Getting old sucks. Just ask Mel Carlson, who is forced to slowly ease herself out of bed Sunday mornings, wincing and groaning as knotted and bruised muscles are gingerly pressed into service. A task as simple as making a visit to the bathroom can be agonizing. At 43, she isn't exactly over the hill. By the same token, the rigors of a full-contact football game is ample reminder she is not a spring chicken, either.
Carlson is an integral part of the Boise Xtreme, a full-contact football team that is a member of the Independent Women's Professional Football League. The IWPFL includes 25 teams, with plans for six more expansion teams, spanning both coasts from California to Maine and Canada.
Indisputably the team's toughest customer, Carlson knows her time as an active player is winding down.
"I'm definitely not as young as I used to be," she moaned. "I'm starting to feel it and my recovery time is getting longer and longer."
Despite the aches and pains, Carlson, a defensive end, is resolved to finish out the year, fueled by her passion for the sport and the chance to make the most of an opportunity not previously available to her.
"Traditionally, most women don't want to play football," said Rikki Fleischer, a Boise Xtreme middle linebacker. "Most women on this team wanted to play growing up, but couldn't because their parents wouldn't let them. Instead, they played softball, soccer or even rugby. They are athletes who love the sport and want another outlet to display their skills. The Boise Xtreme gives them that opportunity."
The team was founded by owner and former head coach Jay Hatfield, who bought into the league in 2001, one year after the IWPFL was founded. Two years ago, Hatfield stepped down as head coach and handed the responsibility over to Jesse Dendy. Dendy heard about the league from his wife's co-worker while the couple were still living in Delaware. He heard about it again after moving to Boise and offered his services as a way to fulfill one of his own passions and to "get out" and meet people in his new community.
"I went into this not knowing what I was getting myself into," Dendy conceded. "But then I realized it's really very organized. There are offensive and defensive schemes ... I got hooked. The challenge is that I don't have a coaching background. I just know the game. Most coaches in the league are experienced and it's a challenge pitting my brain trust against theirs. It's been a good experience so far."
Success on the field for the Xtreme has been mixed. This year has been especially challenging, the team winning only one of six games in the IWPFL's Northwest Division. The losses are difficult, but the players persist through adversity, making sacrifices along the way that strain relationships, schedules and wallets.
Sign-up fees run about $200 per year and players are responsible for most of their own equipment, which can be a spendy proposition. After purchasing game pants, shoulder pads, shoes and many other essential odds and ends, the bill can add up to another couple hundred bucks. Add the expense of hotels, meals and gas for trips to places like California, Oregon and Washington and the cost can balloon to a thousand or more.
Time at practice and on the road means juggling work and home life; many players have husbands and children. Through it all, the team faces the common reactions and stereotypes that women who play contact sports face: rolling eyes, condescending remarks and people who shrug it off entirely. Then there are those who prefer to sneer and label them as "a bunch of lesbians trying to play football," as described by one Boise critic.
"It happens all the time," Fleischer said. "People do say those things, and the truth is that some of our players are lesbians. A lot of our players are straight, too. But for me it's a non-issue. What we really need is for the community to support us and to realize we are good athletes. People need to come out and watch, check it out for themselves and develop their opinion from that."
More than anything, the Boise Xtreme has become an extended family of sorts, whose members come from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions ranging from X-ray technician to shipping clerk.
"My wife really hates football," chuckled Dendy, a Micron employee. "She basically hates August through January, but she's out there helping the team and is involved in doing what she can, like making hotel reservations and arranging for car rentals. She even sits in on film sessions. A lot of the players' families are like that."
In the end, it's all for the love of the sport and the friendships that are forged while preparing for, and participating in, that big battle that takes place on some field somewhere in Boise every other weekend. This past weekend spelled another loss for the Xtreme, a two-touchdown loss compliments of the Corvallis Pride, one of the toughest teams in the country. It means Boise probably won't take part in the league championship game being played in Manchester, Maine this year.
As for the Xtreme's elder badass, she will most likely never see a championship game, at least not one she will play in. Carlson, who occasionally sees action on both sides of the ball, plans on staying involved with the organization as a positions coach.
"This is my last year," she said. "I won't be playing, but I'll still be around and in good enough shape to dish out a couple of hits now and then as an assistant coach."
To find out more about the Boise Xtreme, log onto www.boisextreme.com, or contact Brandy Brown, general manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call her at 286-7056, or contact coach Jesse Dendy at 846-9095.