By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
It's a blazing late-May afternoon at Nathaniel "Traz" Powell Stadium near Opa-locka. The 29 members of the Miami Fury gather at the 50-yard line, dressed in their shiny aqua uniforms. On the running track that surrounds the field, near the locker rooms, the Pure Funk DJs from 97.7 FM blast "Reppin' My City." Rick Ross' silky voice crackles from seven speakers: "I be flippin' dem flounders, they be huntin' my bounty/I'm the face of the hood, every place in the hood." Just as the cho01rus hits its bass line, the all-female tackle football team stomps in unison at midfield, hooting and hollering at its opponents, the Atlanta Xplosion. The Georgia players, dressed in white and black, respond from the sideline with their own trademark cheer: "Tick, tick, boom! Tick, tick, boom!"
Fury outside linebacker Gilda Bethel, a 5-foot-4, 155-pound fireplug with a swagger like that of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, points at one of the Xplosion players: running back Ronkia Toombs, a stout Miamian who was a star for the Fury last season, scoring long touchdown runs on the opening drives of the team's first three games. Then, during the off season, Toombs relocated to the Peach State.
Bethel, who wears the number two and intricate shoulder-length cornrows, flashes a wide grin at her former teammate. An elementary school teacher, Bethel wasn't planning on returning to the gridiron this year. She was going to leave football and begin working on her master's degree. But she changed her mind when she found out Toombs had defected. "That's all the motivation I needed to come back," the three-year veteran says. "I want to blow her up."
A few minutes later, halfway through the first quarter, Bethel gets her chance. It's third and six for Atlanta on the Fury's 29-yard line. Xplosion quarterback Charmaine Chin receives the snap and hands the ball off to Toombs. Bethel stops the Xplosion's running back for no gain. On fourth down, the Xplosion elects to go for it. Again, Bethel blows past the offensive line. She hurls herself at Toombs like a Florida panther pouncing on a feral hog in an Everglades prairie. This time, Bethel knocks Toombs, a former Miami Central Senior High track star, for a two-yard loss.
A jubilant Bethel rips off her helmet and runs to the Fury sideline, where teammates and coaches congratulate her and the rest of the D-unit: "Yeah, Gilda! Great job, defense!" Defensive coordinator Raul Camaliche hugs Bethel and slaps her shoulder pads as she comes off the field. Bethel taunts a half-dozen Atlanta fans by making the slashing-throat gesture at them. "She can't handle what I'm bringing!" she boasts, referring to Toombs. "It's going down with that girl from Miami! I'm trying to kill her! Demolish her! I came to play all day!"
But the Fury offense is mired in muck this afternoon. Later in the quarter, on second down, quarterback Anonka Dixon scrambles away from a swarm of Atlanta defenders that has penetrated the backfield. She rockets a tight 20-yard pass downfield. It's a perfect spiral, but the ball is intercepted by Xplosion defensive back Althea McNichol, who runs it back to Miami's five-yard line.
Three plays later, the Atlanta QB fakes a handoff and runs untouched into the end zone for the TD. On the Fury's next possession, Dixon is sacked for a safety.
In the stands, Debra Roberson — a 45-year-old aviation-company shipping manager — and six of her friends exhort the Fury offense to wake up. "Y'all need to go out to the hood and get some real girls," Roberson mocks. "Put me in, Coach!"
A large woman with tattoos on her forearms and long, thick, black dreads, Roberson claims she taught Dixon how to run and catch a football when they were kids growing up in Liberty City. "I taught her to go get that ball," Roberson boasts, her gold tooth shimmering in the setting sun. "I tried out for the Fury once, but I ended up on blood thinners. I couldn't continue."
Over the public address system, announcer Jonathan Lederman proclaims, "The Miami Fury is proud to bring you family-friendly football!" As soon as Lederman finishes his sentence, Roberson pours Hennessey cognac into plastic cups for herself and her pals. "Easy now," says a man sitting behind her. "It's church tomorrow."
"It's just water," Roberson says.
"Yeah, fire water," the man retorts.
The Fury endures another regrettable offensive series. "Act like the police is chasing y'all ass!" Roberson screams. Her advice fails to pay off. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, interim head coach Thomas Fanakos — who joined the Fury this year after watching his wife, Sandy, play on the team last season — knows the game is out of reach.
