Omaha athletes play for no pay, with high risk and little clothing - Omaha.com
Published Monday, June 10, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 1:50 pm
Omaha athletes play for no pay, with high risk and little clothing

Video: Omaha Heart players discuss their challenges

In the locker room cluttered with helmets and pads and giant cans of volumizing hair spray, the home team is getting pumped up.

Hip-hop music is blasting out of a small set of speakers. A few of the players are bobbing their heads and dancing in between sips of Gatorade. They're talking game strategy and trying to look tough in iPhone photos. One of the wide receivers is throwing up in a trash can, pausing to assure everyone that she's fine, and then throwing up again.

They jockey for position in front of a full-length mirror propped against the wall, readjusting uniforms that look like they've been stolen from beach volleyball players. A league official comes by for a final check: Mouth guards in? Earrings out? Tattoos covered? Pasties on?

The players nod, though their uniforms fail to cover not a few tattoos: a cross, children's birth dates, life mottoes (“work hard, play harder”).

With 10 minutes until game time, the focus has shifted to football, and only football.

The team knows that many of the 2,400 people packed into the Ralston Arena bought tickets mainly to see semi-clothed women rough up each other on the turf field. But this group of former college athletes and businesswomen and mothers is hoping the crowd will see something else, too: an underdog team pulling off the biggest upset in the history of the organization once known as the Lingerie Football League.

It's the Omaha Heart's second-ever game, and the team is expected to lose badly. Plenty of the players are questioning why they've poured so much energy into a sport that comes with no pay, a high risk of injury and requirements about everything from their weight to the color of their fingernail polish.

Some have faced criticism from people who think the sport objectifies its participants. They're wondering if the things that made this worth it — a little bit of glamour, the chance to meet and train alongside other athletes, the pride of being able to call themselves football players — are enough.

But now they're walking through the arena halls on their way to play in front of parents and husbands and bachelor parties swigging beer. There's no time to think about the uniforms or the risks or the fact that even if they play a perfect game, they could end up on the league's dreaded “fat list” and on the bench.

“Let's go, ladies!” yells the team's head coach. “You've waited a long time for this.”

“Our time! Our time!” the Heart scream back.

***

Omaha's introduction to the sport of tackle football played in underwear came nine years after the Lingerie Bowl made its debut as a pay-per-view Super Bowl halftime special.

In the beginning, the idea was simple: lingerie, models, limited football skills. By 2009, though, the spectacle had evolved into a league made up of real athletes, most of whom had played several sports in high school, many continuing in college and beyond.

Wearing lacy lingerie with garters, small shoulder pads, elbow pads and hockey helmets, they played seven-on-seven tackle football for teams such as the San Diego Seduction and the Dallas Desire. The players were paid, though it wasn't much. Top names got a few thousand dollars per season. Games were aired on cable TV.

Linsey Noble, the Heart's 24-year-old starting quarterback, remembers watching the “Friday Night Football” broadcasts on MTV2. She'd played softball and soccer and ran track at Elkhorn High School. She figured she could pick up football as easily as the players on the screen.

“It was one of those things where I knew I could do it, be good at it,” Noble said. “But it's on TV! No way I would ever get to do it.”

Some of the franchises found followings, and the league expanded to Canada and Australia, but a half-dozen U.S. teams came and went in three years. MTV2 dropped the LFL, and the organization stopped paying the players.

By last year league Commissioner Mitch Mortaza knew he needed to expand the league, and Omaha seemed like a good fit. He worried, briefly, that it might not be the right kind of town — and news about the team did prompt criticism from some residents — but Mortaza thought he'd find fans.

“You've got incredible, fanatical-type sports fans, but lack one of the major sports,” he said.

In April 2012 the league announced that it was coming to the new arena in Ralston, and was looking for football players.

At home in Omaha, Noble was looking for a distraction.

For the past year and a half her entire life had been at home caring for her mother, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Friends lived far away. Life, she said, was “pretty grim.”

One morning in June, Noble's dad looked up from the paper.

“Hey, there's this women's football thing going on,” he said. “You'd be really good at it.”

The tryouts were in 30 minutes.

***

By the time Noble walked in the door the 40 other women who had showed up to try out were already stretching.

She was a little stressed, unsure if she was up to trying to look good while proving she could throw. She scanned the field and was reassured.

