Seated right at the 50-yard line, surrounded by about 4,000 other fans at the home opener at Cupples Stadium, are a group of die-hard fans. They never miss a game and follow the team on the road. They are loud, obnoxious, and decked out in black and gold; they chant "dee-fense" and exhort the refs to move the chains with every first down.
In short, they're just like Steelers fans. Heck, they probably are Steelers fans. But the team they've turned out for this week is the Pittsburgh Passion, one of 36 teams in the National Women's Football Association. The Passion is back for its fifth season and sitting in first place in its five-team division. Spurred on by a dedicated core of Passion lunatics, the home crowd is surprisingly cacophonous. They clang black and gold cowbells, and I can't help but giggle.
There's something pure and euphoric about it. I have often joked that people in Pittsburgh the home of Ditka and Green and Lambert, of Bus, Bradshaw and Ben will watch football in any form. Football here is a ministry in shoulder pads and cleats, a church built on sweat, mouth guards and snap caps.
It's June and there are people playing football? Sign me up!
While women of a certain age might be happy to marry Ben or Hines, nearly all of them can relate to little girls playing football in their back yards. But on the roster of the Passion whose players range from 19 to 45 years old they don't want to marry Hines. They want to be Hines.
Owner and starting defensive back Teresa Conn knew a good thing when she saw it. A player since the league's inception in 2002, Conn knew that this team and this league had legs. So when she was presented with the opportunity to buy the team in 2004, she took a leap of faith. She quit her teaching job in Erie, cashed in her savings and sold her home, using the proceeds to take over ownership.
Under Conn's stewardship, her teammates who affectionately refer to her as "T" have improved steadily. They're now in the hunt for the team's first playoff berth.
It's a calling for most of these players, who get up at the crack of dawn to work out, then head to their jobs and, finally, to the South Side to practice at night. Such commitment requires an almost religious fervor, and Conn knows it. "I would do it all again," she says. "I love this team and the things that it stands for way beyond the football field."
But mostly, it's all out there on the field. The hits are vicious, but the attitude isn't. A few weeks back, in its home shellacking of the under-manned Erie Illusion (really, who names these teams?), one of the Passion's defensive players made the mistake of doing a little celebratory dance in the fourth quarter. After she was laid into by Conn, it's a mistake she won't likely make again, unless she wants to find herself warming the pine. To T's way of thinking, the game is meant to build people up, even their opponents. It's sports at its most sporting.
But that's not really why the games are so good, at least from this fan's perspective. The best parts are pure football QB Lisa Horton rolling out, pivoting, planting and hitting a receiver 35 yards downfield on a rope; linebacker Melissa "Freight Train" Yeck dropping a ball carrier like a sack of 'taters; tailback Lyndsi Hughes breaking tackles; defensive tackle JoJo Warner shedding blockers to get to the quarterback; and tight end Kate Richardson, long and lean, streaking toward the end zone.
I've always had a dicey relationship with religion, but football and I have been on the best of terms. I don't know about you, but I have a fever and the only prescription is more cowbell.