"We're down 37-0," he says. "All we can do now is work on getting better for next week." For now, the Fury isn't getting any better. The final score: 44-0.
In the locker room, Fanakos gathers the team and puts the loss on himself. "I'm going to take the blame," he says. "It was my fault we didn't prepare you guys. We did not put you guys in the best position, so this one is on us."
Linebacker and fullback Kalondra McKenzie doesn't make excuses for the team's horrendous performance. "I understand what you're saying, Coach," she says. "But y'all don't play. We play, and we didn't execute tonight."
Outside the locker room, Bethel's 4-year-old son, Myles, waits for her to emerge. He is wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of his mother in uniform and the phrase "My mommy ballin'!"
When she comes out of the locker room, Myles asks, "Mommy, did you win?"
"No, we lost," the single mom says.
"Again?" Myles asks incredulously.
"Damn, even my git is givin' me a hard time about losing," Bethel grouses.
The Fury's loss to Atlanta drops the team to 1-2 for the 2008 campaign. And it doesn't get any easier. Up next: the Dallas Diamonds, who happened to demolish Atlanta 38-17.
Miami, Dallas, and Atlanta compete in the Independent Women's Football League, which also includes the Fury's in-state rivals the Orlando Mayhem and the Palm Beach Punishers. Since 1998, the year before the Fury's inaugural season, the league has expanded from 14 teams to 41 nationwide.
The women playing in the semipro IWFL are not paid. "We do it for the love of the game," explains 27-year-old Dixon, who, in addition to playing quarterback, co-owns the Fury with friend and retired defensive end Gayla Harrington.
In its nine years, the team has had a difficult time building the kind of loyal fan base — not to mention corporate sponsorships — that come easily for more successful teams such as the Xplosion and the Diamonds. "We really don't have any major sponsors," Harrington admits. "So it is harder for us to cover costs such as travel for away games." Says Dixon: "It's still hard finding corporate sponsors. But we have a group of dedicated players who work their butts off."
Every IWFL player is responsible for raising $1,000 from individual sponsors to help defray travel costs for away games. "Not every player can come up with the money," Dixon says. "But we still have to find a way to get there. In some cases, players drive their own cars." For its recent away games against Palm Beach and Atlanta, the Fury rented six minivans.
The team has posted winning records in only three of its nine seasons, making the playoffs once, in 2006. That year, the team posted a 7-1 regular-season record before losing in the first round to the New York Sharks. But the Fury regressed last season with a 3-5 record, losing its first two games by a combined score of 84-33 as well as losing Dixon to a foot injury. Heading into its last game of the season Saturday, the team's record stands at a dismal 2-4.
Fury assistant coach Benjamin Pierre-Charles attributes the losing record to roster turnover and inexperience. "We have a lot of new girls who are still learning how to play the game," he says. "They don't realize that if the other team scores first, it's not the end of the world. They really get down on themselves."
On and off the field, Dixon is the Fury's soft-spoken general. She stands 5 feet 7 inches tall and sports gold grills on her bottom teeth and tattoos on both upper arms. She is the oldest of four siblings who grew up in the guesthouse of their grandparents' Miami home. Her father, a saxophonist for KC and the Sunshine Band, was hardly around. Her mother abused alcohol and drugs, which forced Dixon to take care of her sister and two brothers, she says.
"My dad was on the road a lot," Dixon says, "while my mom was in and out of jail. There were times we went weeks without electricity. Through it all, me, my brothers, and my sister turned out all right."
Dixon says she was lucky to have teachers and coaches who really cared about her. "My second-grade schoolteacher would always tell me how trouble is easy to get into but hard to get out of," she says. "That stuck with me. Sports kept me busy and kept me in school."
While other 6-year-old girls in her neighborhood were dressing up dolls, Dixon was in the streets playing football just around the corner from her school, Lorah Park Elementary, on NW 31st Avenue. "I ran at the same pace as the boys in my neighborhood," Dixon recalls.
She played basketball, softball, and volleyball at Olinda Park, on NW 51st Street, and football — safety and wide receiver — for the Northside Optimist Club. "Anonka is a talented, competitive young lady," says Donna Jacobs, a 42-year-old retired police officer who coached Dixon when she was 11 years old. "She and her family struggled growing up, but she always kept up her spirit."
