities.
Although it seemed like her prospects for football were exhausted, Carter, and a lot of other Sacramento women, recently got some surprising news—and a shot at something even more promising than playing varsity.
Carter was playing on the company softball team for Riverside Pizzeria when women from the opposing team recognized her from the restaurant. Chatting about sports and pizza, the women struck up a friendship. The next time they came into the pizzeria, two of the women brought Carter a flyer confirming the newest rumor threading its way through a network of athletes: Sacramento finally has a professional football team—and it’s a women’s team.
The Sacramento Sirens, owned in part by Gail Totten and managed by head coach Chic Bist, who played briefly for the Redskins and the Rams in the 1970s, had already held the first of three tryouts when Carter got the news. One of the newest additions to the three-year-old Women’s American Football League, the Sirens are trying to attract as much talent as they can before their season opens at Cosumnes River College against the Tacoma Majestics on November 10. Carter is only 17, but she still has more football experience than most of the women preparing for tryouts.
Some of the women currently hoping to make the cut have wanted to play football all their lives. Carol Thomas, the team’s current 39-year-old center, is one of them. “I like to hit,” she says. “There’s a huge endorphin, adrenaline rush when you slam into somebody,” but at the same time, Thomas is learning to focus on plays, counts, which way to pivot after she snaps the ball, and which foot to start on. Like many other born football players, Thomas’ size prohibited her from excelling in traditional women’s sports like track and field and soccer. Now, she needs to gain agility and speed.
Carter, at 5 feet 6 inches and 140 pounds, will be dwarfed by bigger players like Thomas, but with her usual confidence, she sees an advantage. “Like in men,” she says, “boys are very agile but not as big as men. They have the intelligence of a man, the strength of a man, but a boy’s speed. I think that’s where I am, too. That’s the phase I’m in right now.”
Carter and Totten are now discussing parental consent and other issues surrounding the possible inclusion of an under-aged woman on a professional team. Though the Sirens haven’t seen Carter play yet, she’s already something of a celebrity because she was lucky enough to play in school, something many of them only dreamed of.
“I honestly think women have some advantages,” she says. “The best way to hit your opponent is from down and low, and women have a lot of lower body strength. And I can definitely get lower than the men can.” But experience isn’t everything. The self-proclaimed “feminist in a Wonder Bra” is hopeful, but not cocky. “I’m not going in expecting to make the team. I’m an optimist, but with sports, I’m a pessimist.”
Back at Valley High, Carter spreads the news of her new plan. She walks into the weight room where her ex-teammates are working out. They call out, “Hey, Danielle,” and she tells them about her upcoming tryouts. Just as on the field, she’s grateful for their support and their excitement, especially as she heads toward the coaches’ room.
She recalls knocking on the coaches’ door, as is the rule, opening it when she’s invited. Inside the small cramped room, she finds coaches from both the varsity and junior varsity teams standing and sitting around in a room already crowded with a couch, a television, a couple of desks and filing cabinets.
Coach Brown and assistant coach Abe Snobar greet her warmly. Coach Whinery asks her what she wants.
Carter walks up to Brown and Snobar and hands over a couple of documents, telling them, “These are the papers I was talking about.”
They assure her that they’ll write the letters she’s requesting within a couple of days.
As Carter walks out of the coaches’ room, she knows that Whinery is waiting to hear what kinds of letters her ex-coaches are promising. She relishes the image of him hearing for the first time that she’s being considered by a women’s professional football team, and that her previous coaches have agreed to write her letters of recommendation.
What she doesn’t recall hearing is Coach Whinery’s respectful surprise. “Wow, that’s pretty cool,” he remembers saying.
When she tries out for the Sirens on August 18, Carter will be just one of a number of women who want their one and only chance to play professional football. She doesn’t know if this will be her year or not, but like all the rest of them, she’s ready to play by NFL rules in a real league against real competitors.
“If you train to be an athlete,” says Carter, “you deserve to be an athlete.”