January 14, 2002
A league of her own
by Deborah Stone
Last summer the Seattle Warbirds, an all-woman professional tackle football team, was formed, bringing the number of such teams to a total of 24 in the country.
The Warbirds are a part of the Women's American Football League, one of three such leagues in the U.S. and the only one running during a traditional football season.
Along with the Tacoma Majestics, the Rose City Wildcats (Portland) and the Vancouver (B.C.) Victory, the Warbirds form the Pacific Northwest Division, one of five divisions in the country.
At the Warbird tryouts, 140 women, ages 18 to 40, showed up to compete for 55 spots on the newly created team.
They ran, caught passes, blocked and did numerous drills to prove their athletic prowess and abilities to participate in the sport. Some came with the desire to prove something to themselves; others simply were there out of curiosity or on a whim.
Many were unaware that the U.S. even had professional women's football leagues and were surprised to learn that the sport had become professional several years ago. They were delighted with the opportunities available to them to compete in what has always been considered a male only sport.
Bobbie Graff of Duvall saw an item in the newspaper announcing tryouts for the Warbirds and was intrigued with the possibility of playing professional football for the first time.
She says, "I am athletic and love sports of all kinds. I play soccer competitively and I run. Back in college, I was a collegiate sprinter and a heptathlete [competed in events including the long jump, high jump, shot put, and javelin]. I've played football before, just touch football, but I like the game because I like running and catching. I wanted to try out for the Warbirds because I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it and compete on that level."
Most of Graff's friends and family weren't surprised at her decision knowing her personality, drive and love of sports. They were excited for her when they learned that she had been selected as one of the 55 players for the new team.
Practices for the Warbirds began last August at Juanita High School in Kirkland, under the direction of Coach Mike Stuart (a semipro men's football coach and high school coach at Sammamish High School).
Stuart and his family were the initial investors in the team, having put in $25,000 to earn the rights to have a team based in the Seattle area.
The team's practice schedule is rigorous and usually lasts from three to four hours a day, four days a week. The women do hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups and countless offensive and defensive drills to ready themselves for games.
Rules for the sport are exactly the same as in the NFL, with the exception of a smaller ball size. "Our coach is really tough," comments Graff. "He has focused on developing a killer instinct in us and we have learned to hit hard and be tough out there when we play. It's necessary because we play some really rough teams and you'd be surprised at how brutal it gets out there. People do get hurt and we have had players with broken bones, concussions and blown out knees."
Graff plays the position of wide receiver, allowing her to do plenty of catching and running, her favorite actions within the sport. The season runs from late October through January and games are held in various venues up and down the West Coast, including Juanita High School, the team's home arena.
Thus far, the Warbirds have been very successful and currently have a record of 6-0.
They have been rated number one in defense in the country. According to Graff, the other teams haven't provided much competition, but future games promise to be more competitive, especially an upcoming match with Sacramento (also with a 6-0 record).
Fans at home games have numbered in the thousands, but press has been little to nonexistent.
"We still take a back seat to men's football, of course," says Graff. "This is to be expected because we haven't been around a very long time. We're paying our dues and breaking in the sport for other women, as well as providing role models for little girls who might want to play football. It would be nice, though, to get more coverage because so many people don't even know we exist."
Graff predicts that the sport will have a future, but money is definitely a factor in the size of that future, especially for the long term. The players are paid only if there is money left over from ticket sales, and then that money is split evenly among them.
"I'm not in it for the money, obviously," comments Graff. "I'm doing it because it's a unique experience for me and I really get a rush from playing. I also enjoy being a part of the team. The women are great and there's so much camaraderie among us. It's amazing because we all come from such different social and economic backgrounds and walks of life. We have lawyers, clerks, waitresses, computer programmers, fork lift operators, etc. and the ages range from the 20s to the 40s. It really surprises me that somehow we all get along so well and support one another. It's a great group."
Graff is unsure whether she will play again next season, even though she has had a very positive experience this season.
She is a mother of three young boys and runs an interior decorating business in Duvall. The time commitment between the practices and games is extensive and definitely keeps her away from her family and job commitments.
She says, "I'll have to reevaluate when the season's over. It's been a good opportunity for me and I've really been having fun, but being gone so much, especially on the weekends for the away games, has been tough. My family has been so supportive, especially my husband Michael, but I have responsibilities that I need to take into consideration."
The Warbirds will play in the Divisional Playoffs on Jan. 26 (time and place to be announced), and if they're successful, they will go on to the Conference Championship on Feb. 2, followed by the World Championship on Feb. 10.
For more information about the Seattle Warbirds, call (425) 861-0236 or visit the team's Web site at www.seattlewarbirds.com.