Authors of Hail Mary discuss the history of the NWFL

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images /

Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, authors of the NWFL history Hail Mary, took time to talk with FanSided about their new book.

Hail Mary, by Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo, was one of my favorite sports books from 2021. Together, they told the story of the National Women’s Football League, a league that had, until their book, been largely lost to history. It is an engaging read, full of fascinating characters, previously untold stories, and insights about the history and current state of the women’s game. I recently spoke to the authors about the book and we had an illuminating chat about the writing process and the final project.

Britni de la Cretaz and Lyndsey D’Arcangelo discuss Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League

Micah Wimmer: How did you first learn about the NWFL’s existence?

Britni de la Cretaz: I actually came across the NWFL when Lyndsey and I were researching a version of this book that ended up not selling that was more broadly about women’s football and the history of the game. I came across the Toledo Troopers as the winningest team in pro football history and Linda Jefferson [the Troopers’ star running back] and I dug into what happens when the winningest team loses its first game and discovered their loss to the Oklahoma City Dolls in 1976. As we were looking into that we realized there was a whole league there and very little information publicly available about it.

Micah: How did you two come to start collaborating with one another and what was the collaborative process writing this book?

Britni: Lyndsey and I met in a Facebook group for sportswriters of marginalized genders and we were friendly and Lyndsey knows more about football than I do. I was working on a column about the state of the women’s game today for Bitch Media when I was the sports columnist there. I was chatting with Lyndsey while writing that and very frustrated that I couldn’t find a book that told the history of the women’s game in the way I hoped to learn about it. Lyndsey joked that I should write a book and I said only if she wrote it with me and somehow we got agented on that idea and ended up writing a book together.

In terms of how we divide the work, we split the teams in half and went from there. We each researched different teams and then brought our work together. Lynsdey comes from a fiction-writing background and a lot of the really beautiful scene work and character development came from Lyndsey. And I do a lot of cultural criticism so a lot of the analysis is stuff that I put in.

Micah: What was the research process like for this book?

Lyndsey: Like Britni mentioned, we split the teams in half and we each did our separate research about those specific teams. We started looking up old newspaper articles, searching stuff online, but once we were able to read some articles, we would gather some of the names of players and try to track down those players. Some of it was online snooping, some of it was a little bit Facebook stalking, just trying to connect in any way possible. Once we were able to get one or two players who were open to the idea of talking about it, they would tell other players they know about us and it went down the line. It was a lot of going through old newspaper articles originally and a lot of players supplying us with some research materials. Really rich materials such as old programs, lots of different photographs and documents from that time period they had collected and saved. A lot of the information came from the players themselves. There was a lot more we could have probably done had we been able to go in person – this was during the beginning part of the pandemic and everything – but it sort of went like that.

Micah: With this being the first book with all these things being brought together, and with there being so many disparate sources, what was the process of constructing a narrative and trying to make sense of it all like?

Britni: We worked in a big Google document and we wrote what we had and we wrote it by team, and that was our first draft. We kind of put it together chronologically and once we had that, that was what our first draft looked like. Here’s the history of women’s football, here’s Sid Fiedman and here’s the teams and the downfall and the state of the game today and that narrative largely stayed in the final version of the book.

But once we worked with our editor we ended up opening the book in 1976 which is kind of in the middle of the league with the Oklahoma City Dolls and the Troopers’ first loss which I mentioned before. That was the moment that the balance of power shifts in the league so it’s a moment to draw readers in. But actually what we ended up doing, and the reason we ended up starting there, is because we wanted to open up with the women as football players and never wanted the reader to doubt for a minute that the women could play football. So when you meet them in a game setting you set them up as athletes from day one and their skill is never questioned.

Micah: Yeah, start with the women rather than having the male organizer be the focus.

Britni: Yeah, and have them actually on the field so you can see them actually succeeding and playing the game well.

Micah: Speaking of that narrative shift, could you talk about that transition from it being an owner-led league to the players taking greater control and what that process entailed, what it meant, and what it could mean today?

Britni: I think that what we saw happen with Sid Friedman, he had a vision for women’s football teams and then a womens’ football league, but he was more concerned with getting press at all costs and making money whatever way that looked like, so he was less worried with making sure the women were perceived as a serious product. And he was not above sending a Hustler photographer to practice to send a camera under the center to get a picture if he thought it was going to get them good press. Some of the women did not feel good about that. They came out to play football because that is what they wanted to do. And you see that throughout the history of football. Often men organize teams as gimmicks and women come out and are kind of like, ‘You said football, right? I’m here to play.’ And they take themselves really seriously and that’s what happened here. And so it started with a couple of teams.

