Forget everything you think you know about women’s football and grandmothers nicknamed “Nana Pooh.”
“There’s one question people usually ask me when they find out about us,” says Adam Griffith, head coach of the Minnesota Vixen, the longest continuously operated women’s tackle football team in the world. “They’ll say, ‘Are you the Lingerie League?’ We’re definitely not the Lingerie League.”
Meet Cynthia Bryant. Most people call her “Red.” Her 4-year-old granddaughter, Kamarianna, calls her “Nana Pooh.” Her 6-month-old granddaughter, Payton, just smiles and reaches instinctively to caress grandma’s soft, doting face.
But to opposing linemen in the Independent Women’s Football League, grandma is anything but an old softie. She’s a 5-8, 325-pound immovable object or unstoppable force, depending on which side of the line she happens to be playing when the IWFL’s red, white and blue football is snapped.
“I’m blessed,” Bryant said. “I’m able to be agile and hostile at 40. When I was growing up, I thought when my mom was 40, ‘Man, you’re old.’ But it’s a new day and time.”
Bryant says this during a practice at Highland Forest Park in Burnsville. It’s 48 hours before the Vixen’s home opener, but Bryant isn’t in pads.
“Just got two cortisone shots in my knees,” she says. “I had one ’scoped three years ago. Pulled out my shoulder another year. Other than that, nothing major. I’ll be there.”
For 15 seasons, Bryant and 46-year-old teammate Michele Braun always have been there. They were two of 80 players selected among 350 women during a tryout at the Metrodome in the fall of 1998. Those 80 players were split into two teams — the Vixen and the Lake Michigan Minx — and taken on a seven-city barnstorming tour across the country in 1999. The Minx disbanded, while the Vixen have survived and is playing in their third different league since 2000.
“There was a little blurb in the paper,” Braun said. “It said, ‘Women’s tackle football tryouts, Metrodome.’ I got chills. I was already 31 years old and I was scared to death. But playing football was something I always dreamed of.”
The IWFL is called a “professional” league, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. While there are limited monetary incentives that are difficult to earn, most of the players in the 32-team league pay to play. Vixen players paid a $600 team fee to help offset such costs as uniforms.
“If you come out to play,” Griffith said, “you’re not doing it for the prize money.”
It’s game day. The Vixen are set to play the Madison Blaze in a Midwest Division game in front of about 500 fans at Chaska High School.
There are certain things one doesn’t expect to see on game day. A co-owner dressed in full uniform clacking up the stands on metal cleats to the press box so she can sing the national anthem has to be near the top.
It’s not until the closing moments of the fourth quarter when a reporter is told that the woman, now standing within earshot on the sideline, is Monica Castaldi, a math teacher at Chaska High and co-owner of the Vixen the past three years.
“Let’s see Zygi do this,” joked Castaldi, referring to Vikings owner Zygi Wilf.
The other co-owner is Jodi Walling, who played for the Vixen until a concussion landed her in the hospital for three days in 2009. On this night, Walling, a public information officer for the city of St. Paul, is doubling as photographer for the team website (www.mnvixen.com).
The Vixen were 1-1 heading into this May 18 game. The victory was a forfeit from the fledgling Rockford Riveters, who couldn’t field enough players.