Stacy Dodge grew up in Green Bay and has been, no surprise, a lifelong football fan. Her family has had season tickets for Packers games for decades, and she's followed the team for as long as she can remember. But in the last year, her interest in football has evolved from passive fan to active participant.
"I was just watching a game on TV the other night and said, 'Hey, that's our play!'" says Dodge. "So that's what it's supposed to look like."
Dodge, a land surveyor who lives in Madison, is in her second season playing tailback and safety for the Wisconsin Wolves, the Madison-based team in the Women's Professional Football League. She was named to the All-Pro team last year on defense, after helping the Wolves to a 6-4 record, but thinks many of her teammates, particularly those returning for a second year, are just starting to come into their own.
"We did pretty well last year. I don't know how much of it was luck, but I think a lot of it was coaching," Dodge says. "There were a lot of monotonous drills teaching us how to block, how to run with the ball. It's starting to click, exactly why we did all that."
Tight end Karla Meinholz, a veterinary student at the UW-Madison, agrees, saying her comfort level has allowed her to see more of what's happening on the field this year.
"Last year, I spent a lot of time concerned about not screwing up," Meinholz says. "I tried to remember everything and do it perfectly. This year it's a lot more relaxed. I'm there more to help the team."
Achieving that comfort level has helped the Wolves leap to a 4-0 record going into Saturday's game against the Minnesota Vixen. (It's at 2 p.m. at Middleton High School's Breitenbach Stadium. Tickets are $10; $5 for students, seniors and military personnel; children under 10 are free). So far this year, the team has rolled over the Indiana Speed at home and on the road - 34-0 and 29-0, respectively - won one game by forfeit and just barely prevailed against Minnesota in St. Paul, 13-10.
"Squeaking it out would be an accurate way to put it," says Meinholz. "I think Minnesota came out more fired up, with a nothing-to-lose mentality."
A rivalry could be brewing between the two teams, in part because a few former Vixen players have joined the Wolves this season. Dodge and her teammates have great respect for Minnesota's ability to build a player-owned club in a market where there are a lot of opportunities for women athletes.
"They're a very clean, disciplined team, and we have a lot of fun playing them," she says. "But we also want to really take it to 'em.
Like most fledgling sports teams, the Wolves are struggling to build a following in Madison.
The name of the league implies these women are playing for money. In fact, they're now paid just $1 a game, and players are quick to make it clear they're not in this for the money. But in order to pay bills and keep the team afloat, they need to average more than 1,000 fans a game, which is a far cry from the 300 who showed up for the Aug. 25 game against Indiana.
Building that following won't be easy. Unlike basketball, soccer and even hockey, football has not benefited from Title IX resources. There are few opportunities for girls to learn the sport and compete, even in high school. Dodge and Meinholz never played in pads before trying out for the Wolves last year. By simply learning the sport and playing by rules that haven't been adjusted for gender, they're pioneers.
"I think a lot of people are pretty impressed with the fact we run a sophisticated offense," says Dodge, "let alone that it's a competitive league with the number of teams we have."
Curious football fans who venture out to Breitenbach for one of the Wolves' remaining home games might be similarly impressed. After playing with a relatively straightforward running attack last season, the Wolves are throwing it around a bit more in year two. That makes life a little easier for Dodge in her tailback role.
"We have a quarterback who has a really good arm, and she sees the field really well," Dodge says. "We have receivers who can get open and have really good hands, so that has opened up the running game a bit. Last year there were some teams we played who put nine players in the box on defense, and it's pretty tough to run that way."
For more information on the team visit WIWolves.com.