“Everyone was fully clothed, so I was, like, 'OK, I can probably do this,'” Noble said. “If it was really a bunch of hot babes in bikinis, I might have turned around. But it was just your normal girls, really.”

Elsewhere in the room, Leslie Walls was ready to prove she was more than normal.

The 6-foot-2 former college basketball player, mortgage representative and mother from west Omaha, then 27, was looking for the kind of competitive experience she had missed since graduation. A friend in Minnesota had played on an LFL team there and encouraged Walls to join. She'd thought about moving for the chance to play football, but put those plans on pause when she had a baby. Now, the LFL had come to her.

“I live a normal life, and this was my chance to do something not normal,” Walls said. “I go to work all day, just like everybody else, but what women play football in lingerie? None.”

At the end of the day, 21 women had made the cut. Another 11 survived a second tryout. Over the following weeks and months, as a few players dropped out, others showed up.

The youngest were in their 20s, the oldest in their 40s. There were basketball players and soccer players and a gymnast. There was an insurance agent who'd played on a now-defunct team in Dallas and a personal trainer from Kansas City who was making a weekly commute to train with the Heart.

Lesley Leach, 40, a nurse, fitness instructor and mother of three, announced to her family that she planned to play football.

“You're joking, right?” offered her 16-year-old daughter.

She wasn't. Neither was anybody else.

Dontae Allen, a veteran arena football player and coach, and the Heart's head coach, knew right away he had a team full of athletes. What they lacked in football experience they made up for in energy and readiness to learn.

“Women have more speed,” he said. “They'll go aggressive every play. Men know if you tell them to go 50 percent, they'll go 50 percent. Women are, like, 'Nah, I'm going to run through her, and whatever happens happens.'”

The Heart met after work for practices that ran until after the sun had set. In sweatpants and messy ponytails tucked under their helmets, the players were all about the sport.

But as the team's first game approached in April, it became hard to ignore the other major requirement for competing in the LFL.

“Weight,” Allen said with a sigh, “is a whole other subject. If they don't look the part, they can't play.”

***

On game day, the Heart woke up early.

The team was to be in Atlanta by midmorning for a matchup against the Atlanta Steam, another expansion team. But first they would face a long day of travel and promotional work, so they were ready with all the requirements: tans (no “orange” or “pasty” players allowed), fake eyelashes, hair curled just so.

“They'd squirt you down with a spray bottle in front of a fan,” Noble said. “It was crazy.”

When Allen arrived with his team, the league commissioner dispensed with pleasantries. He didn't want to talk strategy.

He wanted to say that a handful of the Heart's players — some of the team's top athletes among them — were, in his eyes, too fat to play.

“I should sit three or four of your girls,” Mortaza told Allen.

By game time the team was exhausted, and it showed. A bigger, more aggressive Atlanta team caught the women from Omaha off-guard. Allen and his coaching staff had told the Heart not to get into fights — even though impromptu brawls are an accepted and encouraged part of the LFL. Atlanta was pushing and throwing punches from the start. Final score: 42-6, Atlanta.

Later, in the locker room, Mortaza's review of the game focused on players he said were “shortchanging” their teammates because of their lack of self-discipline.

“I have way too much to do to deal with a Betty Sue from Omaha who can't put down a pizza during football season,” he said. “You know what I'm saying?”

Mortaza is unapologetic about his demands. He said he doesn't require a specific body type but has no room for women who aren't “the image of health.”

This year, however, he dropped “Lingerie” from the title and rebranded the LFL as the Legends Football League. The uniforms lost the garters and lace in favor of a more swimsuit-like material.

The league, Mortaza said, had become strong enough to succeed without the attention-grabbing name. But when asked if more growth in the league could someday mean players in uniforms that offered more coverage, the commissioner was blunt. Women's sports don't sell. Sex does.

“The fact of the matter is the core audience, the demographic that most advertisers care about, shy away from women's sports,” he said. “There's a reason the WNBA hemorrhages money every year. ... How many softball leagues have we seen collapse? I can't think of a successful women's sport. Can you?”

So far, however, the LFL isn't making money. Mortaza is picking up more markets, but he says he's breaking even and not yet able to pay his players.

In that way, the LFL is much like the nation's other women's football leagues.

The Nebraska Stampede, which trains and plays in Ralston in standard football gear, is in its fourth season with the Women's Football Alliance.

