There is a myth that men are the history and backbone of professional football. To an extent in its infancy and growth, that is true.
However, women have been sprinkled into the historical fabric of the sport. As an example, Violet Bidwell became the sole owner of the National Football League (NFL) Chicago Cardinals in 1947 thus becoming the first woman to own a pro football franchise.
Pat Palinkas became the first woman to play professional men’s football when she was the placement holder with the Orlando Panthers of the Atlantic Coast Football League in 1970. Abby Vestal became the first woman to score points in a men’s professional football entity in 2007 when she was the kicker for the Kansas Koyotes of the indoor American Professional Football League.
Jen Welter made news in 2015 when she was named the first woman to be hired as an assistant coach for an NFL club when she worked for the Arizona Cardinals. Her gig before that was her first professional men’s football team with the indoor Texas Revolution as their linebackers and special teams coach.
Many women have attempted to answer the question of whether a woman can compete in the arena of male-dominated sporting events. Shirley Muldowney (NHRA), Michelle Wie (PGA), Danika Patrick (IndyCar and NASCAR)) and Manon Rheaume (NHL) are the most notable to have participated in sports designed for men.
Slide over to 1965, and the first women’s professional football league began.
Sid Friedman was a theatre booking agent that worked out of Cleveland for his agency called the All-Star Theatrical Agency. He came up with an idea to start women’s tackle football teams and have folks pay to see games across the country and perform at halftime during NFL and Canadian Football League (CFL) games.
Friedman’s first team was the “Cleveland Daredevils” which he later paired with a team from Akron. He ran advertisements in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and also the Akron Beacon regarding starting women’s tackle football. The two teams were formed and played several exhibition games against each other across the State of Ohio.
He liked the reception the women’s game received and decided to begin his own entity he called the Women’s Professional Football League (WPFL).
At the time of the mid-1960’s, the viewpoints on what was expected of women were changing. Suddenly, women were allowed to vote, smoke cigarettes in public, or something as manly as drive a truck. Employment opportunities also changed to where in the past a woman was only hired as a cook, nurse, teacher, secretary, telephone operator, housekeeper or in child care. The perception that a woman could become a doctor, or a lawyer, engineer, school principal, coach, judge, law enforcement officer or enter politics was now becoming a reality.
And women were now beginning to be seen as spectators at sporting venues other than tennis and gymnastic events.
During this time frame, the rational was that sports in the United States and Canada was viewed as sexist and perhaps a desire to shift into another direction was needed. Women did not have to be subdued, non-opinionative, passive and non-boisterous regarding sports.
This sentiment was based that perhaps women could do some things that men could do - like play tackle football.
The idea behind the WPFL was that perhaps there was an audience that would enjoy seeing women play football. The problems behind this idea was the fact that there wasn’t a feeder system installed like the NFL had going on with college football. There weren’t any college women’s teams, so most of the athletes that participated were former athletes that participated in other sports such as women’s basketball, softball, track, soccer and rugby.
Each team in the WPFL recruited from their own area - just like the origins of the NFL. So the “Cleveland Daredevils” were all women from around the Cleveland area who held jobs during the day and practiced in the afternoons with games on weekends.
Friedman placed ads in local papers for tryouts and added the “Detroit Petticoats,” “Toronto Canadian Belles” and “Pittsburgh All-Stars” to form the league with the Daredevils. Grant Friley, a Detroit cop, coached the Petticoats while the Daredevils were coached by former Cleveland Browns great Marion Motley. Former Browns’ guard Fred Robinson was the head coach of Toronto who had also played five seasons in the CFL. Former Steeler Charley Scales was the All-Stars coach.
Next. to attract venues for games, Friedman’s took out newspaper ads in various newspapers looking for potential cities where his league teams could travel and stage a game, charge admission and make some money for himself while covering the costs of the games themselves. He worded the ads like this:
ATTENTION! Do you need money? FUNDS for a new hospital room . . .another fire engine . . .band uniforms . . .fire victims? A PROVEN FUND RAISING ATTRACTION . . .the only all-girl professional football teams in the world!
The rules that the WPFL played under where exactly the same as the NFL; except they used a somewhat smaller football, eliminated kickoffs and the quarters were shortened. Rosters were set at 25-players with age ranges from 18-38.
The Pittsburgh club began as the “All-Stars” but were also known as the “Hurricanes” at times. From 1969-1971, this same franchise became the “Pittsburgh Powderkegs.”
Practice sessions varied from team-to-team, but most practiced 3-5 days a week for about five months out of the year and usually were paid meager per-game stipends such as $25-$50 a game. Plus, each player had to provide their own equipment and cleats. Off the field, these players were students, businesswomen, nurses and homemakers.
Later, clubs were formed in Bowling Green, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo. Women who played during this time period are referred to as “first-era players.”
Some games were arranged as exhibitions during halftime of NFL and CFL games of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Ottawa Rough Riders and Toronto Argonauts.
The league was dominated by the “Toledo Troopers” coached by Bill Stout which won seven consecutive league championships. In 1983, the Troopers were recognized as “the winningest team in professional football history” at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio with a record of 61-4 during the life of the franchise.
After a few years, the WPFL morphed into the National Women’s Football Association. In all, there have been nine women’s pro leagues that are now defunct, two active leagues in Canada as well as Australia, and four entities that call the U.S. their home.
The largest is the Women’s Football Alliance which began in 2009 and currently has 62 teams. Their season runs from May through June. Ohio teams in this league include the “Cleveland Fusion,” “Cincinnati Sizzle,” “Columbus Comets” and “Toledo Reign.”
But all of this began with a team located in Cleveland.