The Dallas Diamonds are the Darlings of the Full-Contact Women's Football World.
Even at dusk, the last day of July promises delirious heat.
It promises insects buzzing and floating about, sampling flesh. It promises water becoming a precious resource — like hummus at a yuppie party.
What the dog days of summer don't promise is a professional football team in the thick of it, practicing, with their eyes on a championship belt that's only days away.
Still, here the Dallas Diamonds are on this Wednesday evening, huddled around their head coach, Matt Russell, faces covered by a glistening film of sweat as he launches into his pep talk.
“It's a dream for professional baseball players to one day be able to collect their pinstripes,” begins Russell, a man of a firm, stout frame. The New York Yankees, he explains, are the most legendary ball club in professional baseball. “In the NFL, that elite [tilte] belongs to –”
His players cut him off and shout the names of NFL team names.
The mood is generally a playful one and Russell doesn't mind the eagerness too much. He lets his players have their fun, then regains their attention.
“Listen,” he says. “People say in the NFL, 'I just wanna play for that organization.' They wanna wear those colors. Little kids growing up — sometimes, it's mommy or daddy's college colors — whatever.”
This is the team's last practice before their championship game in three days. Aside from his upcoming, pre-game locker room speech, this is the last time Russell will have the opportunity to have his “Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose,” coach Taylor moment.
Now referring back to that idea of team excellence, he looks around at his team and launches into the point of his talk: “That's what this team represents for women's football.”
And he's right.
This program is a football dynasty, the cream of its competitive crop. The Diamonds have won four national championships in the world of full-contact, professional women's football since the team was founded in 2002 — more than any other team in that time. Heading into this season, the team had produced a record of 100-17 throughout the course of its franchise history.
This season has again been a dominant one for the Diamonds. Just a few days after this practice, this year's squad will square off against the Chicago Force in hopes of earning its fifth national title — a total, it should be noted, that would bring the Diamonds up to equal footing with Dallas Cowboys, who've won five Super Bowl trophies in their own, four-times-as-long history.
“We love the purple, we love the black,” Russell says, referring to the Dallas Diamonds' team colors. “We love what it is. But it's really this…”
He pauses for a moment. A tide of sincerity flushes into his eyes and he wafts his finger around the ring of players that form a circle around him.
The Dallas Diamonds' inaugural season in 2002 was mediocre. Then competing in the Women's Professional Football League, the team finished 5-5.
The following season, the team went 8-2 and sparred with the Florida Stingrays in the American Conference Championship. The Diamonds would lose that game, but the table was set: In the Diamonds' third season, the team started steamrolling over its opponents. That year, the Diamonds went 12-0 and took home their first championship. In 2005, the squad outscored its opponents by an average of 43 points, besting the New York Dazzles 61- 8 in that year's title game and successfully defending their top dog status. In 2006, the team won the league trophy for a third consecutive year, eking out a 34-27 championship win over the Houston Energy.
2007 was a bit of a disappointment: The team went 7-3 and failed to make the postseason for the first time since 2002. Regardless, the Diamonds petitioned to join the a more competitive league, the Independent Women's Football League. The following year the team was admitted.
And the Diamonds were hardly overwhelmed by the upgrade in talent: In 2008, Dallas won its franchise's fourth championship with a 35-29 overtime win over the Chicago Force.
In the five years since that last title, the team has only lost one regular season game and reached the conference championship game twice.
The squad also jumped leagues again. In 2011, the Diamonds joined the Women's Football Alliance. And, three seasons later, the team appears back in position to win it all once more.
The 2013 WFA title game will find the Diamonds facing a familiar foe, their old rival, the Chicago Force.
“The fear is always present,” says Dallas Diamonds quarterback Brittany Bushman (pictured immediately above). “But I try to block that out. If I concentrate on that, I won't be able to focus on making my reads, making my throws.”
She's speaking of returning to the field after injuring her knee, a severe strain to the MCL.
Her knee trouble started on the first game this season, back in April, against the Houston Energy. Her knee troubles actually began rearing their head in that game's first drive.
“We call option right — one of my favorites,” recalls the 5-foot-8 field general. “The pitch wasn't there, so I planted my right foot, cut left, made another cut to the left, and then I had the safety to beat. I went to go plant my right foot one more time and, as soon as I planted, I felt something.”
She pulled up and fell down to the ground. Nobody hit her. Bushman just dropped, grimacing in pain.
That injury cost her three weeks. Then, after returning later in the season to play in a games, she re-injured her knee again during practice.
“I think I hurt that more than the first injury,” Bushman says. “So I've just been trying to rehab from that.”
And she did — but only to tweak her knee once more in the Diamonds' opening-round playoff game against the Austin Outlaws.
Bushman has been missed throughout her absences, but the Diamonds have still fared well without her quarterbacking talents — just not particularly through the air is all. Her backup, Odessa Jenkins, is more of a mobile quarterback. She rushed for ten touchdowns this season and was even named the WFA's American Conference Most Valuable Player for 2013.
Nonetheless, Bushman — who won the American Conference MVP last season and is a member of the national U.S. women's football team — believes her team needs to be legitimate threat through the air in order to topple the Chicago Force.
“I think a lot of our team — almost everybody– is very grateful that I'm gonna be able to come back.” Bushman says. “And I am too. Because we're gonna win. We're gonna make it happen.”
