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After false starts and fumbles, women's football in Richmond may finally gain ground.

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Since trying out in October for a start-up women's pro football team in Richmond, the 28-year-old social worker and Fan resident has been pining for full-contact tackle football complete with body pads and helmets — just like the game the Washington Redskins play. Logistically, the only difference would be the size of the pigskin: Hers would be the peewee version.

The problem is Thacker's dream has been jump-started and left to idle time and again. But Jamal Mosley, the new owner of a gosling team called the Richmond Spirit, says he can make River City rally around women's football and turn skeptics into die-hard fans.

History precedes him. Richmond media have covered attempts by different women's pro and semi-pro football leagues to establish a team here since at least 2002: the Women's American Football League and the Women's Affiliated Football Conference, to name two. But despite recurring interest, no team has emerged, and each plan has fizzled.

Then last October, the National Women's Football Association, which boasts 35 teams and celebrates its sixth anniversary this month, announced it would develop an expansion team in Richmond. A local coach was hired. Tryouts were held, yielding nearly two dozen core players. Still shy on a name and owner, the preliminaries seemed to signal promise for Thacker and a few dozen women like her, who say they've eyed the football field since they were little girls.

"We were out there practicing in the snow and in the rain," Thacker says of the initial 22-woman team that began showing up on Saturdays to play at Dorey Park. Ranging in age from 18 to 45, they are lawyers, soccer moms, teachers and executives.

Some, such as Thacker, say that even though more strides have been made to launch an official pro women's football team here, the team's immediate future comes down to one thing: participation. That's why, they say, tryouts such as the one that took place Aug. 11 are so pivotal.

"It's been very frustrating. Your spirits are up and then they're down," Thacker says of the stops and starts. "If the numbers don't show [at tryouts], this team's not going to go anywhere."

The tryouts last week at Gillies Creek Park marked the first time Richmond Spirit owner Mosley has come out to see his team. It turns out, he's caught in D.C. traffic for most of it. It's also the first time Mosley and his team's coach, Wolf Williams, have met in person. But more important than this — not to mention sponsorships, coffers, water coolers and uniforms — the team needs bodies.

The goal, Mosley says, is to have what's called a "traveling roster" of 60. "It'd be nice to have 100 women out there" to add to the core group of 22, he says a day before Friday-afternoon tryouts. "But I'd be happy with 30."

A dozen new recruits showed up for tryouts last Friday at Gillies Creek. About the same number of seasoned women footballers turned out, too, to see what their potential teammates are made of.

"You want to stay on your toes. It's all about the toes. Speed comes after the technique comes in," Williams shouted, whistle in hand, as the women scurried through what's called the ladder. It's an exercise in which players cradle the football while hustling to put both feet down — one after the other — in each ruler-sized space between ladder rungs.

It's the sort of training familiar to Mosley, who played quarterback for his high school football team in St. George, Va.. Now a D.C. resident and a computer specialist under contract with the U.S. Navy, Mosley says it's been his dream to own a professional sports team.

In June, he paid roughly $35,000 for a license to own a National Women's Football Association team in Richmond. It's closer to D.C. than Cleveland is — another city with an NWFA team up for sale — and it's a market primed for women's football, he says.

Debby Lening, vice president of the NWFA, acknowledges that establishing a team in Richmond has been difficult, but she attributes the difficulty to not having the right person in charge, meaning an owner. If Richmond proves to be a successful market, 2,000 to 4,000 people would pay the average ticket price of $10 to see a Spirit game, she says.

Her advice to Mosley: Don't overspend or waste money on gimmicks such as game-day programs that fans typically don't buy; do get involved in the community. Lening doesn't know how many, but she says a handful of teams have folded because they haven't been profitable. It all comes down to "how a team gets out and markets itself," Lening says.

But there will undoubtedly be other obstacles. The Richmond Spirit's spring games are expected to be played on Saturday nights and will overlap with those of the Richmond Braves, for instance.

The coaching situation is also tenuous. In June, not long after he bought the team, Mosley hired as the Spirit's head coach former Fayetteville State football standout Larry Walker, who's coached everything from the Bon Air Bruins, one of the city's first integrated football teams, to women's varsity basketball at various area high schools. Walker and Mosley spoke daily by phone, outlining their objectives and deliberating how the Spirit should proceed. In the meantime, Walker says, he waited for money and for Mosley to make good on his promises. Walker insists neither came.

Walker says Mosley never paid him to coach the team and put off or denied Walker's repeated requests that Mosley purchase such necessities as first-aid kits, jerseys and water coolers.

"He doesn't know what it takes to own a football team," Walker says now of Mosley. "He didn't give me anything to work with." Two months ago, Walker felt differently and was so excited about the team's prospects that he spent much of the summer scouting local talent from pools of recent high-school graduates. Then, just two weeks ago, he was "relieved" of his coaching duties, he says.

Mosley attributes the parting to philosophical differences. He's hired back Wolf Williams, the temporary coach initially hired by the league last year. Williams, who played football at Rutgers before playing two years in the Canadian Football League, is a no-nonsense traditionalist when it comes to coaching. He currently directs the football program at the city's U-TURN Sports Performance Academy located near Staples Mill Road and Broad Street.

"It's been a long time coming," Williams remarks of the Spirit's road to fruition. Williams says he'll focus on each player's physical condition, building the team's speed, precision and power.

"I don't think we'll be as big as some other teams," he says, referring to the D.C. Divas — the current NWFA champions — and the Pittsburgh Passion, which boasts 5-foot-10 linewomen weighing 180-plus pounds.

Instead, Williams plans to capitalize on finesse, physical conditioning and what he says women may project more forcefully than men: a competitive spirit. He fully expects his nascent team to make the playoffs in its first official year. "I try to look at this as football, period," Williams says. "My goal is to win. And with football, there's no other reason to play the game." S



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