The Troopers broke away first when they were asked to throw games — they did that under their coach Bill Stout, who was supportive. You see a team like the Columbus Pacesetters, who also decide that they want to come away from Sid Friedman as well to become more serious, and those teams were able to band together and form the WNFL themselves. They did have men who believed in them and helped them. Bob Matthews with the LA Dandelions was a really big part of that and once that happened, and the women took back their power, there were more teams like the Pacesetters who formed a corporation and purchased themselves. They felt they could run the team better than the men could. And a lot of them credit football with giving them that belief in themselves.

I think today we see something similar in which women who play football are the ones who believe in the leagues themselves and in the sport and in the game and those are the people who have made the sacrifices to own the teams and be running these leagues with very little funding and financing. They’re the ones who continue to keep it going today and they do that in a pretty decentralized way so I think that that’s a very similar thread.

Lyndsey: Yeah, they fund the teams themselves by paying a thousand dollars per player in dues or more. They fund all the equipment, expenses, all that. And they don’t get paid anything to play. They take just as hard of hits and nurse all those injuries just to play the game.

Micah: You talk about women’s sports, especially under the Friedman regime, operating as a sideshow or a gimmick. What kind of steps do you think can ensure that sort of mindset and coverage vanishes today?

Lyndsey: I don’t think there’s still that sideshow mentality for the WNBA. You have the Joe Schmo guys who are always going to have an issue with it. Especially in the last five years, there’s been a real step towards legitimate coverage and publicity and promotion for the WNBA that I think has brought it to another level. I’m not sure that sideshow mentality is still hanging around. It’s more about investing in women’s sports to the point where there’s support and long-term goals and really wanting to help grow those leagues. We’re past that point from that Sid Freidman era, I believe. I’m not sure if Britni disagrees

Britni: What I will say is that the shift has come as more women have been in the pipeline of coaching, of being in front offices, of providing coverage. So I think the way the shift happens is actually shifting the balance of power of who is in control of the leagues and I think we’ve started to see that. And I think similarly we saw a pipeline in the NWFL where there were no women coaching when they started because women didn’t have the skills because they’d never been taught them. By the end of the league, most of the coaches were former players who’d moved into coaching roles. So you see that now with women’s college basketball, with the WNBA, with to some extent, the NWSL thought they’re further behind. But even with the NFL, you see women who have played the game move into coaching roles, move into front office roles and scouting roles and I think that is where the sports start to be taken more seriously: when people who take it seriously are in charge of it

Micah: Returning to the book itself, what was the most difficult part of writing or researching it?

Lyndsey: I’d say tracking down the players. There was a point where I was getting a little nervous as far as, am I gonna get enough people who want to participate to get deep into their stories and deeper information about the league? But once a couple of initial dominos fell, it sort of went down the line and it worked out. But that was probably the most difficult thing for me, tracking down the players

Britni:  I’d say that, because the stats were not what you would hope they would be, filling in some of the narrative holes, comparing players’ memories, which are also flawed, with incomplete documents and missing records and trying to get the most comprehensive picture and be as accurate as possible, while knowing that you were also going to mess up no matter what you come up with was hard.

Lyndsey: The other difficult aspect was, there was plenty of stuff we could look up in newspaper articles in the beginning part of the league because it was new and people were curious and sportswriters were actually writing about them. But as it got into the later years of the league, it was hard to find anything at all so it took a lot of additional research and looking into things and trying to get more information from some of the people. And we’ve gotten more information since the book’s been published we’re hoping to add in the paperback version. That was also a little bit difficult

Micah: What, over the course of your research, surprised you the most?

Lyndsey: I mean, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but the way they were treated in the media. From editorial cartoons to satirical articles to columns, some of it was just really brutal. And I shouldn’t be surprised by that but reading it with your own eyes, it infuriated me every single time.

Britni: I think what surprised me the most was, we knew there was a lot here, but the deeper you got into it, the fact that no one had written about this yet. What the hell? There was just so much and there were so many women that played and teams existed for 14 years. These women kept trying to make this a thing.

And the ties to the NFL, I was like wait a second, the Bluebonnets played in Texas Stadium, are you serious? They did pep rallies with the Cowboys. Those things I kept being like ‘Oh my God,’ because we can call it a fledgling league in some ways, but in other ways it really was a very legitimate professional league.

