On a windy, overcast day at the end of October, the leaves rustle, and the dust kicks up a little. There's a nip in the air -- it's not cold, but the wind, coupled with the humidity, is enough to put a chill in your bones. Football weather. As dusk falls, Anita Marks puts on a display in a Fort Lauderdale parking lot.
The lot is cluttered. One narrow patch of pavement stretches from the street through two rows of cars parked at 45-degree angles. A group of people smoking at the front door wanders into the paths of cars, adding to the confusion. Next door, a new hotel is being built. It's a high-rise where a crew of masons is working on the upper floors.
Marks, wearing a spandexlike shirt and tight blue jeans and sporting yards of curly, blond hair flowing over her shoulders, looks more like a Playboy centerfold than a professional athlete. The construction workers let her know it, yelling and whistling, but she doesn't bat an eye. Marks is used to the attention -- for a living, she deals with people salivating either on her or over her. There's the kind of slobber that comes from being blind-sided by a 230-pound linebacker on a blitz and the kind that comes from men ogling her on South Beach.
Marks is the ringleader of a group of smashmouths who, during football season, tie up their hair, clean off their makeup, and hit the gridiron. At five-foot-six and 135 pounds (a size eight) from Miami, Florida, please welcome the quarterback for your Miami Fury. Though she was sidelined by knee surgery last year, when South Florida's only female professional football team posted a 3-1 record, she's already back in shape. Indeed, Marks recently returned from Los Angeles and a shoot for Playboy magazine (the Super Bowl issue that hits the stands in February). She'll be wearing her Fury jersey -- for a couple of pictures, anyway.
"People say to me, "I didn't know there was a women's professional football team.' And I say, "How could you know?'" she says. The short answer is, they couldn't. The two-year-old Miami Fury's marketing is all but nonexistent. The team is still dealing with managerial growing pains, and media coverage is a joke. The three major dailies in South Florida, the Sun-Sentinel, the Miami Herald, and the Palm Beach Post have virtually ignored the team: They've all dropped the proverbial ball.
Women's football has grown quickly. In 1998, there were 14 professional women's teams nationwide. In 1999, when the Fury was started, there were more than 50, and today, there are 77 teams, seven leagues, and a whole lot of marketing potential.
J.T. Turner, who founded the Fury, recruited Marks early on. She recalls joining the team in 1999, around the time the team started playing at the Orange Bowl on weeks when the University of Miami Hurricanes were out of town. She had been competing in flag football and lighting up the local circuit. But getting flags ripped off your pants and enduring a series of ferocious hits are entirely different things. She was dealt a sidelining injury during her first year when her legs were taken out from under her; then in the 2000-2001 season, she threw four touchdown passes, hit a receiver for a two-point conversion, and tossed only one interception. Her numbers were impressive enough to attract the attention of the Morning Bullpen radio show on WAXY-AM (790). She began appearing two months ago as a guest and soon signed a contract as a regular. You can hear her Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:30 to 8 a.m. "One of my goals is to bring more attention to women's football," Marks says.
Lisa McAllister, who bought the team from Turner in March 2001, admires her QB. "I think women's football is much more interesting to watch then women's basketball or soccer. And Anita is a great person, a great leader on the field, and is bringing a lot of awareness to the sport."
It's not hard to figure out why Marks draws attention -- she has the eyes of Cate Blanchett and the arm of Kurt Warner. Your mother would like her because she's a wholesome lass, and Dad would admire her perfect spiral. "I've always been an athlete," Marks says. "Growing up, playing with the boys, I had to show I was real so I wouldn't get picked on."
Marks has a football background sort of. She played peewee league with the boys when she was a youngster in southwestern Miami-Dade County. When she was older, it was powder-puff football (a name that she absolutely hates because, she says, the girls played just as hard as the boys) for Sunset Senior High School. And as a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Marks was the quarterback for a women's intramural flag football team from 1988 to 1992.
These days she's considering dabbling in the fashion industry: She wants to develop her own line of women's football equipment: jerseys, pads, etc. Currently women footballers use men's gear. The only exception is that the ball is a little smaller.
"When I play, I have this big empty space in my crotch," she says, referring to the way her pants fit. "When I did the Playboy shoot, they tightened [the uniform] up and squished it and crimped it. And it looked great. I told them if the uniforms looked this good, we'd have twice as many people in the stands."
To stay afloat, though, the Fury will need more then twice as many people on hand for games. On average, only about 500 people per game came to see the team play in 1999-2000. The numbers were slightly higher this year, but after September 11, the women canceled the rest of their season. A mere 500 fans in the 65,000-seat Orange Bowl was a humbling turnout.
After last year's injury, Marks underwent bilateral anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction of both knees. Such surgery is usually career-ending for professional athletes, but Marks is back, with a bag of tricks. In addition to a rocket pass, she has pinpoint accuracy and can run a bootleg. She's got a 50-yard bomb and seems to execute under pressure a lot better than, say, a certain quarterback of another professional Miami football team. (She's a lot hotter than Jay Fiedler, also.) Salarywise, though, she probably earns less per appearance than Fiedler makes just for waking up in the morning. While she won't disclose her earnings, Marks says that most of the women garner $75 to $300 per game, depending on how good they are. McAllister is hoping to schedule 12 games for the 2002-2003 season.
Retailers are beginning to realize Marks' gold-mine potential. Oakley sunglasses is talking with her about an endorsement, Reebok gave her some cleats, and Red Bull energy drink sent her enough juice to caffeinate her and her whole family from now until rapture. "I'm starting to get a lot of endorsement contracts," she says. "And there's a lot more people that would like to endorse me, but they're hesitant because there's no TV for us yet. That's why we need the NFL or the Miami Dolphins to endorse us."
Athletic prowess aside, there is, of course, Playboy. The gentlemen's magazine is notorious for taking beautiful, athletic babes who are in the know and getting them to show some skin. Professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece and figure skater Katarina Witt have adorned its pages. Recently, Lisa Harrison, the WNBA's Sexiest Babe (according to Playboy.com's on-line poll), toyed with the notion of being shot in her skivvies. Playboy put the full-court press on her, sending photos of Reece and Witt to Harrison in the hope of persuading the six-foot Phoenix Mercury forward to disrobe. They were persuasive, but in the end, Harrison didn't like the deal she was offered. The WNBA didn't come right out and forbid the shoot; it just refused to comment.
Fury owner McAllister, on the other hand, encouraged Marks to bare all.
"When Playboy made me the offer, I said there were two people I had to call: my mom and Lisa McAllister," Marks says. "My mother told me to go for it, but I was worried about what Lisa would say. The first words out of her mouth were, "Can I do it with you?'"
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