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Herricanes female football players hold reunion in Houston

Rose Kelley was jogging through Memorial Park one summer evening when she saw a group of women practicing football. One of the women spotted Kelley, with her sturdy frame and strong legs, and figured her for an athlete.

The Houston Herricanes had found their latest recruit.

The Houston Chronicle reports the year was 1978, six years after Richard Nixon signed Title IX legislation and five years after tennis star Billie Jean King bested Bobby Riggs in three consecutive sets in the “Battle of the Sexes” at the Houston Astrodome. The sight of women simply tossing around the pigskin was not exactly common. Lining up in full pads in an I-formation for a full-contact game? Unheard of.

But playing football was a lifelong dream for Kelley. Growing up in Brookshire to a large family — six brothers and five sisters — she would often play with the boys, who would impart tips on how to rush the quarterback, never figuring their little sister would put that advice to use.

“Five of my brothers played for the Army or Navy,” said Kelley, now 62. “I always said, ‘I wish that was me.’ I used to tell my mother, ‘Mama, I could bop ’em.’ ”

When Kelley lined up at defensive tackle wearing No. 72 in what would be the Herricanes’ third season in the nascent National Women’s Football League, she was a force to be reckoned with. A natural pass rusher, Kelley specialized in terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, forcing fumbles and interceptions.

Four decades later, Kelley recently sat at a table at Harold’s Tap Room & Restaurant in the Houston Heights wearing the same maroon and white No. 72 jersey she proudly wore on the field, surrounded by 20 or so former Herricanes teammates reuniting for the first time since the team folded in 1981. Time has sapped Kelley’s once prodigious athleticism and her memory is hazy, but images of her gridiron success come flooding back as she reminisces with her former teammates.

“It brings back memories, happy memories,” Kelley said. “Once they tell me what I used to do, I remember.”

The catalyst for the reunion wandered around the room snapping photographs. Olivia Kuan grew up hearing stories about the Herricanes from her mother, Basia Haszlakiewicz, a safety and cornerback for the team for three years. At the time, Kuan didn’t fully comprehend that playing football was not something everyone’s mother did.

“To me, it was just, ‘Oh yeah, my mom played football,’ ” Kuan said. “You start telling people and they say, ‘What do you mean football, you mean, like, soccer?’ ”

Kuan, a cinematographer who lives in Los Angeles, realized years ago that the story of the Herricanes and the National Women’s Football League was too rich to be relegated to the fringes of women’s sports history. She began researching the team and the league for a forthcoming documentary titled, “Brick House.”

Getting as many of the former Herricanes as she could in one place would provide ample material for the film. Kuan’s crew roamed the room at Harold’s filming the Herricanes teammates swapping stories and reliving their glory on the football field.

There was Gwen Flager, the quarterback, standing in a corner chatting up her former backfield mate, Marty Bryant, the fullback and founder of the Herricanes. Jane Schulte, a center and occasional nose guard, laughed with Kelley, her erstwhile partner in the trenches. Billie Cooper, the vociferous middle linebacker, held court in the center of the room with a scrapbook of old Herricanes photos in her No. 86 jersey, looking like she could still sprint sideline to sideline.

“If the men played with the heart that we did, I mean men’s pros would be unbelievable,” Cooper said. “But that’s all we had. We didn’t have money, we didn’t have motivation other than heart. We wanted to play the game and show that we could play the game, and we did.”

Before the NWFL, women’s tackle football in the United States was largely conceived as a novelty act. Sid Friedman, a talent agent, formed the Women’s Professional Football League as a gimmick in the mid-1960s. It was viewed as a Harlem Globetrotters-style barnstorming show.

That league would fold by the early 1970s, but the seed was planted for the NWFL to blossom. What began as a seven-team league in 1974 quickly doubled in size by the time the Herricanes emerged in 1976. There were three divisions across the country, with teams as far east as the Philadelphia Queen Bees and as far west as the San Diego Lobos.

“Most of (the teams) didn’t know each other; they had no idea how the league was structured,” said Britni de la Cretaz, who is writing a book about the NWFL. “They had really very little contact with other teams. They were siloed in that way, and even still there were hundreds of women doing this at any point around the country.”

Marty Bryant remembers reading a magazine article about the Columbus Pacesetters in the fledgling NWFL. An avid softball player, Bryant jumped at any opportunity to play team sports and immediately wrote a letter to the Pacesetters asking how she could form a team in Houston.

“We loved to play sports,” Bryant said. “If you’re an athlete, you’re an athlete. But you need the chance.”

With the help of a news broadcast by famed local sportscaster Anita Martini publicizing the tryout, dozens of women showed up at a Houston park in 1976 to join the Herricanes.

Basia Haszlakiewicz remembers turning on the television o see that broadcast and thinking the stars had finally aligned. A former flag football player at the University of Kansas, Haszlakiewicz thought her playing days were long over.