Micah: Those connections surprised me as well because they made me wonder how have I not heard of this? How did this slip through the cracks?

Britni: Right, they’re not even on the Wikipedia page for Texas Stadium. Maybe they are now. The NWFL finally has a Wikipedia page. After our book came out, some people made it. But it didn’t even have a Wikipedia page. You’d go to Texas Stadium and the Bluebonnets, who are a professional team, aren’t even listed as having played there.

Micah: Well that’s the frustrating thing about history is that it’s almost self-perpetuating. You tell the same stories that already exist because the research is already there so it’s more easily accessible and it keeps going while other stories are buried.

Another thing I was intrigued by reading the book is the relationship these athletes had to feminism and the women’s liberation movement at the time — the way they are making a political and cultural statement by playing while also, by and large, a good number of them don’t really identify with the feminist movement. Could you talk about the relationship between the players and those movements?

Britni: I think it’s really easy to look back and flatten history. And we can say ‘Oh, women’s lib was happening around this time and these women were breaking barriers so these two things must be related.’ And I think they’re related in that the newspapers tried to make them related. They were constantly being asked if they were women’s libbers. I think they’re related to some extent because when you’re living through it, whether you know it or not, if societal mindsets are shifting, maybe it creates the environment or opportunity for this league to start at all. So those things, I think they’re related in those ways but for a lot of the people who are playing, when you think about living through a movement, not everyone who lives through a movement is going to be an activist.

And when you think about the women’s lib movement, second-wave feminism specifically, and what that movement was about — which was really housewives and getting those women into the workforce and out of the home —  you think about The Feminine Mystique and Gloria Steinem and that didn’t really apply to a lot of these women. They were largely working-class, many of them already were working because they had to be. They were queer, lesbians, there was no oppressive man in their household. They had already divested from that, most of them, many of them did not have kids, many of them were women of color and so you’re looking and that movement doesn’t necessarily speak to the day to day reality of their lives. So I think to just assume that the two things are definitely going to be related flattens it, but I also think that, whether they knew it or not, just by being who they were and breaking rules that society had set for women just because they did that, they were, as we called them in the book ‘unwitting activists’ whether they want to label themselves or not. Change happens everywhere, not just on a picket line

Micah: In the world of sports publishing, I get books sent to me all the time and about 90 percent of them are by men, so I was wondering if there were any books by women or non-binary authors in the sports world that you think aren’t getting enough love.

Britni: I would recommend Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back by Jessica Luther and Kavitha Davidson. Co-written by a woman, Game Misconduct just came out by Evan Moore and Jashvina Shah, which is really good as well. The other one I really liked that recently came out was Turning Pointe by Chloe Angyal which is about ballet.

Micah: Finally, is there any question you have not been asked that you wish someone would have asked?

Lyndsey: I think I don’t get asked enough about the history, but I’m only saying that because I wrote the history parts! I think there’s more I could add to the conversation if there were more questions pertaining to the history of women in football and that time period, the evolution, and all that.

Britni: Lyndsey did the history section, and everything before the NWFL, and the state of the women’s game today.

Lyndsey: I did the bookends and then we had our own teams to talk about and Britni, of course, did the analytical stuff. We complimented each other very well. It worked out perfectly.

Micah: Did y’all edit each other’s work?

Lyndsey: Here and there. We left comments or added stuff, posed questions. It was very collaborative.

Britni: We wrote our own parts and we obviously read the other person’s work and made comments if we had them. Or sometimes I would have a section and just drop it into this piece that you’ve written. But because we had one editor who edited the whole manuscript, there was a set of eyes that went over the whole thing that was able to bridge our work.

Micah: I ask because, maybe I’m an inattentive reader, but I would not have been able to say “Oh this section is the work of one author and this section is the work of another.”

Britni: That’s great. I actually had friends, they took it as a personal challenge to see if they could figure out which sections I had written and which ones I hadn’t

Lyndsey: Only my closest friends would say ‘I want to ask who wrote this.’ And, as my wife was reading it, every chapter would be like ‘Who wrote this one?’ before she started it.

Micah: I was nervous that would be read as an insult, like ‘Oh my style didn’t shine through!’

Lyndsey: I think it’s a compliment! I think it shows that we really collaborated well and put together that came from two parts into one cohesive book that reads well so I take that as a compliment.

Next. We Will Win The Day examines the intersection of activism and athletics. dark

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]