Dixon played girls' varsity basketball at Miami Edison Senior High, but she dropped out after her sophomore year to take care of her sister and brothers. She didn't return to the classroom for more than a year and received her diploma from Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center.
After coaching girls' basketball in the Miami-Dade County Park and Recreation Department for ten years, she returned to Edison in 2000 as an assistant to women's basketball coach Denise Novack. In each of the three years Dixon worked there, Edison went to state final-four tournaments and won the championship twice. "A lot of the kids were hardcore, from the streets and the projects," Novack recalls. "Anonka was good at teaching them the ups and downs of doing right and wrong things."
Among the players Dixon took under her wing were Keondra Greer and Kalondra McKenzie, who now play for the Fury. Greer is a wide receiver, defensive back, and second-string QB; McKenzie is a linebacker.
Dixon began her semipro football career in 1998, when she played tailback and safety for the Minnesota Vixens. Two years later, she joined the Fury. "By the grace of God, Gayla and I were able to come up with the money to buy the team in 2005," Dixon says, declining to disclose the amount.
Since then, she and Harrington have been working full-time on building up the Fury by recruiting coaches and players. More than half the team has less than two years of experience in tackle football. The players are mostly African-American women in their 20s and 30s, plus a few Hispanics and whites. Some are locals, born and raised in the 305, while others come from the Midwest and Northeast.
Kimberly Fortin, a former Marine, moved to South Florida from Connecticut last August after accepting a teaching job at the 5,000 Role Models Academy in Liberty City. The 23-year-old rookie, who sports short platinum hair and a nose ring, played Pop Warner football as a girl. She found the Fury while searching on Craigslist for stuff to do.
"So far, it's been great," Fortin says. "I love these girls, and I love playing the game. It's also helped me with the kids at my school, who at first gave me crap for being the only white teacher there."
It's Thursday afternoon around 3:45, five days after the Atlanta game. Bethel has just arrived at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Liberty City, where she works a second job five days a week, tutoring elementary and middle-school children from 4 to 7 p.m. "I teach them reading, math, social skills," she says. "I teach them how to say please and thank you as well as how to apologize and respect each other."
Her day began, as it does every weekday, at 6 a.m., when she woke up to get ready for work and dress Myles for preschool. About a half-hour later, Bethel and her son are on their way. "Sometimes I stop by McDonald's to get him breakfast," she says. "And sometimes he eats at school." From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Bethel teaches third grade at Excel Academy, an elementary charter school in Miami.
The 31-year-old Overtown native, along with five sisters and four brothers, was raised by her 77-year-old grandmother. "You learn to share with all those siblings," she affirms. "We weren't rich growing up, but I had everything I needed." After graduating from Miami Jackson Senior High, Bethel attended Florida Memorial University, where she earned her teaching degree seven years ago. "I wanted to teach to help the less-fortunate kids in the inner city," she explains. "I believe I have a lot to offer them."
Tuesday through Friday at 7 p.m., Bethel races from MLK Park to Miramar Athletic Park, ten miles north of her second job; Fury practice begins at 7:30 and concludes two hours later. Myles is always with her. "He's our number-one cheerleader," Bethel boasts. "He's off-the-chain. The other day, he asked me why we haven't scored a touchdown."
Her day ends around 10:30, after she has bathed Myles and put him to bed. "The next day, I get up at 6 and do it all over again," she says, flashing a cheery wide grin.
When his mother is on the practice field, Myles spends time with other Fury players' children, including 4-year-old Destiny, daughter of offensive tackle Kristina Williams. Sometimes, Myles will get in trouble with Mom. At a recent practice before the Atlanta game, the ragamuffin was jumping on a pile of red clay on the baseball diamond, drawing Bethel's attention away from a post-practice huddle with the coaches. "Myles! I'm gonna kill you!" she screamed. "Look at what you did to your shoes!"
Bethel's family doesn't want her playing football. "For one, we don't play for money," she says. "And if we get hurt, it's not like we can afford to lose time off work. But I just like to play. Instead of doing drugs and drinking alcohol, I get all the adrenaline rush I need from football."
