After hours, Campus Police Officer Theresa Gomes exchanges her CP uniform for an outfit that offers a little more protection -- the shoulder pads, helmet and mouth guard of a professional football player.
The 25-year-old patrol officer plays linebacker for the New England Storm, one of 11 teams in the Women's Professional Football League (WPFL), started in 1999. The Providence-based Storm is #1 in the Eastern region of the WPFL's National Conference and will go on to play the Daytona Beach Barracudas, the southern region leader, in Florida on December 16. The winner of that contest will play in the first WPFL championship game in Daytona Beach on January 13.
The league plays by National Football League (NFL) rules but uses a youth-size ball that fits women's hands better than the regulation-size NFL ball. The gear is all made for men, though, which means the shoulder pads don't fit as well as they could, said the 5-foot-6-inch, 167-pound Ms. Gomes.
While this is her first year to play professionally, the Wareham, MA, native has been playing tackle football since she was a kid, mostly with her brother and boys in the neighborhood. "I was bigger than most of them at that time," she said, but pickup games were the only kind she knew for years. Organized leagues like the Pop Warner League didn't allow girls. "They wouldn't let me play. I had to be the watergirl," she said. She played community softball and basketball instead, and in high school joined the field hockey, basketball and soccer teams.
Last May, Ms. Gomes saw a flyer for the Storm's tryouts and decided to give it a whirl. "I always wanted to say I played a professional sport," she said. She went through the first tryout in June, followed by a three-day camp in early August, and finally made it to training camp later that month. Now she wears the #33 jersey.
The Storm played its first game on October 14, just one week after receiving their pads. They made the switch from touch football to tackle football in a few short days.
The five coaches are men; the 45 players are women with a wide range of skill and experience, according to Ms. Gomes, who anticipates that the skills of the players (who earn $100 a game) will improve as more women play the game longer. Right now, they can't play the same game as men. Since the begining of the season, women have started throwing more, but still pass about half as much as the NFL, she said.
"You see the most difference in offense," said Ms. Gomes, a 1997 graduate of Brandeis who joined the MIT Campus Police in March 1999. "It's a matter of timing and such that takes a long time to learn. [By the time men get to the pros], they've been doing this stuff for 15 years. And we don't do it full time; we all have full-time jobs."
The Storm plays games on Sundays in Mt. Pleasant Stadium in Providence. Players earn $100 per game. General admission is $18, student and VIP rates are available.
Ms. Gomes said more than half their fans are women, but plenty of men show up for games, too. "It's a family atmosphere," she said. As for her own family, her mother wasn't crazy about the idea of her daughter playing professional tackle football. But Ms. Gomes convinced her to buy a season ticket. "She came to the first game and now she loves it. At the second game it rained and snowed, and she was there with her winter coat. She comes to all our games," said Ms. Gomes.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 13, 2000.