The following is an excerpt from Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League by Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo. It’s available for purchase now.
The Herricanes started on a whim. Twenty-five-year-old Marty Bryant was visiting the dentist for a routine checkup. As the shy and reserved Houston resident sat patiently in the waiting room, she picked up a magazine from the coffee table and began to skim through it. That’s when she noticed an article about a women’s professional football team in Ohio. It happened to be the June 1975 issue of womenSports magazine with Linda Jefferson of the Toledo Troopers smiling bright and wide-eyed on the cover while cradling a football. Bryant was instantly captivated.
“I just always loved sports. I loved basketball, too,” she recalled. “And I could run and I could dribble, but I couldn’t seem to run and dribble at the same time. I played volleyball, but in school at that time there was not much offered for women. When I saw that article I thought, well, maybe we can play football, too.”
Bryant wrote down the contact information for the NWFL office in Los Angeles and eventually wrote them a letter.
“I asked them if we could have a team in Houston, and what we needed to do to get started and so forth. They wrote a letter back and said, “yes,'” she said. “They said if there was anything they could do to help me get started, let them know.”
Bryant was ecstatic but slightly overwhelmed. She wasn’t quite sure what to do next.
Unlike the founders of the Los Angeles Dandelions, Oklahoma City Dolls, and San Diego Lobos, Bryant had no potential investors lined up to help raise the necessary funds for a new NWFL franchise, let alone supply her with uniforms and equipment and to cover expenses. It was a very different situation from NWFL franchises that were financially backed by one, two, or even a group of individuals who took care of all of the monetary concerns. Bryant knew that if she were going to see it through, she and her new team would have to shoulder the entire financial burden themselves.
Even without being able to come up with the franchise fee, Bryant was given the NWFL’s blessing to start a team and begin practicing without being an “official” member of the league, and even to play “exhibition games.” That lifted the burden of having to think about how to raise enough money to buy into the league. All Bryant had to focus on at that moment was finding players. And that was something she could handle.
The first thing Bryant did was contact her local ABC news station and the sports desk at the Houston Chronicle to announce the first tryout. She spread the word among her friends and softball teammates, who told their friends, and so on and so forth. Bryant also got in touch with Houston sportswriter Anita Martini, who was a trailblazer for women in sports journalism. Martini not only championed women in sports, she was also working hard to carve inroads for women in sports journalism. She was more than happy to talk about the NWFL on her radio show and the team Bryant was putting together.
After the publicity blitz, about 25 or so women showed up for the first official meeting and tryout. Bryant was encouraged. One of the women was Billie Cooper: A spunky short-haired Texan with a background in marine biology who worked at a local Houston chemical plant. Before Bryant had written the letter to the NWFL asking for permission to start a team, she mentioned the idea to Cooper during softball practice one day.
“She came up to me and was like, ‘I’m thinking about getting a football team together,'” Cooper recalled. “‘Are you in?’ And I go, ‘Oh— absolutely I’m in. Sign me up.'”
The tryout, Cooper added, was a chaotic scene from the start, and some of the women who showed up seemed as if they were there for the wrong reasons.
“I thought, what the heck did I get myself into? I don’t know why some of the people came out. I’d watch them like, oh my goodness— you’re over there fixing your hair. And you’re wanting to try out for a football team? You want to run and get sweaty?” Cooper said. “So people kind of weed themselves out, you know what I’m saying?”
There were others like Cooper who were there for football and the chance to actually play in competitive games. Twenty-six-year-old Gwen Flager read about the tryouts in the newspaper. She was working as an assistant apartment manager in Northwest Houston at the time and was curious to check it out.
“You know, I had played as a kid. We played touch football in junior high,” Flager said. “But I didn’t know any women who had ever played full contact.”
She didn’t know what to expect, but it didn’t take long for Flager to warm up to the idea. As soon as Bryant explained to the group what her hopes were for the team, Flager immediately thought—I want to be a part of this, I want to play, I want to have this experience. She didn’t care what position she played, or even if she got to play at all.
Flager felt deeply that something special was happening and she didn’t want to miss out. She was also still relatively new to Houston, having moved there right after graduating from the University of South Alabama, and wanted to meet new people in a comfortable setting. There, in Memorial Park, among Cooper, Bryant, and other like-minded women athletes, Flager felt strongly that she had come to the right place. Seventeen women in all, including Bryant, Cooper, and Flager, committed to the team right then and there. Others mulled it over after the tryout, then joined as well.
