'Gridiron Girls' tackles football stereotypes

As the NFL prepared to roll for Week 7 — part of that $8 billion-plus empire that captivates America — a handful of women gathered in downtown Orlando to embrace their own Sunday football experience.

The were there to watch a story of their lives, of something that few women dream to dare. While many girls are all about frilly pink things and everything dainty and sweet, these girls grew up to love blood-stained uniforms and the punishing pursuit of a game they love.

Football. Tackle football.

The documentary "Gridiron Girls" — part of the Orlando Film Festival — is an acquired taste. People stuck on stereotypes will likely be put off by the gall of 17 women from Central Florida playing tackle football in an all-women's league.

"Why on earth would women want to play tackle football?" they may ask.

"Why on earth would men want to play tackle football?" Melinda Sparks responds.

She is standing outside the Plaza Cinema Café in full-battle regalia before the world premiere begins, obviously enjoying the experience.

She's living the dream, 37 years after it got thrown back in her face. She was 13, growing up in southern Ohio, when the school district said she couldn't play tackle football with the boys in her middle school, even after the coach had recruited her.

She tried out for this team — then the Orlando Mayhem — in 2009 and hasn't left the field since while pulling double duty on both sides of the line. At 50, she jokes that she is the only player with an AARP card.

They all have their stories — law enforcement officers, teachers, farmers, stay-at-home mommies — connected by the common bond of shattering society's stereotypes.

That's what drew the interest of Central Florida filmmakers Jason Kovacsev and Matt Mamula. Kovacsev had a friend whose wife played in the league and checked out a few games. He eventually looped in Mamula.

"I have to admit I was a naysayer at first," Mamula said. " 'Is this a gimmick? How good can this be?' But we kept following them season after season and really got involved with them."

The 75-minute documentary chronicles the struggles of the team's 2010 season leading up to a playoff game with the league Goliath, the Jacksonville Dixie Blues. The Orlando team changed its name to the Orlando Anarchy after joining the Women's Football Alliance to avoid a conflict with another team called the Mayhem, or as Sparks notes, "Once you're mayhem there's no place to go but anarchy.' ''

"Chaos" would have been a good fit, too. The women have to invest hundreds of their own dollars for equipment, leagues fees and travel expenses. They have wandered around Central Florida like a bunch of wayward orphans looking for practice fields and places they could play their regular-season games. The lights went out during one game and it had to be called with a little over four minutes left. Coaches have come and gone. And with a bare-bones squad, every player has to pull double duty on offense and defense.

There is no greater glory here. Just a competitive drive not bound by gender.

"They let women get shot at in war," running back/cornerback Lightning Dixon says in the movie. "Might as well let them play football too."

It may be an absurd proposition for your daughter, your sister or your cousin. And that's all fair.

The Anarchy, true to their name, are all about political disorder. There is nothing politically correct about letting your little girls grow up and play tackle football. But it would also be wrong to tell them, "No."

The Orlando Anarchy are living proof that not all little girls are breakable.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com He is a regular contributor on the Joel Greenberg Show weekdays 4-6pm on 810 AM Yahoo! Sports Radio Orlando

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