“The first time I saw Jesse Smoke throw a football I knew she was going to be a miracle.”
So says the narrator at the beginning of Robert Bausch’s new novel, “The Legend of Jesse Smoke.”
The novel offers up a compelling and plausible near-future in which a 6-foot-2-inch, 180-pound woman — Miss Smoke — heaves the ball a country mile and faces down 320-pound defensive linemen screaming toward her. She becomes the first woman to star in the National Football League.
A woman playing quarterback in the NFL remains, for now, something strictly for the imagination, but Bausch’s novel is a reminder that women playing American football is nothing new.
Women first took to the gridiron before paying fans during the Great Depression. News reports of these early battles were rare, but Life magazine in 1939 offered a photo spread of women in action, wearing pads and helmets, racing down the field and banging into one another. The magazine’s editors noted that football was a men’s game and, expressing a common belief at the time, worried about how “a blow either on the breasts or in the abdominal region [of a woman] may result in cancer or internal injury.” (It wasn’t just tackle football that women were warned against; women track athletes mostly weren’t allowed to run distance races until the 1970s for fear that such strenuous activity would wreck their internal organs.)
The football-playing women featured in Life magazine, Los Angeles’ Marshall-Clampett Amazons, made their names as softball players — softball being the foremost women’s spectator sport at the time. “They are here! 14 Beautiful Girls,” offered an ad in the Palm Springs Desert Sun promoting a softball game between “the stalwart sons of Palm Springs and a bevy of Los Angeles girls ‘diamondeers.'” The newspaper heralded the women’s team, also known as the DeSotos (their sponsor), as “Famed Girl Softballers.”
Smithsonian magazine’s Erica Westly wrote in February that the DeSotos/Amazons branched out to football to keep their fan base engaged during softball’s off-season — and to take advantage of a sport newly open to them, pioneered by other women athletes.
They may have been softball players first and foremost, but the Amazons took the game seriously and sometimes drew as many as 3,000 spectators to games. “The Marshall-Clampett DeSotos of Los Angeles have been winning new fame the past few weeks as one of the finest girl football teams ever organized,” the Desert Sun wrote in November 1939. “Playing the same slam-bang game seen in contests on the university gridirons, these Amazons have vanquished two strong contenders for the national title — defeating the Hollywood Allstars, 12-6, and the Pasadena Rinky Dinks, 40-0.”
Despite the talk of a “national title,” women’s games in the ’30s and early ’40s were mostly one-offs, primarily in L.A. and Chicago. Soon women’s football all but disappeared as World War II ground on and women’s baseball — immortalized in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own” — took off, snapping up many of the best women athletes.
But football was on its way to becoming the most popular sport in the country, and so in the 1960s a Cleveland talent agent started the Women’s Professional Football League. This provoked a new round of punditry about how women shouldn’t participate in contact sports, and the operation foundered.
A decade later, with the women’s-rights movement on the rise, another, more organized league came into being. In 1976, the title game of the National Women’s Professional Football League made the New York Times. The Toledo Troopers won the championship 13-12 over the Oklahoma City Dolls, with Linda Jefferson scoring all 13 points for the Troopers. Her 85-yard kickoff return put her team in the lead for good.
Women’s leagues have continued to come and go since. As it happens, “American football for women has fared better internationally, with leagues in Germany and Australia,” the New York Times has pointed out. There’s even been a league in Japan.
At the dawn of the 21st century, franchises for the new Women’s National Women’s Football League were going for $35,000. Players included police officers, engineers and former Olympic heptathlete Wendy Brown.
The women who joined the league mostly had soccer and rugby backgrounds, and most of them had never played organized tackle football before. Why did they switch to American football? “I wanted to hit people,” one player told a New York Times reporter. That was the most popular reason given by players, but there were others.
“You know how people do crazy things when they get divorced?” 30-year-old Tiffanie Denton said. “Well, this is mine.”
Now there’s the Independent Women’s Football League, which was founded in 2000 with the goal of “making the [women’s] sport a household name.” The league makes a key appearance in “The Legend of Jesse Smoke.”
Will a real Jesse Smoke ever take the NFL by storm? We’ll have to wait and see. For now, at least, they have a league of their own.
“This is something we’ve wanted to do all our lives,” New York player Lori DeVivio said in 2000 when the NWFL and IWFL were ramping up. “We’re fulfilling a fantasy that we never, ever thought would come true.”