Earth Mother of the Gridiron
Midway through Wylia Slade's first year as owner-coach of the New York Panthers, a rival coach screamed at his players to go out and "beat that bitch!" After her team won, word of the slur got back to Slade, who hugged her losing counterpart at midfield anyway.
"I had to laugh," says the 30-year-old woman, whose squad plays in the semipro Garden State Football League (GSFL), " 'cause it's really anti-motivational. You respect your motherwhat she representsand instead of being told to go kick some ass, you're supposed to beat somebody just because a female is in charge? Especially when I'm a sistah and you're calling me 'bitch' to a bunch of black guyshow is that gonna wash?"
However much an anomaly, Slade is well-grounded in the sexual politics of her decidedly male sport. And who better to understand the collective psyche of inner-city adults banging heads for bragging rights than someone who's spent nearly half her life trying to prove that she belongs in the game she loves? "In football," she says, "men lose control when they don't make good decisions. Whereas if I scream and curseeven though I'm actually calm and focusedit's like, 'She's menstrual.' Maybe I am and maybe not, but if you don't do your job, I'm benching you. A male coach flips, and well, he's a coach. But that's all right. I'm pretty much here to stay."
The South Queens-based Panthers play their home games on the tattered Astroturf of August Martin High School, Slade's alma mater as well as that of many of her players. In this, its sophomore season, the group posted a 10-2 record en route to a title bout Saturday night with the Brooklyn Mariners, perennial juggernauts of local sandlot football. If her men could take down the defending champs, Slade suggested she might run around the field with her shirt off. But after a near-miss 21-14 loss, she'll have to wait another year.
As a teen, Slade too wanted in on tackle-ball but was told it couldn't happen. Instead she became trainer-water girl at August Martin, observed and studied the game, and then headed off to college in North Carolina. When she returned home to tutor Spanish, the same high school coach who wouldn't let her suit up offered her the reins of the JV program. "What?" she remembers saying. "Ain't no girls coaching football."
Eventually, Slade would move on to Westbury High School on Long Island, where she currently teaches biology and assistant-coaches the varsity. In the interim, she received a call to head up the Queens Vikings of the lower-level semipro United Football League. "I was kind of hesitant," she recalls, "because grown men are a pain in the ass. But I liked this coaching thing, and you have to keep doing it in order to get better at it." Which she did. In but her third year, Slade led the Vikings to an undefeated, championship season, before splitting ("Politics," she says) to start up the Panthers in the higher-caliber league (GSFL).
About semipro ball: The oxymoronic label applies generically to some 150 teams scattered around the country, few of which actually remunerate. In fact, minor-league players routinely cough up dues to cover travel, uniforms, referees, field rentals, and various expenses toward staging full-fledged contests. For most GSFLers, the ultimate annual goal is a league title, followed by regional playoffs, and a possible long-shot appearance in a national championship, played somewhere mid country during Thanksgiving weekend. A select few may even dream of a possible big-time jump to Euro, Arena, and now, XFL ball.
"These guys like their football for a lot of reasons," says Slade, who recently lost star tailback Alishma Alexander to the XFL's Chicago Enforcers. "You have programs to keep kids off the streets, but what about young men 18 to 26? That's a high-risk group itself. It's like maybe they went to college, they're home, can't find a job, have free time, and get themselves in bad situations. So you bring them out on the field and it's like a release of aggression that keeps them out of trouble. And then a lot of men just plain love the game."
On a gorgeous October afternoon, Slade hands out light-blue game jerseys, as the soundtrack to The Original Kings of Comedy blasts from her open-doored Lexus. She's not head-coaching right nowtoo many hats, she saysbut she'll still work the sideline, calling occasional plays, and handling special teams and the linemen. "She can be over by the frank stand," says 240-pound blocking back Stuffie Miller (a CCNY campus cop who once tried out for the Cowboys), "and you'll think she's not watching, but she'll see something, and you'll hear about it."
Alternately smiling, frowning, chiding, and laughing, Slade's all over the place as she greets her charges. She stops to demonstrate proper tackling technique ("You can't just stick, you've got to wrap"), stops a gate-crasher ("Kevon, I told you everybody pays"), and rips a youth holding a McDonald's bag ("We got fresh dogs and burgers here and you bringin' that inshame"). Called to tape an ankle, she shakes her head at a funky foot: "Man, you need a pedicure." The massive lineman Friday McGraw looks up and croons, "I'm in love with Wylia. She looks out for all of us, and I will play for her against anybody."
For the opening-round playoff on this day, the visiting Brick City Bucs arrive late, further annoying the game-faced Panthers, who, earlier in the season, had journeyed to Jersey only to win a no-show forfeit. "They're just punks, and I hate them for doing that shit to us," snarls team captain George Castro, who once owned his own team (the Rockaway Grizzlies). "Some of us are out taxi money." In the pregame rah-rah, Slade's mentor and current coach, Larry Green, calls the opponents "intruders in my house," and exhorts his players to "drive their asses back to the Garden State."
The game rapidly turns into a funfest, a house party for the locals, who score early and often. When smallish QB Cliff Robinson, an ex-college standout at Southern Connecticut who now works sales for Budweiser, isn't nailing darts to wideouts Speedy Moye and Frank Parker, he's making like Michael Vick on long, shimmy-shake runs. One attempted flea-flicker by the Bucs results in an acrobatic Panther INT and derision from Green: "See that, fellas? They're desperate."
Meanwhile, Coach Slade works the sideline, if not the entire joint. She pays the refs, chases a bike rider off the field, and hammers a reserve linebacker for visiting the hot-dog stand ("What is wrong with you?"). She makes alignment changes, calls out for her "hands" unit to cope with an on-side kick, and toward game's end, with the Panthers ahead 36-6, doles out serious words to a player suffering love troubles: "Forget her. She told you it's over, and over means over."
The coach as earth mother isn't far from the mark. Parker, a former Division II All-American at Robert Morris, says Slade's as tough as any coach he's ever had, yet unlike others, "She's easy to talk to both on and off the field. That's the upside." As Slade put it earlier, concerning a kicker with panic attacks, "We try to be family here."
But in last week's cross-borough visit to Brooklyn's Kings Bay Park, the family dysfunctions. Here, grown men make poor decisions, lose control, and scream and slam each other (and the refs) in what's actually a close game. "Settle the fuck down!" Coach Green pleads with his troops, to no avail, after an early Mariner score. By the second half, too many internal spats (blockers vs. runners, offense vs. defense, backups vs. starters) leave Slade fuming: "This is a team thing, y'all. Give me some fucking leaders on the sideline!"
Amidst massive confusion, the Panthers somehow rally, before dying deep in Mariners' turf on a final-play sack. Teary-eyed and disconsolate ("not because we lost, but because we could have won"), Slade accepts hugs all around and the good news that her team has earned a spot in the national tournament. "It's a life problem," she says later, on losing. "Like a good marriage, you have to work together, if you want fulfilling experience. But all in all, I'm proud of myself, my team, and the fact that we are still together."
The Panthers open their regional postseason on the road, October 28, against a team to be determined. Additional info at www.eteamz.com/gsfl.
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