Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Woman on the Offensive Line Plays Last Football Game

From True/Slant on June 30, 2009

Rhonda Donahoo told me this wasn’t the way she wanted to end her football career. She had played the 2009 season against her doctor’s wishes, having already pushed her body past reasonable limits, so she knew the Pittsburgh Passion’s 27-17 loss at the D.C. Divas marked her final game in uniform. The playoff loss was just the third loss for this full-contact women’s football team in as many seasons, during the course of which they compiled an overall record of 27-3. The Divas advanced and will host the Boston Militia in the eastern conference championship game on July 11th, the winner of which will play in the IWFL (Independent Women’s Football League) Championship game in Austin, Texas on July 25th.

But Pittsburgh’s Rhonda Donahoo can put her shoulder pads in mothballs and place her banged up helmet on the mantle. She played her six year career on the offensive line, where bodies take and dish out some of the fiercest punishment on a football field and the endeavor has taken its toll.

There at the very beginning, Donahoo is one of the 11 active players who remain from that original 2003 Pittsburgh Passion roster. Back then, the team was affiliated with a different league, then the NWFA and these women, volunteer football players, raised money to get the team up and running (and continue to cultivate sponsors and fund-raise to this day). They were there for the first practice, the first scrimmage and the first game. They played through growing pains and rough years, when they were all really just figuring out how to play organized football. They’ve seen coaches come and go and have called four different Pittsburgh area fields their home turf.

In 2007, the squad largely reflected that original roster and, on a muggy July night in Nashville, they won the NWFA championship. Donahoo played that game with one knee sort of taped and banded into place — a jerry-rigged invention of a creative training staff catering to her desire to finish out the run on the field. One recent evening, she sat down with me and recounted the litany of injuries, but there were so many, I can’t remember them all and I’ve certainly forgotten some of the details. Following the 2007 championship, Donahoo hobbled into the sunset and underwent multiple surgeries. She was laid up for months. She knew she could never play football again, but hoped to resume some normal activities, like taking a spin on a bicycle, or just going for a long, aimless walk.

In 2008, the team switched leagues (from the NWFA to the IWFL) while Donahoo rehabbed and checked the scores; she just couldn’t bring herself to sit in the stands and watch. The Passion were undefeated through the regular season, but lost in the 2008 Eastern Conference Championship game in Chicago. Donahoo decided to give playing one more shot, to try to squeeze one more season out of her knees and ankles.

So she returned to the team in the winter of 2009, started every game at guard and was named an alternate to the IWFL all-star squad. A little over two weeks ago, with a playoff berth on the line, Donahoo played her thankless role on the offensive line, as the Passion beat the New York Sharks in an overtime thriller to end the regular season. With that, she had one more shot at a championship.

Of course, playoff seeding being what it is, Pittsburgh’s first test was to beat the D.C. Divas, their long time rival and the only team which had beaten them in 2009. Still, the team felt, or maybe they hoped, their wild victory in New York would be the springboard to another championship run, the last chance for Donahoo and some of the other original players to win a second title before focusing their energies on other endeavors. As Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll said, at some point, you have to get on with your life’s work.

The June 27th playoff game in suburban D.C. was one of missed opportunities for the Passion. With the teams slugging out a scoreless game through the 1st quarter, on the sidelines, I felt like Pittsburgh was winning the battle of attrition, when all of a sudden, D.C. was threatening to score from the Pittsburgh 10. But the Pittsburgh defense stiffened, led by Jen Dulski who hammered Diva quarterback Allyson Hamlin on a blitz, then made another tackle for no gain on a run. The ball went over on downs, but the Passion turned it right back over with a fumble. The Divas punched it in easily. It was just that kind of a night — one step forward, two steps back.

Pittsburgh hung in there, but made mistakes at key moments, while the Divas avoided big mistakes. After the Passion went up 10-7 early in the 3rd quarter on an Amanda Haeg scamper into the corner of the end zone, D.C. answered quickly, as Hamlin tossed a beauty of a fade route to Tara Stephenson for a touchdown. (I have to take a moment to point out that Hamlin and Stephenson run that fade pattern as well as any quarterback-wide out combination I’ve seen at any level. For real.) From there, D.C. cruised, ensuring that there would be no shot at a second title for Donahoo and the Passion.

I’ve spent a couple of seasons around the team. I’ve gotten to know them as football players and as people, too. There are always a handful of veterans threatening to retire; I’ve learned that sometimes they mean it and sometimes they don’t. But this year I get the eerie feeling a lot of these players have played their last games in black and gold.

Seasons end and players part ways, leaving behind team workouts, film sessions, practices, travel days and game day routines. The transition is always tough, but for returning players, the sting of cleaning out their lockers is balanced by the promise of another season still to come; fall workouts will be upon them before they know it. For those who have played their last game in uniform, the sense of loss can be overwhelming.

Just moments after the horn sounded the end of the game, the Pittsburgh players huddled together on the field and Donahoo knelt a few yards behind them, flanked by two teammates. I don’t know if she was felled by physical pain, exhaustion, overwhelming emotion, or, most likely, some combination of the three. Eventually, she pulled off her shoulder pads, pulled herself up, and joined her teammates. For the last time on a football field.

Later that night, over beers, she teared up when we talked about it being the end of the line. And then, as she always has, she became the life of the party, goofing off with total strangers in the suburban DC hotel bar, dancing, raising a ruckus and entertaining her teammates. Maybe that was the last time, too.

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