Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | February 2019 | 19 minutes (4,800 words)
Mitchi Collette has been playing football, in one form or another, for 46 years. The 5’7” spitfire with grey, spiky hair is the co-owner and coach of the Toledo Reign, a team in the Women’s Football Alliance.
Collette is an effective coach in part because she knows firsthand what it’s like to be on the gridiron — she understands how to execute a play. The 65-year-old former outside linebacker knows what it feels like to put on the pads and the helmet and slam your full body weight into another person. She knows what it sounds like when bodies connect and the smell of grass and dirt when you’re thrown to the ground.
Collette’s football story started in 1973, when her friend and coworker at UPS, Linda Jefferson, urged her to try out for the Toledo Troopers. She had no formal football experience, and though 80 other women attended the tryout, Collette was one of 25 that made the cut. What she didn’t know then, what she couldn’t have known then, was that she would end up as part of one of the most legendary teams in sports history. Collette and the Troopers are regarded as the winningest team in pro football history: Over the course of their nine-year existence, the Troopers were virtually unbeatable. Confirming an official record number is challenging. An upcoming film about the team say 61–4; a website chronicling NWFL teams says 59–4; Steve Guinan, a Troopers historian, says 59–5. What all these numbers have in common is that they’re incredibly impressive — and unprecedented in the modern era.
But before they were champions, they were housewives, factory workers, beauticians, mothers — a ragtag group of unlikely sports heroes. A bunch of women who just wanted to play football in the National Women’s Football League, the first women’s pro football league in the United States. But every legendary team has a blemish — no team is perfect, after all. While the Toledo Troopers were pretty damn close, the story of their first loss — a crushing overtime defeat in 1976 to the Oklahoma City Dolls, a team that would become the Troopers’ nemesis — is almost more interesting that all of the team’s wins. What happens when the winningest team finally loses a game?
Even though women’s football leagues have existed prior to the passage of Title IX, the belief that women don’t play football continues to persist: At least three semi-professional women’s tackle football leagues exist in the United States (including the WFA). Reporters still write the same stories about the novelty of women playing American tackle football — stories that mention the ponytails sticking out their helmets, that talk about how people don’t think women play the game, that emphasize that they’ll be treated just like one of the guys — but it is the same variation on a story for more than 100 years because for much of the history of the sport of American football, the women’s game was a gimmick.
In 1896, one of the first known football contests between women occured at Sulzer’s Harlem River Park, playful entertainment before a masked ball for a men’s social club. The men expected something light and gentle, and the players accordingly wore sailor suits and short dresses. But the women came to play. The game got rough. Police eventually arrived to shut it down, fearful that one of the women would get hurt.
Women playing football persisted as a gag. The 1926 Frankford Yellow Jackets, a Pennsylvania-based NFL team that existed for nearly a decade, organized women’s games so as to entertain the crowds during halftime of their games. That sentiment failed to change during the intervening decades: In the aughts, the Legends Football League (formerly the Lingerie Football League) debuted as a pay-per-view alternative to the Super Bowl’s halftime show. The concept was simple: People — presumably men — could pay money to watch women play football in their underwear.
The NWFL’s roots are similar. In 1967, a Cleveland talent agent named Sid Friedman conceived of a barnstorming operation in which a team of women toured the country playing men’s teams. According to the Detroit Free-Press, his idea focused less on football and “more from a show viewpoint.” Basically, Friedman reportedly wanted “a Harlem Globetrotters setup.” At one point, he allegedly proffered Hustler magazine a photo shoot with the league’s Detroit franchise. But like the women who came before them, when women answered an ad to join a football team, it was because they wanted to actually play football. The Troopers began in 1971 as part of Friedman’s Women’s Professional Football League. They were coached by Bill Stout, a former all-city nose guard for DeVilbiss High School in Toledo whose pro football dreams had crumbled. Before he began coaching the Troopers, Stout was a struggling factory worker with a gambling problem. He felt like he was out of options, so he turned to coaching women’s football — which he didn’t take seriously until he saw the dedication and determination of his charges.
The crowd thought “it’s a joke or something,” Stout told the Toledo Blade Sunday Magazine in 1974. “But when the game starts and they see these girls play, they realize it’s a football game. These girls play great football.” This, of course, was not always the case. Eight days before Stout was quoted in the Blade, a story in the Detroit Free Press described the Detroit Demons as playing “bloody bad football” for a crowd who “after seeing one game, never returned.”
