Game On 

The uniform is lingerie, but the play ain't delicate

The smack of football pads — a dull thunk in the sonic neighborhood of a fender bender — is gender neutral and decidedly unsexy. Quarterback Abbie Sullivan takes the snap, jackknifes straight back, and delivers a perfect spiral into the hands of an open receiver camped 20 yards downfield. A chorus of hits rings out at the line of scrimmage as the backfield burns down their adrenaline tanks going for the end zone. By the time the play is whistled dead, a cornerback is still wrapped around the legs of the ball handler, working to pull her overboard.

High above, the stadium lights of a local high school fend off a pitch-black sky swollen with rain showers. Another snap, another page from the playbook unravels.

The prep is for Friday, when the 20 women who fill the roster of the Cleveland Crush will put on half as much clothing and swap the practice field for Quicken Loans Arena. On that evening, before the uniquely trained eye of MTV2 cameras, the Crush will cut the ribbon on its inaugural season in the Lingerie Football League with a battle against the Baltimore Charm. According to the vagueries of Vegas, Baltimore is favored by six and a half.

Apart from betting lines, pretty much everything about the Lingerie Football League leaves little to the imagination. Now in its third season, the LFL pushes a brand of football that draws a mostly male audience (you were expecting schoolgirls?) with the promise of full contact and players that look like they stepped out of the Thunderdome's cheer section. The standard-issue getup: helmets that make small priority of actually concealing the player's face; shoulder, knee, and elbow pads; plus garters, sparkly bras, and booty shorts. That's it. The pre-game rave-ups and promotional materials are Maxim cover spreads breathed to life by club beats, with the league's standouts gyrating and shooting sexy daggers into the camera—not moves Colt McCoy could muster.

If most organized women's sports market their sex appeal on the sly, the LFL is openly fishing the waters. And that garish honesty has drawn prudish ire, eye-rolling dismissal, and perhaps an unfair rep as a holding pen for reality-TV wannabes, models, and other aspirants trying to start the clock on their 15 minutes. The league maintains that fans come for the beauty, then stay for the action – the football action, that is.

Keeping the fans in the seats is key; the league has pulled out of cities where attendance and enthusiasm were low. The big question mark hovering over the enterprise here is whether a rust-belt burg — where the gridiron is holy ground — will take football spiked with a heady dose of skin seriously. The Crush is gambling Cleveland will appreciate the balance.

Hell, even the players took some convincing.

"I saw the videos online and I didn't know what to expect," says linebacker Skye Leary, a tomboyish 29. "I thought it would be makeup and spandex. I'm not blond hair, double D's. I'm a flat-chested Irish Catholic from Cleveland."

Although she bides her office hours working in sales, Leary isn't new to knocking heads: She hails from a family of rugby players and has been playing since college. When she heard about the Crush, she was hesitant at first because of the sexed-up vibe. Once practice began, her concerns wilted.

"A lot of people don't really know what the league is," she says. "I try to explain, 'I don't wear a thong. I'm not prancing around in high heels,'" she says. "Yeah, it's hot girls in underwear, but we're doing something athletic and competitive."

***

The negligible outfits are a week away, but the game-day intensity shows up at practice. This time, Sullivan calls her own number, zigzagging up the turf 15 yards and finishing on the ground floor of a pile-up of defenders.

"She can't have the ball up like that," Karen Golic tells her husband on the sidelines. "You got to tell her to tuck that ball and run with it." Bob Golic is standing a few steps closer to the action, and like his players, he's wearing only a T-shirt against a September evening that's doing its best impression of late October. The anchor of the Browns' defensive line in the 1980s, Golic is still a hulking land mass of a guy, his ever-present beard a sleeker version of the one he sported on the field back then.

Tonight he's taking in practice with his mouth hitched into a small awed smile, as if watching football — any football, even the humdrum motions of a group of neophytes — is still fun.

Together, Bob and Karen are the twin engines propelling the team off the ground. With little help from the league and only thin ideas about what's worked for other franchises, husband and wife have secured coaches, practice space, and hosted promotional events at their restaurant on West 6th Street in the Warehouse District. Golic is also something of the psychological figurehead of the squad; for a group made up mainly of rookies, it helps to have an NFL player on the sidelines handing out pointers.

The LFL itself is a gimmick that's grown wings. The league started out as a single game: the Lingerie Bowl, a 2004 pay-per-view Super Bowl halftime alternative featuring the scantily-clad, seven-on-seven gridiron recipe that would be the blueprint for today's league. Being the year of the infamous Justin Timberlake-Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction, the one-event had the dubious distinction of being the least controversial of that year's mid-game options.

In 2009, the league started a 20-week season featuring 10 teams. Two years later, it has grown to 12 teams with flags stabbed in major markets such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Tampa, and Seattle. The games are exclusively shown every Friday on MTV2. Along with Cleveland, three other expansion franchises are taking the turf this month.

Golic was at the original 2004 halftime lingerie bowl. But it was only after tuning in to a league game a few years later that he saw more was happening on the LFL field than the wardrobe.

"I was watching girls who were hitting with perfect form — just exploding from the hips, wrapping their arms and dragging them down to the ground," Golic says. "It made me think about some of the NFL games I had just watched, how many of the guys were coming up and hitting people real hard, trying to knock them down but not using any technique. I wouldn't have thought the LFL girls were tackling with better form than the guys were."

Golic heard whispers that the league was tossing around the idea of setting up shop in Cleveland or Columbus; he called up the bosses and declared the Forest City — a pigskin Mecca if ever there was one — should get the franchise. Since the news became official last December, he and Karen have been steering the show through its growing pains.

