North Texas alumna Dawn Berndt defines her vocation as "making women's dreams come true" — dreams of annihilating opponents on the football field.
"They love football — it's an obsession," says Berndt, owner of the Dallas Diamonds women's professional football team. "To me and my players, it's all about serious dedication and winning. I don't pay them, but they put in hour upon hour of training to live their dream."
The crunching sound
From left, Lindsey Clark, Dawn Berndt and Karen Lee ('02)
Last year the Diamonds defeated the Houston Energy, three-time champions of the Women's Professional Football League, to lead the southern division of the WPFL and advance to the National Conference championship.
The Diamonds lost that game, but the defeat inspired them to an undefeated record this year and the WPFL championship.
"Getting so close to a championship and then losing made us really want it this time," says Berndt, who attended North Texas from 1998 to 2000.
The women in the league aren't there to prove a feminist point, she says. They're there to compete.
"People think 'women's football' and ignore us, but they haven't seen these women play," Berndt says.
Professional women's football surfaced as early as 1960
and has had numerous leagues and incarnations, but the 6-year-old WPFL is the first to offer a national collection of 14 teams in 10 states. It uses National Football League rules with
a few accommodations for the physical differences of men and women — the biggest being that the ball is slightly thinner.
But the crunching sound from the head-on tackles is definitely real. Berndt attests to that.
"I'm always scared for my players," she says, as the Diamonds get psyched up on the practice field for a game against Houston with a drill called "Bull in the Circle," where a player is surrounded by teammates ready to tackle from all directions. The goal is to fend them all off.
"Last time we did this we had several injuries and an ambulance," Berndt nervously whispers.
Berndt started the Diamonds in 2001 because she wanted to play football. She invests every extra cent and minute she has into the team. Her days are dedicated to the Diamonds and her nights are spent working as a support mechanic for American Airlines, with a few spare hours for sleep.
She's only played in one game in three years, but she grants a roster of 44 women an opportunity for competition.
Many of these women are like Karen Lee ('02), a former forward for the North Texas women's basketball team and now a Diamonds defensive end. They're former high school and college athletes looking for a new level of competition. Their backgrounds are in soccer, basketball, lacrosse, hockey and even rugby and flag football.
"I've always been athletic and I've always been competitive," Lee says. "So it doesn't seem so strange for me to try this — but it's a lot different than basketball or softball."
Quarterback Monica Foster ('97) walked away with more than her share of cuts and bruises playing football with her older brother.
"It's better competing against other women," she says. "But some of the other teams like Houston are so big. I've been lucky to just come out of it sore."
Team tryouts, held in the spring, are open to anyone regardless of experience or size. Players range in age
from 18 to 40. Only a
few weigh as much as 250 pounds.
Five-foot-five defensive back Lindsey Clark, a former high school soccer player, is a student at North Texas. She puts in at least 15 to 20 hours of practice a week during the season and also works as a personal trainer and teaches pilates and yoga.
Players train even harder during the offseason, and each pays several hundred dollars in uniform and equipment fees to compete.
"There's no question that you've got to want to be here," Foster says.
Meeting the fans
Many of these ladies would do anything to play — regardless of injury, recent childbirth or good sense.
"Sometimes I've literally got to wrestle them off the field when they're injured," Berndt says. "They'll play even if their arm is falling off."
Berndt says she thinks the biggest difference between women's football and the NFL is that women's football is more personal.
Players stay after the games to sign autographs and meet fans. Many serve not only on the field but go door to door selling tickets and participating in community events. Lee has even gained a small following of fans who come to the games splattered with the purple and white of the Diamonds to cheer them on.
She says being on the team really is a dream come true.
*View more photos of the Dallas Diamonds in action