“And there was Anita Martini on the news presenting tryouts for the Houston Herricanes,” Haszlakiewicz said. “I just never watched the news. It was odd. I was like, ‘OK, well, this was meant to be, obviously.’ ”

In short order, the Houston Herricanes were ensconced in the NWFL’s Southern Division, which included teams in Dallas, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Divisional teams played each other in a 10-game season and were responsible for raising their own money for equipment and travel.

Lack of funds would dog the Herricanes from their inception. All the women worked day jobs, and none was paid to play in the NWFL. It cost roughly $10,000 per year to fund the team, a large sum in the mid-1970s. The team raised money through ticket sales and raffles, but mostly paid expenses out of pocket.

The women practiced in public parks on hot, muggy Houston summer evenings, fueled by their passion for the game and desire to improve.

Training was essential. While many of the women had the necessary athleticism, football is a game of technique. Linemen had to learn a three-point stance. Bryant, the fullback, had to learn how to properly take a handoff. And Gwen Flager, the quarterback, worked on building her arm strength to fling the ball downfield 30 yards.

“Nobody could afford to get hurt because everybody had to work, everybody had a full-time job,” Flager said. “People were just mindful of that, to help one another, I don’t think we were competitive in relation to each other. What can you show me? What am I not doing right? What’s not working about this play?”

Several men assisted them in their football education. Robert Massey, a church pastor and former high school football player, volunteered to be the head coach. The team added Tommy Tillman and Jeffery Garner, two ex-college football players, to coach the offense and defense, respectively. Tillman would later take over for Massey as head coach.

“They were really, really tenacious about how they approached the game and most of them had a good football I.Q. so it was easy to say things to them and they received it very well,” Garner said.

But the men who supported the Herricanes were a distinct minority. As is still the case with women’s sports, there was a palpable lack of respect from the opposite sex. Men would show up to their practices and jeer at them. The harassment extended to their day jobs, where several women said they would catch flak from male co-workers for playing what was perceived as a man’s game.

Billie Cooper, the middle linebacker, worked at a chemical plant in Houston. She would routinely deflect co-workers attempting to put her down for playing for the Herricanes.

“I had guys come over to me outside when I was walking around and go, ‘You know, I can pick up five guys on my shift and beat the crap out of your team,'” Cooper said. “I would go, ‘OK. I’m not gonna argue with you knuckleheads.'”

The stigma included a lack of media coverage. Robin Massey, the head coach’s wife, became the team’s general manager, handling business expenses and trying to generate publicity. She recalls a particularly curt phone conversation with a prominent Houston television sports anchor.

“I said, ‘Did you get our press release?’ And (the anchor) said, ‘Yeah, I threw it in the garbage,'” Massey said.

The lack of sustained interest made it difficult for the Herricanes to survive. They played four seasons before folding before the 1980 season. While some teams like the powerhouse Oklahoma City Dolls enjoyed sustained subsidies from wealthy financiers, the Herricanes struggled to stay afloat.

It didn’t help that many of the women from the original 1976 team had begun to move on with their lives.

“I think you get to the point where maybe the risk of injury impacted some people who played or some of the women maybe decided it was time to start a family,” Flager said. “Just getting older and deciding this wasn’t gonna pay your bills.”

Any records of those four seasons have been lost, so the team’s record is not known.

Most of the former players agree they started off poorly. In their first game, they were pulverized by the powerhouse Dolls — the subject of an eponymous TV movie released in 1981 — 56-0. But by their last two seasons, the Herricanes started to hit their stride. In a final game, the Herricanes beat the Dolls for the first time.

“To me, that was like the championship,” Garner said.

Forty years later, as the former Herricanes reminisced at Harold’s, all were proud of what they accomplished as pioneers in what had long been considered an exclusively male sport. But they knew that the Herricanes and the NWFL had largely been erased from sports history.

Flager believes the Herricanes nudged open the door for women’s football but didn’t quite shatter the proverbial glass ceiling.

“Many people still don’t know that we were here,” Flager said.

And while women’s soccer is enjoying a renaissance, thanks in no small part to the overwhelming success of the U.S. Women’s National Team, the Women’s National Basketball Association has suffered a dramatic dip in attendance. Several professional women’s football leagues are active, including two teams in Houston, the Energy and the Heat, but both play in high school stadiums and don’t garner consistent media coverage.

For Bryant, the Herricanes founder, the survival of women’s sport is contingent on youth. If more young girls are taught a game, with the same structural advantages as their male peers, a women’s professional league will have a better chance of success.

“We had to learn it at the age most men were when they would play pro ball,” Bryant said. “You just don’t expect women to play football until you start teaching them. They’ve got to learn as little girls.”

Bryant pauses for a beat and turns to her old backfield mate, Flager, with a twinkle in her eye.

“I mean, Gwen and I were exceptional athletes,” Bryant said.

“Probably two of the best, no doubt,” Flager adds with a laugh. “And modest!”

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