Rex Johnson, the Stampede's head coach, said he's proud of his team's relative longevity, but it faces constant battles for funding and attention. The Stampede, he said, accepts women of all shapes and sizes as long as they're willing to play the game. He's unhappy that people in Omaha get excited about women's football only when players are in skimpy outfits.

And he wonders why the women of the Heart haven't showed up to play with the Stampede.

“If they're really such terrific athletes, I would really like to see them on the field with us,” Johnson said.

Pull them aside and most of the Heart's players will say they don't always agree with Mortaza's approach, but they're not naive.

“As much as you want to say it's all for football ... no,” Walls said. “Because you would go play on those teams. It's the glamour. Everybody likes to feel beautiful and everybody likes to have sexy pictures up there, and that's half of why you do it.”

***

The other half is more complicated.

The women of the Heart have given hundreds of hours, and thousands of dollars in gear and travel and makeup and medical bills. The players have listened to lectures about their bodies and smiled patiently as fans at meet-and-greets made off-color comments about wanting to be tackled. They've trained on snow-slick fields and spent hours in the car driving to the gym, to practice, to events.

Brittany Benson, 25, a petite former soccer player whose Twitter profile begins with “Devoted to God” and ends with “LFL Omaha Heart Defensive Back” was forced out of a leadership position at her church when she joined the team. At Thanksgiving dinner, half of her family refused to speak to her.

“I've never really done anything that my parents didn't really fully support me in,” she said. “So it's been tough.”

Walls made it partway through exactly one formal practice before she made a hard turn and felt a bolt of pain shoot through her knee. She'd torn her medial patellofemoral ligament.

After surgery and months of therapy, Walls came back. She made it a couple of weeks before she felt a familiar pain. This time she'd torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the other leg. Her football career was over. Two years' worth of insurance deductibles were maxed out.

The sacrifices are real, and they've been too much for many players to handle. In less than a year, 25 players have come and gone.

And until the team's first home game on June 1, it was getting hard to see anything but those sacrifices.

Under spotlights and through a haze of smoke, the Heart ran onto the field as the lowest-ranked team in the league. The women of the No. 1 Jacksonville Breeze looked bored, so certain they'd destroy Omaha that they hadn't bothered to watch game tape.

But the Heart, it seemed, was through with being called too inexperienced, too fat, too weak to play football. They tackled and pushed and sprinted, and two hours later they were screaming and high-fiving the crowd. The score was 8-0, Omaha.

Back in the locker room, the players hugged and pumped their fists. Jacksonville, they said, had no idea what the Omaha players were capable of.

Nobody did.

“People can get the impression it's just a bunch of bimbos out here,” said starting quarterback Noble.

“Everyone has their own story. You can't really judge people by the cover, by the book or the lingerie.”

World-Herald photographer Alyssa Schukar contributed to this report.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1543, erin.golden@owh.com


Linsey Noble

Meet the team


Linsey Noble

Position: Quarterback

Age: 24

Occupation: Facilities administrative specialist at Boys Town

Background: Single. Played softball, soccer and ran track at Elkhorn High School, attended Northwest Missouri State University and graduated from Doane College

Leslie Walls

Leslie Walls

Position: Receiver

Age: 28

Occupation: Home mortgage representative at Wells Fargo

Background: Married, two children. Played basketball, softball and ran track at Millard West, played basketball at Winona State University in Minnesota. Tore MPFL at first practice. After surgery and therapy, returned to practice and tore ACL on other leg. Off the roster because of injuries.

Lesley Leach

Lesley Leach

Position: Defensive end

Age: 40

Occupation: Nurse, fitness instructor, personal trainer

Background: Married, three children. Graduated from Central High School and University of Nebraska Medical Center. Former fitness contest competitor and author of “Just Move: A Black Woman's Guide to Getting Fit.”

Brittany Benson

Brittany Benson

Position: Defensive back

Age: 25

Occupation: Manager at LA Fitness, fitness instructor, personal trainer

Background: Grew up in Grand Island, played soccer and flag football at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Organizes training and marketing for the Omaha Heart.

Dontae Allen

Dontae Allen

Position: Head coach

Age: 38

Occupation: Coordinator for Trio Talent Search program at Creighton University

Background: Played football at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and indoor football for nine years, including with the Omaha Beef. Former defensive coordinator of the Iowa Blackhawks indoor football team and volunteer coach at Millard North.

Contact the writer: Erin Golden

erin.golden@owh.com    |   402-444-1543    |  

Erin covers the Omaha City Council and the Mayor's Office.

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