Football Pioneers showed the way for NFL’s Super women

Jerry Sullivan

(WIVB)– Sporting history will be made this Sunday night in Tampa, and we’re not talking about Tom Brady looking to win his record seventh Super Bowl title in his 10th appearance in football’s ultimate showcase.  

No, this one is more culturally significant. No matter who wins the football game between the Chiefs and Bucs, it’s a victory for women.

Three females will play key roles on Sunday. The Bucs’ Maral Javadifar and Lori Locust will become the second and third women to coach in a Super Bowl. Sara Thomas will be first woman to officiate in the NFL’s championship game in her role as a down judge.

After a century of waiting, women are making their mark in the NFL, which has females popping up in jobs around the league. Carrie Brownson, who was the Bills’ coaching intern in 2019, is now the Cleveland Browns’ chief of staff under head coach Kevin Stefanski. The Chiefs have a pair of female assistant athletic trainers.

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, a Buffalo native and Southtowns resident who covers the WNBA for The Athletic, is thrilled to see it. 

“The timing couldn’t be more perfect,” D’Arcangelo said Thursday. “It just couldn’t.”

You see, D’Arcangelo has spent the last few years researching a book on a largely forgotten women’s professional tackle football league. The book, which is slated to come in November, is called, ‘HAIL MARY: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.”

D’Arcangelo and her co-author, Britni de la Cretaz, spent countless hours researching the history of the NWFL, which was created in 1974 and lasted for about 12 years. At its peak, the league had 14 teams spread across three divisions, from Los Angeles to Dallas to Philadelphia. 

“We take you through a history of women being involved in football since it was invented,” D’Arcangelo said, “and trying to play over the years and not getting the opportunity. How this league was formed, the league itself, rivalries, players and all the good stuff — then how it sort of fell apart and the legacy of it afterwards, to where we are now.”

A number of women’s leagues have been formed over the years, with only modest levels of success. Like so many women’s sports leagues, the NWFL struggled for acceptance and survival.

“There never really good organization, no good marketing or communication between the teams and team owners,” D’Arcangelo said. “There were some problems. But it lasted for over a decade.”

The NWFL had a precursor in the late 1960s. A promoter named Sid Friedman formed a women’s football team called the Daredevils, modeling it after the Globetrotters in basketball. Other cities formed teams — Buffalo had one for a time — but that league didn’t last. Some of the teams wound up in the NWFL.

“Other people saw what he did and started having their own teams and played each other,” D’Arcangelo said. “The most well-known team in women’s football was the Toledo Troopers. They were part of the NWFL and were the most dominant team. They had a running back named Linda Jefferson who ran for more yards than O.J. Simpson one year.”

When the league started in 1974, there were seven teams: The Toledo Troopers, Detroit Demons, Columbus Pacesetters, Fort Worth Shamrocks, California Mustangs, Dallas Bluebonnets and Los Angeles Dandelions. Two years later, the league had doubled to 14 teams. 

“Teams came and went. There were rivalries,” said D’Arcangelo, a Hamburg native and 1996 graduate of Frontier High. “Once you hear the stories of what happened during games and all this other stuff, it’s kind of incredible.

“At the time, they didn’t really know what they were doing was groundbreaking. The sentiment is, they just wanted to play football. They wanted to do something they were told they couldn’t do their whole lives. They just lapped it up. They enjoyed every second of it.”

“Looking back now at the trajectory of things, they see themselves as the ones who kind of laid the groundwork for this.”

There are threads connecting women over the years. D’Arcangelo spent time with Rose Low, a former LA Dandelion. Low attended East Los Angeles College (ELAC), a junior college where Antoinette “Toni” Harris would later become the first woman ever to play on the football team.

In 2019, Harris went on to play safety at Central Methodist, an NAIA school, becoming the first woman ever to receive a full college football scholarship as a non-specialist. Last year, Harris starred in a commercial for Toyota during the Super Bowl telecast.

“The connection there is kind of serendipitous,” D’Arcangelo said. She said the NWFL players from the old days love seeing today’s women follow in their footsteps, whether as player, coach, official or scout.

“Now that their story is being told, they wish it had been told sooner,” she said. “But they are so gracious and thankful for sharing it, because no one even knew that this league existed. So at least we are bringing them some attention that they should have gotten a long time ago.”

Locust grew up in Harrisburg, Pa., rooting for the Steelers. She played defensive line for a women’s team when she was around 40. She turned to coaching high school when she suffered injuries, and spent years coaching for free. She’s now the Bucs’ assistant defensive line coach; she was the first woman position coach in NFL history. 

Javadifar, a former basketball star at Pace University, is Tampa Bay’s assistant strength and conditioning coach. She has a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and a doctorate in physical therapy. She and Locust are evidence of Bruce Arians’ determination to “knock open the door” to women’s coaches when he took the Bucs’ head job.

“I feel blessed to have this opportunity and I know that coach ‘Lo’ and Sarah [Thomas] feel the same way,” Javadifar said Monday in a Zoom interview. “I do look forward to the day when it’s no longer newsworthy to be a woman working in the pros, or making the Super Bowl for that matter.”

D’Arcangelo, who has written in depth about the Buffalo Beauts and the upheaval in women’s pro hockey, has similar sentiments. She remembers playing tackle football as a kid. She played powderpuff in high school and two-hand touch in her adult years.

“My twin brother played on a team, full tackle,” she recalled. “I wanted to play, but my parents wouldn’t let me. It was hard sitting in the stands, watching. When we played on the grass lot by the school, I would be the only girl playing tackle with our friends. I could do that, but I wasn’t allowed to play in an organized league. It sucked.”

It was a joy talking football with women who had played professionally decades earlier, assuming those days had been long forgotten. 

“Oh, it was! Hearing them talk in the language of football was not only fulfilling for me, but for them. You’ve got two reporters chasing them down after all these years, wanting to talk about them and the league. It was almost like, ‘Is this real?’”

It’ll certainly be real for the women who will be on the field Sunday in the biggest game of them all, the Super Bowl. Who knows? Maybe some day, one of them will even play in it.

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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