Today, she has the day off from Excel Academy. She is dressed in jeans shorts, flip-flops, and a white Fury T-shirt that reads "Real women get down and dirty." Her cornrows are pulled tight against her scalp and extend down to the top of her shoulders. At MLK Park, scores of children come and go through the glass doors of the recreation building where Bethel's supervisor, Miami-Dade Park and Recreation Manager Marvin Burroughs, stands behind the front desk.
Burroughs has known Bethel since 2006, when he joined the park staff. "She is intense at everything she does, whether it's playing football or getting children to do better in school," he says. "She does a lot of trash-talking, but that comes with the territory."
Shortly after 4 p.m., Bethel gathers seven youngsters ages 5 to 8 in a rec-center classroom. She asks her charges, "What do you listen with?" The kids pull on their ears. "That's good," she says. "Now, who wants to tell me about the good deed they did for the week?"
Dejá, a cute dark-skinned girl with chubby cheeks and braided extensions, tells Bethel she helped her cousin get out of her wheelchair. A boy named Buddha says, "I helped my momma stir the meatballs." Another girl, Milagros, is making faces, which prompts a rebuke from Bethel. "You just got five minutes in timeout when we're done here," she scolds. Milagros crosses her arms and pouts.
Bethel forges ahead. "What did you do this week to solve a problem without fighting?" she asks the children. Six-year-old Cedric explains how he avoided a fight with a schoolmate. "This boy slapped me, so I told him he better cool down before I told the teacher on him," Cedric says. "He got scared." Bethel catches Buddha poking one of the girls. "You're going to timeout too," she says. Bethel looks around at each of the children and congratulates them for not getting into fights. "Any time you can avoid violence is a good thing," she says. "Tomorrow, I want all of you to do a good deed and tell me about it."
After the social-skills lesson, Bethel lounges in the lobby and reflects on the Fury's performance against the Xplosion. "I can't pretend everything is all right when we just got whupped," she explains. "Fans don't want to come out to see you play when you are losing 44 to nothing." Bethel wonders if some of her teammates have the heart to play hard. "If you don't have it, dog, I can't put it in you," she says. "And this is gut-check week."
She's right. The Dallas Diamonds are one of the premier teams in the IWFL. In their first three games, the Diamonds beat the competition by a combined score of 186-14, posting shutouts in their first two wins, including a 91-0 pasting of the Palm Beach Punishers. "Those girls pull tractors for a living," Bethel jests. "But we can use our speed to negate their size. We just need to play with more discipline."
Later that evening, at Miramar Athletic Park, Fury practice is in full swing as the offense goes over blocking techniques against the defense. Coach Fanakos is encouraging wide receiver Ashley Rijos to engage linebacker Kalondra McKenzie, who is 30 pounds heavier and six inches taller. "Push her!" Fanakos screeches. "Push her! That's it!"
Number 22, a tall, 145-pound wideout named Latoya Lynn, is next, going up against 240-pound linebacker Keisha McDonald. Fanakos blows his whistle to start the drill. Lowering her center of gravity, Lynn pushes McDonald out of the way. The two ladies butt helmets as the rest of the team claps in admiration.
Fanakos, a deep-voiced man with oval eyeglasses who also coaches high-school football at Doral Academy, says he didn't sleep for three days while reviewing film of the game against Atlanta. "They left us in a world of mess," Fanakos laments. "We gave them everything."
For the last two hours of practice, the Fury goes through its offensive and defensive sets while also running plays Dallas might use. The drills are so intense that at one point, center Jessica Montanez runs off to a corner of the field, behind a light pole, to puke. Quarterback Dixon calls her out. "Oh shit, everybody!" Dixon says. "Jessica is pregnant!" Laughter erupts among the teammates. "Fuck y'all!" Montanez retorts.
In between the action, Dixon rattles off the reasons Atlanta blew her squad out of the water. "Basically, we weren't focused," she says. "We shot ourselves in the foot, and it went downhill."
Two days later, during the home game against Dallas, the Fury is keeping up with the league's number-one team. The score is 7-6 midway through the first quarter. The bleachers are virtually empty, except for about 30 spectators, mostly Dallas fans who traveled from Texas.
