UC Berkeley Web Feature
|(Bonnie Azab Powell photos)|
Female fans have a rowdy ball at Cal Women's Football Huddle
Watch Flash slide show
BERKELEY — I bounced nervously on Memorial Stadium's springy fake turf, studying the football propped up a few yards away. On its side, the word "Cal" gleamed golden in the last rays of the sun. The ball seemed very small and far away from the goal posts at which I was supposed to be aiming my kick. The stands were mostly empty and only a handful of people on the field were watching, but still I started to get an idea of the lung-collapsing pressure a kicker feels.
I really, really wanted to make this field goal. When it comes to football, I don't know a safety from a safety pin or a blitz from a blini, but years ago I could kick a soccer ball halfway down the field. Plus, I've always hated it when guys can do things better. How hard could this be?
As we'd been instructed to do, I took three steps back and one more to the left of the ball. I imagined my right foot connecting with its curved underside, and took a deep breath. I approached the ball at a controlled canter and made painful, explosive contact. It sailed, end over end - passing the left post on the outside by about five feet. So much for my moment of glory.
The horn sounded, and it was time for our group, the Gold Dots, and the other Cal Women's Football Huddle groups to rotate to new stations. Next up for us was Justin Wilcox, linebacker coach, who we'd been informed was single.
"Oh, he's really good-looking. My daughter would like him," said one woman, as the boyish, well-scrubbed Wilcox demonstrated something - perhaps blocking? - with a red plastic barrel.
Early on, it was clear that the 300-plus women attending the first inaugural Cal Women's Football Huddle on Friday evening, August 6, were not only fans of football, but also of football players and coaches. There was much giggling as we all milled around the Travers Big Game Room in our sweatpants and tennis shoes before heading out to the field. Participants quickly pulled on their new Women's Huddle t-shirts so Coach Jeff Tedford could autograph their backs.
Modeled on a similar event that Tedford and Mike McHugh, Director of Football Operations, put on at the University of Oregon, the Women's Huddle was billed as "a fun, hands-on demonstration of the ins and outs of football, a perfect way to learn more about the game!" Unfortunately, I had overlooked the operative word: "more." I was a freshman in a stadium full of football faculty. These women were all longtime football fans, Cal alumnae and/or season ticket holders. For example, Shari Dunn, '63 Psychology, said that she'd been coming to Memorial Stadium for 25 years, but paid the $25 for the Huddle to increase her knowledge, adding in a whisper, "And I didn't know this before, but all these coaches are really cute!"
Mandy Tachiki, whose husband Scott Tachiki graduated from Berkeley in 1989, said that Scott had hounded her into going. "I go to lots of games, but my husband's a fanatic. I think he's living vicariously though me," she laughed, "He wants me to memorize everything Tedford says."
There were even a couple of ringers. In attendance were Berkeley alumnae Kirsten Drake and Mary Scotty, who after playing varsity softball and basketball for Cal, went on to play on the first pro women's football team in California, the Oakland Banshees.
And then there was me, busy loading up on buffalo wings and nachos. I have never attended a Cal game, or for that matter, a Super Bowl party. It takes me a minute to remember whether my hometown football team is the A's or the Raiders. Up until I walked into Big Game Room, I was so ignorant about football I was slightly proud of it, sort of like never having watched a reality TV show. However, I thought I would be in good company at the Huddle, not surrounded by women who could reel off the scores from 1984 Cal games.
Some of my anxiety dissipated when McHugh said we could bring our beer and wine out into Memorial Stadium. We settled into the bleachers for a quick introduction to all the coaches and a lesson from Dave Lambros. I assumed that Lambros, who was wearing a striped shirt, was a referee, but instead I learned he was a "back judge," the person who inspects the players for scoliosis. (OK, sorry, I have no idea what he actually said.)
My hopes that he was going to give a "Football for Dummies" overview of the rules were dashed when he launched into how the men in striped shirts keep track of which "down" it is. Although I still don't know what a down is, I now know they count them using an elastic bracelet pulled up over a particular finger. My fellow Huddlers, however, peppered Lambros with questions about "holding" and why, for the first time in football history, officials would be identifying the number of the player who committed a foul instead of just announcing the foul.
