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It's 5:15 p.m. and at least 90 degrees on a Sunday afternoon at J.A. Fair Magnet High School. The Arkansas Banshees, one of Little Rock's two women's semi-pro, full-tackle football teams, were supposed to kick off the last game of the season 15 minutes ago. At the moment, my two friends and I make up the bulk of the crowd. The other fans include an elderly man in full '70s regalia, right down to his brilliant orange Nike wristbands, and a 4-year-old in a paper Burger King crown. On the field, Banshee players and members of the visiting team, Houston Energy, shovel sand into sprinkler holes. No one seems worried about starting within the hour.
Fifteen minutes later, the Energy players run through their warm-ups. There are probably two Energies to each Banshee. They arrived in a team-owned motor coach, and they have at least five corporate sponsors.
Rae Meyer, co-owner of the Banshees, told me that Energy had been a team for seven years. The Banshees are a first-year team, and currently, they're 5-2. Some of the players defected from The Wildcats, another Little Rock team, but a lot of them were recruits from places like the Walmart parking lot. Amy Wilson, a hulking linewoman and one of the best players, joined the Banshees to chronicle the experience for a sociology project. But the 32-year-old UALR student, mother, certified EMT and Sunday school teacher stayed on after her project ended. "Some women get manicures to de-stress," she said. "I just hit somebody."
The Banshees have a roster of 26, although a handful of women spent the season nursing injuries on the sidelines. Their ages range from 19 to 42, and they count stay-at-home moms, registered nurses, male impersonators and service industry workers among their ranks. There are eight games a season and daily practices — suggested, but not required. They work out in the J.A. Fair weight room during the season because their head coach, Erick Nelson, also coaches the J.A. Fair team. Unlike the Energy players, they drive their own cars to away games. Meyer dreams of the day that everyone will get paid, rather than paying $500 to play.
By 5:45 p.m., there are about 30 people scattered throughout the shaded home bleachers. Three people huddle under a black umbrella on the sunny visitors' side. Kick-off is at 6:20 p.m. We fail to notice who gets the ball. I know nearly nothing about this sport, and I appear to be in good company. Seemingly every few minutes, Coach Nelson calls a time-out because there's an extra Banshee on the field. There are penalties on both teams — lots of holding and clipping — and often the Banshees are unsure of their positioning. "Kim! To the left. To the left," Nelson yells as his players move into formation.
The sidelined Banshees are in good spirits. "Whose house? Our house," they shout in unison. Lisa Blaylock, a lean, muscular player, comes off the field, blood streaming from her elbow. She yanks off her helmet and shakes sweat-clumped, cropped curls. She doesn't seem to notice her elbow.
On the field, someone does a dive roll and then there's a pile-up. Three Energy players lunge at Wilson, grabbing her ankles, her waist, anything to bring her down.
The sidelines smell like a locker room. At the end of the first quarter, the score is 16-14, Energy. Meyer tweets the score from her phone, because that's one of the rules of the Independent Women's Football League that this team belongs to.
It's the second quarter. Nelson asks one of the players, "Why are you not in the game?" She shakes her head. "I'm seeing black spots." The sun still pours, full force. There's a breeze. Twenty seconds later, we don't even remember it was there.
Energy keeps scoring touchdowns. From the Banshee bleachers, someone yells, "Y'all need to do something. You're wasting my money here!" (Admission is $5.) Blaylock has just been taken down. She's on the field, tensed around the ball in a fetal position, clutching it to her gut. A few seconds later, an Energy player grabs Victoria Brooks, the Banshee quarterback, by her face mask. Kerr's neck wrenches painfully as she's flung to the ground. The ref calls a penalty.
The Banshees march to the locker room for halftime, their faces broadcasting anger and disgust. One woman looks like she's about to cry. The score is now 30-14. "Don't give them another yard," Nelson admonishes his team. "Lose your minds. Hit somebody real damn hard."
Kiara Vinson, a former track star and current running back, scores a Banshee touchdown within the first few seconds of the third quarter. In fact, Vinson scores all of the Banshees' touchdowns. She's small, and she's lightening-quick.
It's dusk. In the stands, someone's aunt says to no one in particular, "Y'all better hurry this up. The mosquitos are coming."
Throughout the second half, Houston Energy gets cocky. They're ahead by, well, a lot, yet they keep going for the two-point conversion. And they don't punt the ball even once. Someone tells me that this is how you openly disrespect the other team's defense. In the stands, the woman gives an updated mosquito report. "They're here, y'all!" She slaps her bare arms.
"If you get drunk, the mosquitos don't bite no more. They don't like that alcohol blood," a man advises. He's drinking something in an opaque plastic cup and doesn't seem to be bothered by mosquitos.
The stadium lights cast the surrounding woods in ominous shadow.
The final score is 48-30, Energy. But the Banshees are in high spirits, despite the fact that Houston Energy just knocked them out of contention for the playoffs. "We were the first team that scored against Houston all season," Wilson says, referring to an earlier game. This explains the visitors' bad attitude throughout the second half.
The season ends with a prayer and a cheer — "1-2-3, family!" the Banshees shout, tossing their fists in the air. Their respite will be brief. Next season's practices begin in two days.