July 5, 2006 - The punt was high arcing and sailed into the dusk at Menlo Park. As it began its descent toward Earth, the soccer players at the far end of the field were forced to scramble for their lives, arms held over their heads for protection.
The world of women's professional football isn't quite as glamorous as its male counterpart. That's obvious from one look at the practice field near downtown Tucson. Flanking the 15 women of the Tucson Monsoon on this Thursday evening - the team's final practice of the year - are two sets of families playing soccer on the torn up, muddy field.
Despite the playing conditions, the Monsoon, an expansion team in the Independent Women's Football League, continue to do what they have done best all year: persevere.
"The one thing I can say is that all the girls have stuck together and you would never know that we haven't won a game," said Northwest resident, Kristie Godbout, who serves as the Monsoon owner, general manager, starting center and defensive tackle.
Introducing women's football to Southern Arizona has been a trying, yet amazingly rewarding experience for its players and coaches this season. The Monsoon failed to win its six games on the year and opponents outscored them 225 to 32.
But spirits are seldom down on the squad.
"That's the unbelievable thing," said Monsoon head coach Larry Barfield. "I've had a couple of teams in all the years that I've coached football at Flowing Wells (middle school) that didn't win a game and the boys they get down, it wears on them. Every game these ladies bounce back like it's the first game, beginning of the season. They don't let it bother them at all."
Barfield, was supposed to be in retirement when the Monsoon contacted him and asked him to head the coaching staff. The staff consists of five coaches, many of which are husbands of players.
This isn't your mama's football, however. The IWFL designed its rules to mimic that of pro football - including full helmets and pads, tackling and 15-minute quarters. Nike even designed a ball specifically for use in the IWFL. The end product is a game closer to that played on the high school or college level, though, said Godbout.
The league is comprised of 32 teams - eight of which are expansion. Once the Monsoon are adopted into the league, they'll join the Western Conference and they'll face home-and-home games against teams from California, Portland and Seattle.
Despite the winless year, there have been glimmers of hope in just about every game this year.
The squad has a few talented players. Barfield - who coached the 2005 Pusch Ridge Christian Academy girls softball team to within one-run of a 2A state title - said the league president told him that his quarterback, 22-year-old Vanessa Rodriguez, is among the top three quarterbacks in the league. Even with a canon for an arm, however, finding receivers to haul in passes has been in short supply. Rodriguez's favorite target is Melissa "M.J." Overton, a speedy wide out, and good friend, whom Rodriguez has known since the two were young.
Rodriguez played for Barfield's softball team at Flowing Wells Junior High School before moving on to Flowing Wells High School where she was a member of three state winning softball squads. After high school she received a scholarship to play softball at Texas-El Paso. But in all her years of softball, she's never been hit as hard as she has this year in football.
"Sometimes you have to come out of the game for a second just to get yourself together," said Rodriguez, whose male cousin is a running back for Pima Community College. At 22, Rodriguez is the youngest player on the team.
Throughout the year, the Monsoon were able to add players here and there to bolster its thinning roster. Among them was Iryna Rumble, 43, a personal trainer at the Northwest L.A. Fitness. The Ukraine native is still learning the finer points of the game but has discovered a passion for the sport.
"It's not important how strong you are in this game," said Rumble, a defensive tackle. "More important is your character and how much strength you have inside. If you like fighting for everything, for life, for work, for pay, this is the sport for you."
Where the Monsoon didn't add players was from its rival team the Tucson Venom, of the National Women's Professional Football Association.
The Venom started the year as the Wildfire but an ownership change midway through the year had some Venom players looking to play elsewhere.
Both the NWPFA and the IWFL were started in 2000. The NWPFA has 37 teams. The Arizona Venom - which plays its games out of Ironwood Ridge High School - has struggled in its first season in the NWPFA.
The NWPFA begins its season in April while the IWFL starts a month later.
As a team, the Monsoon bounced around this year after being evicted from their home field of Tucson High School, which shut down to renovate its track. The team eventually settled on Rincon High School for its final two games. Despite the move - which included stints practicing at Jacobs and Menlo parks - attendance was fair in comparison to other teams in the league. After drawing more than 500 fans to the first game, the Monsoon drew in the neighborhood of 200 to 300 for it subsequent two home games.
Many teams they played throughout the year had as few as 50 people in attendance, a figure that makes Barfield wonder how they make ends meet.
High attendance numbers and not forfeiting any games this year bodes well for the franchise. Expansion teams are considered "X teams" until they can prove they can be a valuable entity to the league.
The original roster of 28 players has been pared down since its 60-person tryouts ended in January. The Monsoon finished the season on June 24 in Long Beach, Calif., with 18 players. Those who didn't survive the season did so for many reasons, including high costs and the rigors of a schedule that stretches from January through June with at least two practices a week and a game every weekend once the season starts.
Players aren't paid, despite the professional tag. In fact, it costs players $700 a year to cover costs of equipment and travel. Because it's just an expansion team, the Monsoon's travel was limited to two trips to Long Beach to face the Quake and a trip to Baton Rouge, La. for a game against the Wildcats.
"We don't consider it (professional)," Godbout said. "The only thing we say as far as professional is that we want to maintain a professional atmosphere. We want people to come to the games and enjoy them. We want the players to get a really good experience out of them, but they do pay to play, so the ones that are out here play because they love the game of football."
Next year, the Monsoon will look to add more players to build on team speed and to avoid having players play on both sides of the ball. Established franchises such as Kansas City, Sacramento and New York all feature full rosters of the maximum allowed players, 65. A team can only travel with 35, though.
Players such as Diane Benson have played virtually every down this year. For the team's starting running back, playing is a dream come true. The former University of Arizona women's rugby team player could use a break or two in between plays, though.