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But by 1974, several teams started talks to break free. A meeting was held in California that year to unite Friedman’s WPFL and several other fledging women’s football outfits, with the intent to create a single, national league. Thus, the NWFL was born; the inaugural seven teams included those in Toledo and Detroit, and by the start of its third season in 1976, the league had doubled in size to 14 teams and three divisions — Eastern, Southern, and Western. One of those new teams was the Dolls.
According to Andrew D. Linden, an assistant professor of sport studies at California State University Northridge whose research focuses on football and social movements in the 1970s, many of the players did not particularly identify with the women’s movement that was going on at the time. (One newspaper article quotes a member of the Detroit Demons telling the reporter that she’s not a women’s libber.) Even still, the second wave feminist movement paved the way for these women to be on the gridiron. Essentially, the NWFL existed because the timing was right. “It’s Billie Jean King becoming a cultural icon [with] the Battle of the Sexes in 1973. Title IX passes [in 1972], the fight for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment” is constantly in the press, says Linden. This push for gender equality in sports was unprecedented, and opened the door for a league like the NWFL.
Even still, Dolls quarterback Jan Hines, now 65, says she didn’t tell anyone she was playing football: “In some people’s eyes you were a cult hero. And in other people’s eyes you were just the biggest heathen ever. And I just didn’t want to deal with any of that, so I just didn’t.” Her parents only found out when they saw her on television.
When the Dolls and the Troopers faced off for the first game of the 1976 season, the Troopers were prepared. They’d been training with Stout in Toledo’s Colony Field, which was more of a prairie than a sports field, but they made it work. They practiced 15 hours a week, despite the fact that most of them held down full-time jobs during the day (“Heaven forbid you ever miss a practice,” Collette says). Sometimes 200 spectators would watch them from lawn chairs; there were times cars would drive by and men would shout “Get back in the kitchen!” out the window at them. But the Troopers were undeterred.
Bill Stout “made us champions,” says Collette. “He knew what it would take to become a champion. That’s the kind of coach he was. He always wanted perfection.” Collette tells a story to demonstrate what kind of coach Stout was. It was the first game of either the 1974 or 1975 season, and the Troopers played the Columbus Pacesetters. On the sidelines, Stout was beside himself. All he did was yell at them, berate them, throw a fit, and make a scene for the entire first half. At halftime, the team headed into the locker room. “And he’s screaming at us,” Collette says. Finally, one of the Troopers looked up at Stout and says, “But coach, we’re beating them forty to nothing.”
Yeah, says Stout, “but you look like shit doing it.” After the game, which the Troopers won by double-digits, Stout fired all the referees. He was mad that the officials had failed to properly call penalties on his team, asking, “How do you expect me to have a perfect team if you can’t flag the mistakes my team does?”
Stout was the kind of coach that transformed a team of athletes with no football experience into seven-time world champions. And versus the Dolls on Saturday, August 21, 1976, the Troopers set out to do what they’d done all 28 times they’d taken the field for the past five seasons: win.
The Oklahoma City Dolls were the new kids in town that season. The team was the brainchild of Hal and Mike Reynolds, who had read a magazine story about a women’s football team and wanted to start their own. Seventy-five women showed up to the first tryout; more than a third made the cut. The Dolls had already played two games that season, against the Dallas Bluebonnets, and won them both. Despite the Troopers’ reputation, the Dolls felt confident.
“[That the Troopers were undefeated was] like all we ever heard,” says Hines. “Everybody knew that they had started the league and everybody knew they’d never been beaten.” Not only that, she says, the Dolls were concerned about facing Linda Jefferson, the Troopers’ star halfback. At 5’4”, 120-pounds, Jefferson, Collette says, “could run fast and stop on a dime and go into a different direction like you would not believe.” She had rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of her first five seasons. The year before, Billie Jean King’s WomenSports magazine named Jefferson its “Woman Athlete of the Year,” and she would become the first Black woman inducted into the Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame. She’s also one of only four women in the American Association Football Hall of Fame. At the time of her retirement in 1978, Jefferson had scored more touchdowns than Walter Payton, O.J. Simpson, and Jim Brown.
The week prior to the game between the Troopers and the Dolls, the match had been advertised in the local paper: “Okla. City’s Newest Professional Sport!” the adverts screamed, next to a black-and-white illustration of a smiling, helmetless football player whose long hair appeared to be billowing in the wind. The advertising worked. Three thousand two hundred fans forked over the $3.50 for a ticket ($1.50 if they were a child), though that still left a lot of empty seats at Taft Stadium in Oklahoma City, which officially held more than 18,000 people. Hines says the fanfare around the game created “a big event atmosphere,” full of people who had shown up to watch the Troopers and to see what this new league was all about. Most of the crowd likely showed up because, at the time, women’s football was a novelty and they wanted to gawk.
