De la Cretaz, Britni and D’Arcangelo, Lyndsey. Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League. New York: Bold Type Books, 2021. Pp. vii, 290. Black and white photos, team list, bibliography, index. $28 hardcover.
Reviewed by Russ Crawford
In Hail Mary, de la Cretaz and D’Arcangelo have gathered fascinating stories of many of the pioneering women who played on the various teams of the National Women’s Football League (NWFL). These women broke cultural barriers that had kept large numbers of women from playing the most popular sport in the United States. The authors thus have performed a service to history by recording what the women thought about doing so. These athletes certainly deserve their due meed of glory.
The work is divided into eighteen chapters spread across six sections, which, after beginning in 1976 in Part I, zags back to the period from 1896 to 1970 in Part II before preceding chronologically.
In their Introduction, the authors place the NWFL’s athletes and teams into historical context, drawing a line from their efforts to the contemporary world of women’s, and girls, tackle football. They contend that the struggles that the leading wave of players had to endure paved the way for the current generation of women playing in leagues such as the Women’s Football Alliance and the Women’s National Football Conference, as well as girls leagues in Utah and Indiana. In that, they may have a point, but the lack of coverage that the NWFL received in the press, added with many sportswriters’ historical blindness, might indicate that later leagues were somewhat independent inventions. In the case of Mitchi Collette, however, they do have a case, as the former Toledo Trooper player went on to play for the Toledo Furies, then coached the Toledo Spitfire, and is the current owner/coach of Thee Toledo Reign. In other cases, the connections are not so clear.
The authors make it clear from the beginning that they did not intend to write a comprehensive history of the NWFL, but rather to tell “the story of the women who played the game, of the glory and pain it brought them, and ultimately, what it meant to them.” (8) They further stated that their goal was to “write these women back into the narrative of football, where they have always been and undoubtedly belong.” (9)
They succeeded in both of those goals. The stories of the women and their teams are fascinating. The reader meets stellar athletes such as Linda Jefferson, who rushed for over 8,000 yards and scored 140 touchdowns as a member of the Troopers. In addition to the Troopers, readers learn about the Oklahoma City Dolls, the Toledans’ major rival, perhaps for the first time, despite the team being the subject of a 1981 made-for television movie. The story of their first meeting in 1976 was the topic of the second chapter. The Troopers had never lost a game when they met the Dolls for the first time. They ended regulation tied at 8-8, but the upstart Dolls used a trick play to score in overtime and win 14-6.
Chapter 4 considers the role of Sid Friedman. The Cleveland promoter created the Cleveland Daredevils as a barnstorming team that played primarily against men’s teams in 1967. After the Daredevils had some success, he later decided to form women’s teams in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Toledo. De la Cretaz and D’Arcangelo consider his legacy to be decidedly mixed. While they acknowledge that his vision gave women a chance to play football, they criticize the promoter for being motivated “simply, to make money.” (50) They also claim that, after the Troopers became a dominant team, he suggested that “they throw a couple of games to keep the fans invested.” (51)
As de la Cretaz and D’Arcangelo are writers whose work appears in various sports media sources, such as Sports Illustrated and The Athletic, they did not write Hail Mary as an academic treatment of the NWFL. Therefore, the work lacks footnotes, which, from an academic standpoint, would have been useful to stimulate further research. That does not seriously detract from the work, particularly since the authors have included so much information from interviews with the players themselves.
Chapters 5 through 14 provide the stories of various teams, including the Dallas Bluebonnets, the LA Dandelions, and the Houston Herricanes, among others. This is perhaps the most valuable part of the work. The authors made contact with players from most of the teams and the first-person perspective of the players is compelling reading. Rose Low of the Dandelions, for instance, reflected on how the press wanted to ask questions about whether the athletes were feminists or how they protected their breasts. She told the authors, “The sportswriters were just trying to sell newspapers and some of them made fun of it. We were just athletes who wanted to play ball.” (182)
Throughout the work, the authors, echoing some of those contemporary reporters, grapple with whether the women were feminists. For the most part, the women themselves argued they were not concerned with politics. Low went on to say, “We weren’t out on a mission for women’s lib or anything like that, we just wanted to play.” (182) They do, however, make the point that “change happens because everyday people refuse to cave into societal expectations…In that way, the players were unwitting activists, whether they saw themselves that way or not.” (10).
The final chapters, 15 through 18, follow the NWFL’s eventual decline and the subsequent ways some women tried to keep their place on the field. The final chapter questions where women’s football is headed. The authors follow the path of many observers of women’s football in arguing that the current multi-league environment makes it more difficult to raise the visibility of the sport. When considering the possibility that the NFL could support a women’s league, much as the NBA supports the WNBA, the authors quote Molly Goodwin, the owner of the Boston Renegades of the WFA, who argued that that would take away control from the owners who have put considerable effort into growing their teams. (254)
De la Cretaz and D’Arcangelo have done a comprehensive job of bringing the NWFL back to life. They are part of a growing wave of works on women’s football, both in print and on screen. Neal Rozendaal self-published the first consideration of the women’s game in his Encyclopedia of Women’s Football in 2016. Since then, documentarians have produced several works, including Born to Play, a 2020 documentary on the Renegades by Viridiana Lieberman that played on ESPN. Open Field, a film by Kathy Kuras that follows the careers of players such as Sami Grisafe and Katie Sowers also debuted in 2020, and We Are the Troopers, written by Stephen Guinan, a fan of the team in the 1970s, premiered at Toledo’s Valentin Theatre last September. There are also at least three new books on women’s football in the works. Katie Taylor, a scholar from Britain, is in the process of turning her dissertation into a book on the history of women playing football in the early twentieth century. Guinan will publish a companion to his documentary, titled We Are the Troopers: The Women of the Winningest Team in Pro Football History, in August. And finally, the University of Nebraska Press has agreed to publish my history of women’s football since the 1970s.
So, if you are ready for some football, as played by women, we seem to be entering a golden age of research about the women who play, and have been playing, on the gridiron.
Russ Crawford is Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. The University of Nebraska Press has agreed to publish his as yet untitled book project on women’s football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.