In the early days, before she got comfortable in pads, fullback Wanda Williams would break toward the line of scrimmage, a running back in tow. She could hear the back tell her to block a safety to the left, or curl the defensive end inside. Then Williams, who plays for the all-female New York Sharks, would peer around — or try to. “Sometimes, you look to the left or right,” she says, “and all you see is the inside of your helmet.”
Like the other Sharks, the 32-year-old from East New York has since learned to crane her neck and swivel her head, improving the view a little. She’s been with the club for its first two seasons — the third kicks off this month — and in that time she has caught passes, scored touchdowns, and doubled on defense as a middle linebacker.
Williams had never been big on organized sports until she tried out for full-contact football. Now she’s developed a pair of guiding maxims. First, she says, to minimize pain, “be the person who initiates the hit, not the one who gets hit.” Second, “I do not fumble.” The latter guideline she drew up after watching a Shark bobble a ball in the end zone, coughing up both the pigskin and the game. “It was like, ‘Ooh, I’m not going to do that,’ ” she says. “It’s not a nice feeling. Not a nice feeling at all.”
Williams shares her turf burns and horror-show bruises with Andra Douglas, owner of the Shark franchise and part-time quarterback. On the field, Douglas is half general, half mother hen, marshaling a hyperactive bunch of chicks down the field. Her huddles are filled with women talking at once, calling for the ball, making suggestions, asking for their assignments. “What you try to do is keep calm,” she says. “People get flustered. They try to tell you what’s happening. You try to lock eyes with them, so you know they’re on the same planet you are.” She sets the play — “Blue Oscar New York!” — and gives a snap cadence, then taps the center on the helmet. As the snapper leaves to prepare the ball, Douglas glances around the huddle and repeats, “Blue Oscar New York!” With a quick clap of the hands, the players head for their positions. Douglas takes a read of the coverage, all the while praying her own squad will stay onside.
With her O’s in place, she becomes a target for the X’s. The hulks across the trench shout out her number. They call her “dead meat” and swear to take off her head. The Sharks never use the shotgun, so Douglas can’t get distance from the trash talk. When they come, she senses them — without sight, without sound. “Slam, slam,” she says, remembering a jarring sack. “I was in a whole pile of face masks. The first one got up, and she said, ‘I’m sorry.’ A big, huge monster, and out comes this sweet voice — ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
She’d like to protect her players all the time, but it’s just not possible. On some downs, she knows right from the git-go that her designed routes are doomed, so she throws the ball away. “But on the runs, you let ’em die,” she says, even if you die a small death with them.
The results of those hits don’t show up right away, Williams says. It’s only later, drawing a bath, that you notice the unnatural colors and oozing abrasions left by the game. Williams loves to play now, but she can’t help wishing the opportunity had come along sooner. “Ten years earlier, it would have been a lot more fun,” she says, “and I would have been able to enjoy it for a lot longer.” For now, she’s content making up for lost time.
That’s a feeling Douglas shares. At 42, she’s shopping a book, Threading the Needle, about her journey from frustrated backyard player in the football holy land of her native Florida to leader of a women’s team and sponsor of skills clinics for girls. Douglas says she’ll keep on playing, no matter the toll on her body, until they haul her off the gridiron. “My hope is that girls who are 10, 12, 14, can play football, because that was my only dream as a child,” she says. “It broke my heart when I was young. I’m still mad at the universe.”