The first half was scoreless. The closest either team got to scoring was in the second quarter, when the Troopers managed a first and goal at the 10-yard line. Three plays later, the Troopers made it to the two-yard line, but when quarterback Pam Hardy attempted a bootleg play — in which the quarterback runs with the ball in the direction of either sideline behind the line of scrimmage — on fourth down, she was stopped by the Dolls’ right linebacker, Cindy Herron. Meanwhile, the Dolls offense never made it past Toledo’s 27-yard line in the first half.
After a bad snap by the Dolls halfway through the third quarter, the Troopers finally struck: a five-yard rush by Jefferson finally put the Troopers on the board. After a 22-year-old hairdresser named Gloria Jimenez kicked the extra-point conversion, Toledo led 8–0 (under NWFL rules, teams could net two points after touchdowns, as opposed to one).
“I was a horrible kicker,” Jimenez says on a recent phone call from her home in Toledo. “For me to make that extra point was really a big deal because that kept us in the ballgame.” Jimenez, who is now 65, joined the Troopers in 1973 at the urging of her friend. She had virtually no experience with organized sports at the time. What she did have, however, was five brothers. “My dad always used to say, ‘I’ve got five sons and my daughter plays football.’ … I had more trophies than all my brothers put together.”
The Dolls immediately answered with a seven-play, 58-yard drive that ended with quarterback Hines rushing for 21 yards to score a touchdown. When Dolls kicker Mary Bluejacket’s extra-point attempt was blocked, it appeared the Troopers would pull out another victory. But two minutes later, trailing 8–6, Dolls defensive back Tina Bacy tackled Jefferson for a two-yard loss; then came a six-yard loss for the Troopers. And, with 11 minutes remaining in regulation, a group of Dolls tackled Toledo punter Barbara Church in the end zone for a safety, tying the game at 8–8. The score would remain that way until the end of regulation.
Hines credits Bacy’s defense with the Dolls’ success that day. “She was tall and slender, and she was able to shoot the gap on the deep ends of line,” Hines recalls. “And she was an extremely disruptive player. She caused a lot of problems for them when they went off end. She caused fumbles.” Bacy also held Jefferson to less than 100 rushing yards for the first time in her career — and it was likely the only game she ever played for the Dolls. “I don’t remember her before that game and I don’t remember her after that game,” says Hines. “But I remember her that game, and she was huge.”
Reflecting on it now, Collette says that the Troopers innately realized they had met their match. “We were a small team as far as our average height was 5’4” and our average weight was 140. We were tiny, but we were mighty,” says Collette. “When we went to Oklahoma City, their average height was 5’7.5” and their average weight was 195. They were good and so were we.”
More than that, says Jimenez, is that the Dolls were playing on their home turf, and they had a sideline full of players. The Troopers showed up with far fewer players, meaning that many of their players played both sides or, in Jimenez’s case, hardly came off the field at all. “That was the most beat-up I’ve ever been after a game,” she says. “The team was very good.”
Being on a relatively new team, Hines wasn’t familiar with the league rules. After regulation ended with a tie score, Hines recalls saying to the referee, “Oh wow, I get to tell my grandkids that we tied.” And he said, “No, you don’t. You have to play sudden death.” That’s when Hines says her adrenaline spiked. “The tie end was kind of OK and that was something to brag about and tell people about, that you tied this team — but I just absolutely did not want to lose.”
OKC received the ball to begin overtime and it didn’t take long for them to pull out the victory. On their second play, they ran a hook-and-lateral, where Hines flicked a pass to right end Charlotte Gordon, who then lateraled the ball to halfback Doris Stokes for a 35-yard play. Three plays later, Hines ran a version of a flea flicker play, in which the defensive team is tricked into thinking the offense is going to run the ball when they really intend to pass it. Hines completed a perfect 19-yard pass to left end Debra Sales — the only pass reception of the night for the 5’5” player. Thanks to some unconventional play-calling, the Dolls won, 14–8.
“I remember rolling out to my left, and I can remember seeing my receiver [Sales], and it was almost like looking down a straw, and I could see only her,” says Hines. “And the ball just kind of jumped out of my hands and jumped into hers. And I was never really conscious of throwing it. But I guess I did, ’cause that’s what they said in the paper.” Hines thought they still had to try to kick the extra point, and didn’t realize the game was over, despite the fans she said rushed the field after the touchdown.