The Diamonds' 5-foot-9, 206-pound running back, Jessica Springer, is methodically pounding the Fury defense. On one play, she busts a 25 -yard gain. On the same drive, she hammers forward, picking up first downs on consecutive plays. On third and 12 from the Fury's 22-yard line, Dallas sends the tight end in motion. That sets off Fury defensive coordinator Raul Camaliche, who screams at Bethel to cover the player. "Gilda! Gilda!" he hollers. "Watch the pass to the tight end!"
Bethel seems confused when the ball is snapped. The tight end races past her, catching a pass in her breadbasket and scoring a touchdown. It's 14-6 Dallas. An angry Bethel marches off the field, screaming at Camaliche. "Coach can't put me in that predicament!" she yells. "He gotta tell me to stick her!" Camaliche walks over and soothes Bethel's shoulder pads. "It's all right," he says. "Don't worry about it. Just keep your focus."
By the end of the third quarter, the Fury is at the bad end of another blowout. Eventually, it loses 48-6. Its 1-3 record has left its playoff hopes all but dead. To qualify, it will need to win all four of its last contests, including rematches against Atlanta and Dallas on those teams' home turf. Luckily the Fury's next opponent is the Palm Beach Punishers, an even more hapless bunch that gave the Fury its first victory of the season, 6-2, and its second, when the ladies from Miami went on to clobber their regional rivals 22-0.
On a recent Tuesday at 8:30 a.m., the 21 third-graders in Bethel's class at Excel Academy are reading excerpts, in unison, from a short story about Medieval Times, a Middle Ages-themed restaurant chain. Bethel, dressed in a red polo shirt, blue jeans, and red and white Air Jordans, is standing in front of the dry-erase board, watching over her pupils. The children are wearing their school uniforms — yellow, maroon, and navy-blue polos with khaki pants or skirts — and paper crowns from Medieval Times.
A pudgy black boy named A.J. is acting up and distracting Bethel. "A.J., you are being rude and disrespectful," she chastises. "If you keep it up, you won't participate in tomorrow's medieval banquet."
When the reading session is over, Bethel instructs her students to vote for ten classmates to be the king, queen, knights, and servants for the banquet. After the children make their selections, Bethel asks her pupils to complete fill-in-the-blank exercises about the short story. A boy with thick braids named Derrick lets out a loud moan. "There shouldn't be any talking," Bethel says. "Your mouths should be closed."
As the students write their answers, Bethel informs a visitor that 2009 will be her last season with the Fury. "I can't go out like this, on the bottom," she says. "We went 7-2 my first season. Hopefully, everyone will come back with a winning attitude and we can make a championship run next year."
After that she's done, so she can focus on raising her son and going to graduate school. "Myles is starting kindergarten next year," Bethel says. "I've already sacrificed spending time with him for the last three years. He doesn't get all the attention that I give my schoolkids. I have to make sure he has a good foundation."
She casually mentions that today is Myles' picture day. For the occasion, she dressed him in dark pinstripe slacks, a black tie, a crisp white shirt, and polished dress shoes. "I ordered two sets [of prints]," she says gleefully. "His graduation from preschool is next Saturday. He wants a lizard. I'll probably get him an iguana."
Bethel is not the only Fury player considering retirement. Two days before the away game against the Atlanta Xplosion (which Miami will lose 35-0), Dixon is kicking back inside the Starbucks on the corner of NE 30th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. She sports a fresh summer outfit in Fury colors — aqua tank top, orange and aqua plaid shorts, and all-white Adidas shell-top sneakers. After nine years of dodging tacklers with her speedy legs, Dixon is contemplating hanging up her cleats for the 2009 season.
"I really love playing the game," she says. "But building the team has to be my main focus. That means I have to pound the pavement more, and that is going to take a lot of energy. So I have to make a sacrifice."
The Fury's soft-spoken leader says a major challenge for the team, besides bringing up its level of play, is raising its level of awareness; many South Floridians don't know anything about women's football in their own back yard. "Man's biggest fear is the unknown," Dixon says. "But we are the only women's sports franchise out here. And that makes us unique."
And then there is the reality that, in another way, the Fury is hardly unique in South Florida sports. Like any other local team, its drawing power is subject to the mercy of fickle sports fans. "We got a lot of bandwagon-jumpers here," Dixon says. "Even professional sports teams like the Heat and the Dolphins that have money don't get fans unless they are winning."