***

Surprisingly — or perhaps not, considering it's Cleveland — finding a rag-tag group of women who were game for full contact in minimal attire (and looked splendid doing it) wasn't much of a problem. At the team's tryouts in spring, more than 200 hopefuls showed up. The final cut included lifelong athletes boasting impressive stats in high school and college sports. But in terms of football knowledge, the range ran from players who had actually logged seasons on semi-professional tackle teams to those who could spell "touchdown." And the labor would be purely one of love: No players are being paid.

"I was really expecting it to be models and dancers, but I was pleasantly surprised," says 29-year-old Tiffany Soggs before a recent practice. With her hair tied in two large braids flowing from an orange bandana, the Middleburg Heights native doesn't have the air of gym-honed health that's common among most of her teammates; instead, she seems field-tested and tougher – a lady who can take and dish a hit.

And she has. For four seasons, Soggs has held a spot on the Cleveland Fusion, the full-contact, full-pads team that competes in the definitively unsexy

Women's Football Alliance. When the Crush held tryouts, she was hesitant to go, in part because of the league's street rep. Despite the lack of football experience in the talent pool, Soggs was impressed with the skills surrounding her and decided to sign on.

"It's still real football in terms of the actual athleticism it takes to play," she says. "I think the whole gimmick of the lingerie will wear off in the first five minutes, and then you're just going to see some real smash-mouth football."

Despite anchors like Soggs, the lack of football know-how is hampering most of the team.

"I'd never played football in my life," says Mikkayla Flores. "I used to watch it on TV and was like, 'Wait, what just happened?'"

At 18, Flores is the squad's youngest player and probably its smallest: A diminutive five-foot-four with a china-doll face, she sits on the bench before practice, tapping the ground with red and white Nike Air Force Ones stitched across with her name. Flores is a recent transplant from Arkansas, and despite having no history with the sport, her parents encouraged her to try out. Today a small scratch dead center on the bridge of her nose is the only sign left from when she smashed it up at a practice earlier this season.

"I didn't tackle right. A shoulder pad hit the face mask, and the face mask came in," she says matter-of-factly. The broken nose — the only major injury the Crush has seen this season — didn't slow down Flores; she's still nailing down the game's basics. "It was pretty easy to learn, but I'm still learning."

***

If the Crush's roster came together easily enough, the coaching staff proved more troublesome. Golic originally asked friend and former Browns teammate Handford Dixon to lead the team, but the commitment proved too time-consuming for the longtime real estate agent. An interim coach with semi-pro experience was brought in, but he eventually washed out. With the start of the season looming and the coach's office empty, the team's defensive coordinator, a former college and arena football player named Dontez Howard, was handed the reins.

And the biggest challenge he's faced so far?

"Women," Howard deadpans at practice. Riding under the joke is the reality: He's tasked with essentially cramming a lifetime of football knowledge into a couple of months. Although he's still a star cornerback with the semi-pro Cleveland Cobras, here, Howard says, he hasn't been tapping his reserves of field smarts so much as his experience teaching local youth football.

"We had to teach them from the ground up, starting with the basics," he says. "Women tend to be smarter than guys, so they pick it up a lot quicker. You don't have to repeat yourself, but you have to be patient."

The coach enjoys an easy rapport with his players, big-grin bantering on the sidelines before practice gets under way. Once the players have strapped in and stretched, Howard carefully runs them through simple drills and then moves on to the playbook. When plays start coming apart over shoddy execution, he slows down the flow and re-teaches the basics.

But tonight, as the sky starts spitting rain and cold wind rakes the sidelined rows of players and spectators, the Crush are fluid on the field — and fast. Unlike the heavy foot of a lot of pigskin action that takes place below the upper echelon of the professional and college ranks, there's a whip-crack energy to their movement. But what now looks like the regular — if unsexy — ball-snap and smash-up of football will be a completely different sight in a week, when the lingerie comes on and the Crush toe the line against experienced competition. That's the change Howard is trying to prepare his flock for.

"My big thing right now is if you can't be physical, it's not the sport for you," he says. "You're going to get hit. You're going to hit. I want them to be ready."

***

I think that's the last thing anyone is thinking about," says Melissa Miller, a Crush linebacker and tight end. The question referred to whether the team's national cable debut might be fraying any nerves.

Same goes for Amber Barrick, a 25-year-old buxom blonde center and linebacker who answers the question by throwing three fingers at the ceiling. "I'm just thinking about that W."

A handful of Crush players have come to Golic's restaurant on the Friday prior to opening day. It's billed as a fan meet-and-greet, but tonight the room is empty except for a few patrons and the players hunched around a table off to the side of the bar. The flat screens are showing tonight's LFL matchup, and one that's particularly important: Next week's Crush opponent, the Baltimore Charm, is hosting the Orlando Fantasy.

Packaged for TV masses, the lingerie is hard to miss. After a while, the relentless skin and parading busts lose some of their eye-popping power, and you end up watching a fast-paced, high-scoring matchup, with most plays ending in pile-ups against the arena walls. On most runs, there's no small amount of pushing and shoving, even after the whistle blows. When the MTV2 cameras pan across the Baltimore crowd, most of the seats seem to be filled — though the hometown fans aren't getting much of a game. The Fantasy is barreling through the Charm defense on the way to a 36-12 victory.

For Cleveland, pulling together a crowd will be key. A week out, the players say ticket sales for the first game have been "steady." Ultimately, whether fans come out to the season's two scheduled home games for the football or for the T and A doesn't matter much – just as long as they come. Golic says the league wants to make sure the LFL is in a town that wants them. "That translates into showing up to games, which translates into ticket sales, which translates into dollars.

"These girls are looking forward to going out there," he adds. "They understand the importance of football in Cleveland. We feel like we're going to fit right in."

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