Same as the boys in her hometown, Bushman started playing football in the fourth grade. After Pop Warner, she continued playing the sport in high school. She played safety and even lettered her junior and senior seasons at Portsmouth High School in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
At the junior varsity level, though, Bushman played quarterback.
“Quarterback is definitely my first passion,” she says, then laments the obvious hoops and hurdles female athletes face.
“I definitely think it's an issue,” Bushman says. “Secluding anybody from a sport that they love, it's flat-out discrimination.”
But nothing's ever kept Bushman from playing. She refuses to allow it.
At 27 years old, she's already a veteran in the women's football game. She first joined the pro leagues while she was still in college and playing basketball at Emmanuel College in Boston. She played two seasons for the Massachusetts Mutiny and another season with the Boston Militia after the teams were consolidated.
In 2009, she moved to Texas and joined the Dallas Diamonds. Bushman left the team the following year to play quarterback for the other area pro squad, the Lonestar Mustangs. It was a smart move at the time: In 2010, Bushman led the Mustangs to a WFA championship.
But in 2012 Bushman rejoined the Diamonds, a handful of other players in tow. Defensive back Maria Spencer was among that group; prior to joining the Diamonds, Spencer had spent six of her seven pro years lining up for the Mustangs.
“The Mustangs are just kind of falling apart,” Spencer says in a drawl sweeter than grandma's apple cobbler. “Ownership had changed, and so did the coaches.”
Spencer, a perennial athlete, had never played organized football before joining the Mustangs. She played a little as a kid, but in the street — “inner-city football,” she calls it. Before joining the Diamonds, the Mustangs were the only team she knew.
Still, Spencer says she likes this team better. Even though she won a championship with the Mustangs in 2010 with Bushman, she feels like this Diamonds team is better, more special.
“We're just a great ball team,” she says. “We've gone through some adversity with our quarterback going down — and we were still able to get this far.”
On her team's chances in its impending championship game, she oozes confidence: “I'm almost positive we're gonna win.”
On the night of the Dallas Diamonds conference championship game, Kris Barnett and Krystal Jones share a halftime cigarette in the parking lot across from their home stadium in Bedford, Pennington Field, a 12,000 capacity field a number of high school teams call home as well.
The ladies are tattooed and pierced. They look tough enough, but aren't players, just fans, and one hopes to suit up one day. Jones has never played football before, but says she dreams of playing with the Dallas Diamonds.
Barnett's mostly here for support.
“She wanted to show me what it was like,” Barnett says.
Jones is a die-hard Cowboys fan, but she admires the Diamonds even more. She's in awe of them.
“They're unified,” Jones gushes. “They win as a group. It's not one person trying to do better than everybody else. They all do their part. And they win.”
And yes, the Diamonds won tonight — 27-6 over the Central Cal War Angels. The championship belt is right around the corner.
In San Diego on August 3, the WFA National Championship game against the Chicago Fire doesn't go nearly as well.
Sami Grisafe, Chicago's quarterback, takes a snap from the gun and fakes a handoff to running back Mary Choules, then sprints toward the end zone, jukes a Diamonds defender, breaks a tackle and scores on a 21-yard touchdown run with 9:41 left in the first quarter. And so the onslaught begins. Bushman doesn't start after all. She plays, but her knee gets the best of her. After just two series, her injury forces her to watch the rest of the game from the sidelines. The Diamonds don't bring home a fifth title. The team loses and loses marvelously, 81-34.
After the game, Dallas Diamonds offensive lineman Amari Hollis' spirits are still up. Hollis, one of the team's captains, believes that the game could have gone the Diamonds' way if some of the team's weapons were utilized just a little bit differently.
“We are a team of athletes — awesome athletes,” she says. “We're all physically talented. I don't believe that all of those talents meshed together as well as they should have [in the championship game]. It was the first loss of the season — and the most painful one.”
Still, the season wasn't a waste. She's adamant about that.
“Although we didn't win the coveted prize this year, we won each other's hearts and will forever be bound together,” Hollis says. “This team became a family on and off the field. There are now lifelong friendships and relationships that were birthed on this team, this season. Of the three years that I have played, this season was the one that made this team feel more like a family.”
In the coming months, Hollis, who also serves as the team's director of marketing, will be making this family pitch plenty. Her sights are now focused on an off-season filled with fundraising and player recruitment — and, really, just getting the word out there that far too many people have been missing out on far too good a team and far too good a product for far too long a time.
“Although the Dallas Diamonds have been around since 2002, there are too many households that have never heard of us,” she says.
It doesn't have to be this way. And it won't stay this way either — not if she can help it.
“A football fan is a football fan,” she says. “And whether it's men or women playing, the love of the game should be the same. It's now my job to make sure as many football fans as possible are familiar with the Dallas Diamonds.”
Perhaps there's hope yet for the WFA to make a legitimate mainstream splash: After the Chicago Force beat the Diamonds for the league title, the official Chicago Bears Twitter account tweeted the Force is congratulations.
It's tough to say if the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter account would've done the same had the Diamonds won the championship.
Hollis doubts it. The Cowboys organization hasn't paid the Diamond's much mind throughout the course of her team's 12-year history.
But maybe it couldn't hurt the Cowboys to try. In the last twelve years, only one of these two teams has won more than a single playoff game, only one of them has won four national championships, and only one of them can truly claim to be the best pro football team in North Texas.
It's not the squad in silver and blue.
It's the squad in purple and black. It's the organization that has an idea what it takes to win consistently over time: team.