It's late in the day, and the pressure is on. Michigan offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Stan Parrish fixes me with a flinty eye and says, "If you get your hands on the ball, don't drop it!"
I have no such intention. As one of 600 attendees at the third annual Michigan Women's Football Academy, I know that "it's better to have died as a small boy than to fumble the football," as John Heisman once told his teams and as Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr has told us. Although I went to school in California, I understand that it is a rare honor to play in 110,000-seat Michigan Stadium—known in Ann Arbor as the Big House—and rarer still to be glorified up on the Jumbotron. That is my goal and the goal of all my fellow campmates, most of whom are die-hard Wolverines fans whose ages and football knowledge run the gamut.
When Carr thought up this one-day women's football camp several years ago to raise money for the university's cancer center, he assumed it would be a one-time event that would draw 75 participants, tops. "I never dreamed it would be something people would get so excited about," says Carr, whose 10 assistant coaches, as well as 20 players and countless support staffers, volunteer their time to put on the camp. Participants pay $75 apiece. For that, each camper gets to participate in morning drills on the basics of the game and in an afternoon scrimmage. "A lot of these women now want an advanced class," says Carr.
Last year, Parrish says in a voice tinged with both disappointment and warning, his group "fell apart" under the pressure of playing in the Big House. He vows that our group—we are divided into 10 units of 50-plus each-will do better. We have a lot to learn, including the center-quarterback exchange ( Parrish has devised a fingernail-safe version); the five pressure points (web of fingers, palm of hand, forearm, pit of elbow and rib cage) every running back needs to know to carry the ball properly; and the stance, footwork and hand position required for proper pass protection. "The important thing is to play with a base," offensive line coach Terry Malone tells us.
After we shuffle through agility drills, suffer the pain of the defensive stance and try booting the ball under the tutelage of Wolverines senior kicker-punter Hayden Epstein, it's time for lunch. After that we make our entrance into the Big House. We charge through the tunnel as Hail to the Victors blasts from the P.A. system, sending the Michigan fans among us into rapture. Then announcer Howard King booms out that we're "all starters and all winners."
Parrish splits my unit into five subgroups of 11 and gives each subgroup one run-through of three offensive plays. We'll be running them at the 20-yard line against a group coached by defensive coordinator Jim Hermann, while other groups scrimmage on other parts of the field. My side is confident. In practice we have executed all our plays, including a short pass to me. No problem.
"So, Coach, is this touch?" asks one of my teammates, though we have neither helmets nor pads. No comment. Tackling was one drill conspicuously absent from the morning session, but it's clear that a few campers are familiar with pancaking and dog-piling. On our first down Hermann's team is called offside when their noseguard plows into center Caren Stalburg, an Ann Arbor ob-gyn who can recite stats from the first Michigan game she attended, in 1984. On the second try Stalburg and quarterback Tamara Stein, an anatomy professor at Michigan's medical school, fumble the exchange, and the defensive line flattens them.
Parrish calls a "right left bomb"—to me. I'm the wide receiver on the left. "This will be great, six points," he says. That's when he warns me not to drop the ball.
On "hut" I shed my defensive back, sprint to the end zone and turn, only to see the ball squirt 10 feet into the air before falling like a dying duck back at the 20. While I was running my pattern, Stalburg drove the noseguard—Coach Hermann's wife, Ann—back several yards. The rest of our offensive line, however, was no match for the blitz, which left Stein flat on her back once more. Our fellow campers on the sideline can see we aren't playing with a base.
Elsewhere on the field, though, there is brilliance. Quarterback Kim Turner, a 42-year-old mother of two, is having a banner day. Bald from the treatment for the ovarian cancer she's been battling since January, she hogs the Jumbotron by passing for one score and running 50 yards for another. "This has been so much fun, and what a great cause," says Turner, "and I learned a lot, like how important the offensive line is."