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Tackle, hit, repeat: D.C. Divas gear-up for new season

Wednesday - 2/19/2014, 1:36pm  ET

Divas_Top.jpg
The D.C. Divas meet for their first full-pad practice of the season. This year, they want one thing: A championship title. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
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For the D.C. Divas, shoulder pads are always in style

WTOP's Rachel Nania reports.

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WASHINGTON - On a sleepy Saturday morning, a light snow dusts the sidewalks around the University of Maryland. But the campus' Cole Field House is wide awake with sharp whistles, willful grunts and sweaty, muggy air.

"Finish off that tackle right now. Attack! Attack!" a man yells.

Across the indoor turf stadium, another man shouts, "And hit! Hit! And hit!"

For many fans, the traditional football season ended a few weeks ago when the Seahawks beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl. But the D.C. Divas' football season is just beginning.

"[Football] has sort of been looked at as a men's sport, or a man's way of doing things," says Donna Wilkinson, a Silver Spring, Md., resident.

That is no longer the case.

Wilkinson is a linebacker for the D.C. Divas, the region's professional women's tackle football team. She's been on the team since its inception in 2001, and over the past 13 years, she's witnessed a change in the talent of the players and in the mindsets of football fans.

"Seeing the women around the world that love this sport that want to play and that are finding their power and their voice and playing football -- I think it really shows the world that we have a lot more we can offer and there's a lot more that women can do," she says.

Becoming The Divas

After a quick huddle, the team's coaches break the 60-some players up into position-specific groups to work on fine-tuning skills and plays.

It's the team's first full-padded practice of the season, which officially begins April 5.

D.C. Divas General Manager Rich Daniel explains the Divas have about 12 coaches on staff, "much like an NFL or college staff where you want to have a position coach for each of the positions, as well as coordinators."

And the full roster for the team is still fluid.

"Some vets are trying to return from injuries or new people are moving into town," Daniel says.

Other players are resolving scheduling conflicts with work or family commitments.

Yes, work.

In addition to attending practice a few times a week and traveling to games, all of the team's players maintain at least one job.

"My entire life is work and football. If I'm not at work, I'm at football. If I'm not at football, I'm at work. They're great reliefs from each other," says Allyson Hamlin, who works in homicide at the Prince George's County Police Department and plays quarterback for the D.C. Divas.

Another difference from men's professional football is that these women aren't technically paid. In fact, many pay to play.

Daniel says the players have a training fee to raise, similar to that of an Olympian. They can earn a 20 percent commission on anything above that fee, but most apply it to pay off their travel or other expenses they incur.

Defensive line coach Sonarak Leng says the fact that so many women show up for the team, despite scheduling conflicts and lack of compensation, illustrates the players' dedication to the sport.

"You know you want to play. You know, there's no one paying your way, you're not just an awesome athlete and you get chosen in life to do it. It's something they're choosing to do," he says.

In 2000, there were two benchmark professional women's tackle teams in the National Women's Football Association: the Alabama Renegades and the Nashville Dream. The D.C. Divas joined the league in 2001.

Now, the Divas play in the Women's Football Alliance with 62 other teams. Over the years, quarterback Hamlin has been a part of the team's growth and evolution. She joined the Divas in its second season and remembers practices that stretched late into the evening and were only lit by the headlights of cars.

"In the beginning, we were all kind of trying to figure it out. Football's a foreign language, really. You could be the best athlete in the world, but until you understand the game, you can't really play the game right," she says.

These days, the team practices on fields that are well-maintained -- and until the weather warms, they practice inside.

"If we played in the winter and fall like the guys, then on days like this, we would practice outside. But we practice indoors now because when we play it's more likely to be 70, 80 or 90 degrees," Daniel says.

When it's game time, the Divas take to the field at the Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex in Landover, Md., where they typically play in front of a few thousand fans.

Training for a Championship

Going into this season, the D.C. Divas are after one thing: the championship.

"The passion, the drive, our coaching staff, we've got that fire in us -- especially this season. We're ready," says Raina Rorie, who plays safety for the Divas.

In 2006, the Divas took home the title of "champs" in the National Women's Football Association, after beating Oklahoma City Lightening 28-7.

And while the team possesses several division titles, eight years without a championship has only made these players hungrier.

"We're off to a great start, we have a lot of rookies, so that's exciting, and a good core of vets," says D.C. Divas head coach Alison Fischer. "And we're looking forward to the schedule we have, which is probably one of the toughest in the league, and playing our best football."

Ask any player or coach who the biggest rival is and you'll get one answer: the Boston Militia.

"We didn't get some good licks at them last year so I think this year we're going to be able to do it We have everything we need to beat Boston. We're just going to do it this year," says defensive line coach Leng.

Changing the Game for Women

In 2004, Paul Hamlin took over as owner of the D.C. Divas after being persuaded by his quarterback daughter and her teammates.

Since his time with the team, he says the quality of women's tackle football has dramatically improved.

"Football is a very complicated game; it takes several years to learn the game. All of our players are really top athletes, but they've had limited football experience, so it takes quite a while to really learn the nuances of each position," he says.

And that ability to experience football and learn the game is one thing that head coach Fischer says is one of the best things about the league.

"I think that now that there's an outlet, now that there's an organization, younger girls and women are seeing that and know they have an opportunity. It's expanding," says Fischer, who played professional football for 10 years before trading in her cleats for a whistle.

Longtime player Wilkinson agrees.

"I love the sport of football, I have since I was 5 years old. And I remember being a young girl and really being crushed that I didn't have any opportunities to play, and I am so grateful that I can now be an inspiration and be leading the way," she says.

"I think, you know, now, at least we have the respect and the support. And I think people want the sport to stay. It's definitely changed people's mindsets, in general, as time has gone by We're better, the game's better, it's better played," says quarterback Hamlin.

*******

After the last whistle blows from the two-hour practice, the players, somewhat painfully, run to the center of the field for a final huddle. Coach Fischer speaks to the women for a minute before owner Hamlin asks to speak to the team.

He brings up an exciting women's hockey game that was played earlier in the morning in Sochi.

"It's amazing to see the women be recognized equally with the men in hockey," Hamlin says.

"It's a great time for women's sports, and I can just feel that maybe someday, maybe not in my lifetime, but, someday you're going to see women playing football at the Olympics alongside men, bringing home a gold for the U.S.A."

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