Even more shocking were OKC coach Mike Reynolds’s comments about his team in a 2000 interview. “Most of the girls who were with the Dolls had previously played some kind of sport, but they didn’t like to practice and they weren’t used to the discipline needed for football,” he told The Daily Oklahoman. “We had to start from scratch. Most of the Dolls had never gotten in a [football] stance or hit anybody before or ever gotten tackled. Once in a while there’d be some crying going on.” (Hines disputes this characterization; she was a collegiate softball player — a member of the first softball team at University of Oklahoma, made possible by Title IX — and says most of the other players were lifelong athletes, as well. “It takes a certain kind of person that can take a hit and get up and do it again,” she says.)
For the Troopers, the loss was crushing. Collette describes it as “devastation.” They didn’t expect to start their season losing for the first time in six seasons to a brand-new team. The way they saw it, they weren’t training five days a week in the middle of a prairie, putting their bodies on the line and risking injury for essentially no money (they were only paid for two or three seasons, according to Collette, and their pay ranged from $10–$40 per week) just to lose to a group of women who had just shown up on the scene.
“The look on all my coaches faces was like, ‘Tell me that didn’t just happen,’” says Collette. “I remember getting on the bus and going back to the hotel and a lot of the players that had been there before me, they were crying. Because we never knew how it was to lose.”
Jimenez, too, remembers the crying. “It was total disbelief, total shock. It was a long way to travel to lose your first game in your entire career,” she says now. “It was a long ride home … a lot of crying, a lot of heartbreak.”
There was one thing that the entire team agreed on: There was no time to grieve this loss. They had a season to continue, and they were determined not to lose again — and they didn’t, winning their next 10 games, as well as their division. Meanwhile, the Dolls steamrolled their own schedule, losing only one game the rest of the season, to the Dallas Bluebonnets. Oklahoma City then beat Dallas in a playoff game to win the Southern Division.
That meant that the Troopers would get what they’d wanted all season: a chance at redemption. Toledo and Oklahoma City would meet in the NWFL championship game. “We wanted that game,” says Collette. She says it one more time for effect. “And [Stout] pulled out all the stops and was going to make sure that we had that game. It was a bloodbath.”
But for as much as the Troopers wanted revenge, the Dolls wanted to make their own statement. It was an “‘I beat you once, I’m gonna beat you again’ kind of thing” for them, says Collette. “I mean, it was a game.”
It was, indeed, a close game. The game was declared a tie, 13–13, and the teams shared the 1976 title. But the record book doesn’t tell the whole story.
“I’ll tell you exactly what happened,” Collette says. “It wasn’t a tie.”
The game is burned so permanently into Collette’s memory that she can recall the date (December 11, 1976) and the weather (below freezing) without being asked. The field of the University of Toledo’s Glass Bowl Stadium was covered in snow, and the turf had to be cleared off before play could begin. Collette describes it clearly: “I’ll never forget this day as long as I live.”
What’s not in dispute: That Jefferson scored all of the Troopers points and rushed for 137 of the team’s 140 rushing yards. That the Troopers scored two touchdowns, missed the extra point after their first touchdown, and made the conversion after the second touchdown. That Dolls’ 5’8” fullback Frankie Neal scored both touchdowns and that the team missed the PAT on the second touchdown.
What is in dispute: the result of the PAT after the Dolls’ touchdown in the first quarter. Referees ruled it no good on the field, which Collette still insists was the right call. According to Hines, though, one ref ruled it good while another did not, and she remembers the ball clearly going through the uprights.
OKC believed that their kicker Bluejacket’s kick was good, and they filed a dispute with the league. “Obviously the call had an effect on the outcome of the game, or I wouldn’t have filed the protest,” Dolls coach Mike Reynolds told The Daily Oklahoman. “It was very obvious to us [the coaches] and the players that the kick was good.”
The two teams met again in the 1977 NWFL championship, which the Troopers won 25–14. The Dolls went on to win another championship, this one all their own, in 1978 — a season in which Hines says they averaged 35 points a game and allowed just eight points all season. They played a fourth and final season in 1979, and were awarded the championship when the Columbus team declined to play OKC for the championship. “When we played our last game, we didn’t even know it was our last,” says Hines. “It was sad.” The league consolidated after that season, leaving the Dolls without enough opponents, and the NWFL’s structure began to further collapse. The team’s four-year record was 32-3-1, posting 1–1–1 in NWFL championship games.
Meanwhile, the Troopers mostly kept winning until 1979, when financial difficulties sunk the team, though Collette is still unclear of the exact reasons. But her football career was far from over. In 1983, a new NWFL team — the Furies — formed in Toledo. Collette and Jimenez both jumped at the chance to play again, which they did until 1989, when the rest of league pivoted to flag football. “Toledo was just still standing there going, ‘But we still want to play [tackle] football,” she says, but “the league folded and no one really played again” until the end of the 1990s.