The group came up with the team name Herricanes together, throwing the “Her” into it because they knew when people saw the name they would instantly know it was a women’s team. Then, they purchased uniforms and equipment on their own dime. Cooper remembers the visit to the sporting goods store as if it happened yesterday.
“It was after hours,” she said. “We didn’t want to be in there trying on equipment with a bunch of customers. We tried on our helmets. And a lot of the helmets were way too big [for us]. So we had to get junior high helmets.”
They went with what Cooper described as “standard boys-issue equipment,” and the total amount cost almost $100 per player. If they wanted to play, they had to pitch in and pay their own way.
Bryant knew coaches from the community, and they volunteered their time in order to help the Herricanes get their bearings and learn offensive and defensive schemes. They taught them football techniques such as proper tackling and blocking form. By fall 1976, the team was ready to compete and play games.
Head coach Richard Perry had a background in football, and his coaching style reflected that of a disciplined player. Glaring behind a ’70s-style handlebar mustache for his headshot in the Herricanes’ first game program, Perry’s nonstop intensity was over the top— especially for Cooper.
“He was brash and talked to us like little kids sometimes, like junior high school boys,” she said. “He struggled dealing with grown women. Grabbing us by the facemask didn’t go over very well. I mean, you gotta remember, all of us were in our 20s. And some of us, pushing 30. You had to treat grown people differently than you do junior high school kids. I mean, I coached. And I understand that. Treat grown people with a little bit more respect, a little more dignity. You can’t take their dignity away. If you take their dignity away, they quit playing for you.”
Assistant coach Mike Smith contrasted Perry not only in coaching style but also in personality. Smith had a full head of dirty-blond hair that stuck out in all directions and a genuine smile that filled his whole face. During practice, it was easy to see the difference in their approach to teaching and coaching women’s football.
“Mike was a sweetheart,” said Cooper, who worked with Smith on defense. “Richard, I think, was overwhelmed. It was a lot to handle.”
In the beginning, Perry did everything for the team: he not only coached the offense, he also took care of arranging travel accommodations, booked games, put together a comprehensive playbook, and spent extra time teaching the ins and outs of the game. And he did it all during the free time he had away from his full-time job. The stress, Cooper believed, got to him.
“He worked his ass off,” she said, “but he didn’t want help.”
Cooper had a full-time job herself and tried to help out as much as she could—even with finances.
“We really struggled [financially], I’m not going to lie to you,” she said. “I had the same shoulder pads and helmet every year. It never changed. I had new stuff, some of the [other players] did have hand-me-downs. When women quit or couldn’t play anymore, they donated their equipment.”
Ticket sales, what little there were, produced the funds to keep the team afloat.
“Our fans looked like bee-bees rolling around in a barrel. There were not a lot of them,” Bryant added. “But there were enough of them that we had money to pay for officials and for an ambulance. We made enough money to do that.”
Although the Herricanes didn’t make enough money—after transportation, stadium, and referee costs—to provide each player with the NWFL “standard” $25 per game, it didn’t dampen morale or deter participation. Like every other team in the league, the players played because they loved football. They didn’t care if they were paid or not. They just wanted to play. Whatever extra money players made individually from their full-time jobs or side gigs often went into promoting the team. Cooper once sprung for a set of bumper stickers and passed them out to her teammates to sell. They printed T-shirts and other memorabilia, hoping to bring in some additional cash to help offset travel and stadium costs. The Herricanes scrimped, saved, and sacrificed as a team in order to play, and it only brought them closer.
“The team was all about doing it together. None of us could have done it by ourselves,” Bryant said. “Just seeing each other, picking each other up. And it carried onto the field. Someone makes a bad play or a fumble, you know—everybody picked them up like it was okay. It was the camaraderie. Everyone was very supportive of each other.”
Cooper saw the Herricanes as one big extended family.
“I just thought the world of them,” she said. “Like any family, you have bickering. But you kind of kiss and make up. I just loved that feeling of family I had with the teammates. Because they understood the trials and tribulations that you were going through at home, at work, different things like that.”
For Flager, the team provided a “brand new bunch of friends” she could hang out with and get to know better. During the week, the Herricanes practiced at Memorial Park and played games on the weekends.
“Everybody pretty much worked full time,” Flager said. But they were all equally dedicated to practicing, learning the plays, and playing football to the best of their abilities. Their level of commitment, especially when they were playing for free, is perhaps surprising. But to Flager and the rest of the Herricanes—and to all the women in the NWFL—it made perfect sense.
“It was just so simple,” she said. “We just wanted to play football. It’s not any more or any less than that.”
This article has been excerpted from Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League by Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo. Copyright © 2021. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.