Lambros was relying on two Golden Bears, Harrison Smith (No. 11, a junior who plays cornerback) and Chase Lyman (No. 15, senior, wide receiver) to demonstrate things like "offside" that could get players in trouble. Dana Marquez, the Bears' head equipment manager, also used the two to demonstrate a few things that spelled trouble off the field - e.g., disrobing in front of a pack of beer-drinking women. (See slide show.)
Marquez had the players remove their helmets and jerseys, then show off the high-tech padded armor - uh, gear - they wear, which is lined with tiny cushions that inflate on impact. Then off came their shoes, pants, and undershirts. Stripped to their specially padded girdles, Smith and Lyman bore the catcalls good-naturedly, even as half the women were demanding they toss their shirts to the crowd as though we were at Chippendales. (Others were covering their blushing faces.)
After that performance everyone was pretty fired up, even me. Tedford led us into the Big Game tunnel, then had us run out yelling onto the field while a recording of the Cal fight song blared over the loudspeakers. McHugh sorted us into 10 groups of around 30, and we dispersed to various stations manned by the different coaches.
George Cortez, the Bears' offensive coordinator, dizzied us with the hundreds of signals and plays that the quarterback and others have to memorize, although players do get to wear a little plastic cheat sheet on their arm. ("And people say football players aren't the smartest!" marveled one woman.) We learned such Zen koans as "Even though they're called tackles, they can't tackle" from Jim Michalczik, the assistant head coach and offensive line coach. Other interesting lingo: a "Raven" group has three receivers and a "Rocket" configuration has four receivers, according to Wide Receivers Coach Eric Kiesau.
"We wanted to give the women a little taste of everything," explained McHugh. "Tonight is their night. Often, with men around, they're too intimidated to ask for something to be explained. Here, they can let the questions fly." Unless, that is, they're too embarrassed to ask Kiesau what a receiver is, because other women are asking questions like "What's the signal for putting receivers in motion at the line of scrimmage?"
McHugh chuckled that "there are a lot of men who are very jealous about this." Although men were banned from signing up for the Huddle, several had been alerted by cell phone calls from their wives that the stadium was open and showed up to watch - and videotape - from the stands. Allan Heskin, husband of participant Mary Kelly, was one of the slightly glum onlookers. "Yes, I'm jealous," he said. "I'm unhappy she's going to know more than me. This is the one thing I always understood better than her."
Pete Alamar, the coach of the Bears' special teams and tight ends, was using that argument to appeal to his listeners while he explained what a "tight end" does and how three of them were called a "stallion package." (I am happy to say that I was not the only one giggling at the terminology.) He instructed us, the next time we found ourselves standing around a tailgate party or watching a game with our menfolk, to drop the cryptic phrases "You know, for Cal to run the ball outside today, the tight end's going to have to win at the point of attack," or "Do you think Cal will use their stallion package?" Apparently, this is guaranteed to elevate us to football-goddess level in the eyes of our men, albeit on a pedestal of resentment.
"Because, if you say that, you've just jumped into his game. And that's almost as bad as taking his barbecue tongs," winked Alamar. "You can't know more about sports than he does." (Since my husband owns neither barbecue tongs nor a barbecue, and would be thrilled if I learned more about sports so I could explain them to him, I filed these nuggets away for Thanksgiving, when my uncles and cousins will be watching the game.)
Ron Gould, the running back coach, gave a popular demonstration of how to receive a hand-off. Gould said he tells his players to "treat this pigskin like Mom. Mom's precious, she's golden. Do not drop Mom." Then, after Gould slammed the pigskin into our rib cages, we had to run with Mom over some hurdles. I wished I had not had quite so many nachos.
McHugh and Tedford were hoping that the turnout would justify making the Cal Women's Huddle an annual event, and there's no question that most of these women will be back next year. By the end of the Huddle's two hours, my fellow participants were revved up and ready to scrimmage. "Give me a cup; I'm ready to play!" hollered one woman in bicycle shorts and an oversized t-shirt.
Since she was still holding her plastic tumbler full of beer, I'm not sure what she was waiting for. I, however, will need to watch a few games from a couch first.