Jimenez describes being on the Troopers as “the greatest thing I ever did in my life. … I got to know a lot of great people. … It changed my life, it made me a leader, and I took that into my own role as my lifestyle when I went out into the world.” In 1983, the Troopers were recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the “winningest” team of all time, and in 2014 they were the first inductees into the Women’s Football Foundation Hall of Fame.
The Dolls were equally important to Hines. She describes her time with the team as “the best four years” of her life. Being a quarterback afforded her leadership qualities that she took into her off-the-field career: she worked as a line worker at Western Electric in Oklahoma City, and she was promoted into a supervisory role because of the assumption that she could lead a team, like she did for all those years as quarterback of the Dolls. She would eventually ascend to the level of director at Lucent Technologies, “just a hair short of vice president.”
Both Collette and Hines would have kept playing indefinitely if they could have, but the political climate of the era more than explains the dearth of women’s football leagues in the late 1980s and 1990s, says Linden. The ’80s were a time of Reagan-era rollbacks of the civil rights progress of the previous decades. In 1984, there was a pushback on Title IX that specified only certain programs, like financial aid offices, would qualify to receive federal funding, and athletic departments weren’t included (this was reversed in 1988 after a congressional override). All of this contributed to a culture in which women explicitly understood that they didn’t belong in male-dominated spaces like the gridiron. The Women’s Football Encyclopedia refers to the absence of teams from the late 1980s until 1999, when the roots of the Women’s Professional Football League were planted, “a deep freeze” on full-contact women’s football.
In the early aughts, though, there was an explosion of teams exploring the tackle football fold, and the timing seemed right for Collette to step back into the world of football — but this time with her own team, the Toledo Reign. Seventeen years into her coaching career, Collette is a legend in the world of women’s football; the Reign have had success in the WFA, winning division championships in 2012, 2014, and 2015, and a regional championship in 2017. Collette is the player she was and the coach she is because she learned from the best. Because she learned how to win, but also, because she learned what it felt like to lose.
Collette occasionally thinks of that championship game. The story did not end after the Dolls officially challenged the final score. According to Guinan, the Troopers historian who has written a screenplay and a book on the team, how the game went from a Troopers’ victory to a tie related to video footage, which has since gone missing. Guinan has spent years trying to recover that footage, to be able to see for himself what NWFL commissioner Deborah Wright — a former Trooper — saw that compelled her to anoint co-champions.
Due to the snowy conditions on the field that day, the refs couldn’t establish a position to clearly see whether the kick was good or not. Guinan says the PAT was waved off on the field, but the Dolls — and some of the Troopers — swore they saw the ball go through the uprights. Dolls coach Reynolds filed his dispute, and video footage surfaced that was apparently undeniable. (According to Hines, a local OKC television crew had traveled with them to Toledo and it was their footage that showed the successful PAT.) So undeniable that even a former Trooper felt she had to do something.
At the time, there was no protocol for replay, because in the 1970s it wasn’t yet a thing (the NFL introduced instant replay formally in 1986). Through his research, Guinan discovered that Wright felt she had to take action, and that was to declare the Troopers and the Dolls co-champions. Had the call on the field been correct, the Dolls would have won that game, but without a clearly outlined protocol for how to proceed, Wright did what she felt was, well, right.
“I don’t accept that,” says Jimenez. She is adamant. “I feel that we won. The end of the game, we won on the scoreboard. I don’t think you can just turn around … and go, well, it’s a tie now.”
Hines believes that the refs rigged the game for the Troopers, since they were local officials who knew the players by first name and had followed their history-making ascent in the NWFL. She places no blame on the members of the Troopers themselves. After a co-championship was declared, the Dolls were given a small trophy, but coach Reynolds paid out of pocket to have a duplicate trophy made, which looked identical to the one the Troopers received.
According to Collette, she asked Stout, her coach, about what happened years later. They went to dinner shortly before he passed away in 2012, and Collette’s story is a little bit different. “I went, ‘Coach, don’t you remember? I was the outside linebacker. I was there, I watched the ball get kicked over the upright — outside,’” Collette recalls telling him. “Oh, I know,” he told her. So why did it end up being called a tie? “He says, ‘I don’t remember, I think I just got tired of … them whining about [it].’”
Collette doesn’t much care what the history books say, though. “In my eyes, in my heart, I know that we won.”
Just don’t tell that to Hines. When asked if the Dolls won that game, she’s clear: “Oh, absolutely.”
Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance sports writer living in Boston. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, espnW, Bleacher Report, and more.
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