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.
Burnsville High School used to be the team’s home field, but that relationship fell through so the Vixen had to schedule this game at Chaska and their final two home games at Concordia University. The Vixen meet the Wisconsin Warriors at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“We should have demanded a new stadium,” joked Walling, who pitched in $10,000 after she and Castaldi took over a debt-ravaged team, filed bankruptcy and started anew on a strict $60,000-a-year budget in 2009.
“We didn’t buy it to make money, that’s for sure,” Walling said. “It got to the point where if someone didn’t step in, the Vixen would have folded.”
Tickets are $10 and attendance varies from below 100 to about 1,000 depending on the weather. Quarters are 15 minutes long and most of the rules are the same as college football, except the ball is smaller.
‘A freight train’
The Vixen win the coin toss, but it’s obvious early on that this will not be a good night for the Minnesotans. The opening kickoff is fumbled away, one of nine Vixen turnovers — including two interceptions returned for touchdowns — in a 26-0 loss.
The level of execution is raw, but there is passion for the game and a willingness to hit. Especially by big No. 96.
“When I hit, I hit very, very hard,” said Bryant, a 10-time All-Star. “I bench press 255 pounds.”
Bryant, a former standout basketball player at Henry High School in north Minneapolis, also is deceptively quick.
“The reason I’m here is I was playing basketball at the Uptown Y,” Bryant said. “The other team’s coach told a player to step in front of me and take a charge. And she was like, ‘Hell, no. She’s coming through the paint like a freight train.’ There were some people there who were trying to recruit women to try out for football. The rest is history.”
Bryant, whose primary position is defensive tackle, spent the first half getting double-teamed while the Blaze ran away from her. Finally, the Blaze tried an inside run late in the third quarter. It wasn’t a good idea for running back Kara Haines, who was picked up and planted on her back for a 1-yard loss in a very anti-grandmotherly moment by Bryant.
Teammates and fans whooped it up. Bryant is the leader of an interesting mixture of 42 players. There are three teachers, including Bryant, a behavioral specialist at PYC Arts & Technology High School in north Minneapolis. There’s a body builder named Jennifer Walton, a 21-year-old competitive snowboarder named Missy McAlpin and a starting quarterback (Emily Evans) who coaches softball at Bethel University.
“We even got a mortician,” said linebacker Eve Simpson.
The Vixen were trailing 19-0 at halftime and couldn’t move the ball with any consistency. Of course, that’s going to happen when you have 23 rookies and only two practices a week.
“I’d say 90 percent of the first-year players don’t know football,” Griffith said. “And when I say, ‘Don’t know football,’ I mean we’re starting off by telling them, ‘This is what a first down is.’ ”
Lesson for the grandkids
Griffith likes to keep Bryant on one side of the ball because of her age and knees. But at halftime of the Blaze game, he decided to use Bryant some on the offensive line.
The first time the Vixen touched the ball in the third quarter, Bryant, playing right guard, destroyed the woman across from her. Running back McGee Steffes ran behind the block for a first down. Next play, same thing.
Later, playing left guard, Bryant drove a defender 10 yards before pancaking her. Another blast lifted a defender a couple feet off the ground.
“We’ve even put her in the backfield in goal line and let her carry the ball,” said Codi Falley, a former Vixen player and now a member of the team’s support staff. “Everyone knows what’s going to happen. But you can’t stop it.”
Two days before the loss to the Blaze, Bryant was talking about this likely being her last season. In the moments after a lopsided beating, she wasn’t so sure, saying she might play until she’s 46 or older.
By then, Kamarianna and Payton will be old enough to realize the cool show-and-tell possibilities of having a tattooed all-star defensive tackle as a grandmother.
“I started out watching football with my father [Lloyd Harris] when I was 7,” Bryant said. “Maybe I can play long enough to show my grandkids that women can do whatever they want. Even play football into their 40s.”