Assault and memory

It’s third and long and the Asheville Assault is desperate to get the ball back and put some points on the board. The quarterback for the Chattanooga Locomotion takes the ball from the snap, drops back into the pocket, and quickly fires a tight spiral into the wide receiver’s waiting hands. From the sideline, it looks as though there’s nothing but open field between the receiver and the first-down marker. But then come the footsteps — loud, menacing, predatory footsteps. In a flash, Asheville’s Charley Cox is vectoring in on the receiver, who’s now running full tilt up the sideline. Their paths meet just shy of Chattanooga’s objective, and Cox delivers a bone-crushing hit that echoes through the stadium. For football fans, it’s an all-too-familiar sound: the crack of helmet against helmet, pad against pad; the fleshy smack of bodies in collision, and the guttural oomph! of breath being forced from the body in a most unnatural way.

Cox pops up and, towering over the ball carrier’s limp remains, glares down in triumph, shouting, “Not in my house!”

This is football, all right — right on down to the NFL-style smack talkin’. And it’s not for the squeamish. But the roughly 300 fans assembled at Asheville’s Memorial Stadium (Cox’s “house”) are eating it up and screaming for more. And well they should — they’ve paid $10 apiece to watch professional football, and that’s what they’re getting. It’s not the same pro ball that’s beamed into our living rooms each Sunday in autumn, however; it’s not the Canadian version, either. And at 5 feet 9 inches and 160 pounds, Cox is a little small for even the Arena Football League. Still, Charley Cox dishes out pain the way Shoney’s serves up eggs: on demand, to please the paying customer. So by definition, Cox is a pro. And she’s damn proud of that fact.

That’s right: she.

Charley Cox is all woman, and she plays professional football for the Asheville Assault in the National Women’s Football Association. But the prospect of women donning helmets and pads doesn’t seem all that surprising to Cox, who says simply, “This isn’t women playing football; it’s women’s football.”

By day, Cox is an Asheville firefighter — another profession that only a few years ago wasn’t even an option for women. And when you meet her, statements like “a woman can’t do that job” crumple like so many enemy wide receivers in her path.

In any kind of helmet, Cox cuts an imposing figure. Her body is a toned, rippled mass of coiled muscle, and her long blond hair gives her a Vikinglike appearance. In a smoke-filled hallway — when she’s dragging your sorry butt to safety — she’s an angel of mercy. On the gridiron, when she’s playing free safety and kicking butt, she shows no mercy. Football, the last great bastion of the men-only mindset, is now fair game. And in Asheville, Cox and company are proving that women’s football isn’t just some sideshow to the men’s version. Instead, these women’s gutsy play and professionalism are quickly winning over fans.

In the words of first-time spectator Trevor Steele, “This is amazing.”

What price dreams?

It’s easy to get caught up in the debate over exactly what qualifies as a pro sport in this day and age. Does it mean million-dollar salaries? A national audience and corporate sponsors? Maybe so. But the Asheville Assault is a reminder that professionalism can still be measured in another way: as attitude backed up by aptitude.

Even the Olympics — which, in a more innocent age, adhered strictly to an amateurs-only policy — have lost some of their luster now that they’ve taken to showcasing NHL and NBA stars.

And it’s hard to deny the allure of watching real, live athletes — some of whom may even be your neighbors — strut their stuff up close and personal.

But when the Assault takes the field, there’s something else at stake that goes beyond entertainment.

Die-hard Assault fan Kelly Gorason says she’s seen every one of her team’s games, both home and away. “If you didn’t see the ponytails hanging out, you wouldn’t know the difference,” she asserts, adding, “This is football.” But for Gorason, there’s more than just a game going on. “The appeal is to see women do what they’ve always wanted to do,” she explains. “These women want to play football. And they’re playing it with everything they’ve got. It takes a lot of heart and soul to do what they’re doing.”

Three years ago, the idea of local women playing football was just a dream. With the founding of the NWFA, which started play in 2001, opportunity beckoned. Like most fledgling franchises, the Asheville Assault wasn’t exactly a gold mine. When owner Gail West put the team up for sale, however, three local women decided to put their money where their dream was. And unlike most owners, Sherrie Lusk, Shannon Ashe and Nikki McGinness backed up their investment by playing on the team themselves.

The 30-team league has established beachheads in such major cities as Nashville (the Dream), New Orleans (the Spice) and Philadelphia (the Phoenix). But Asheville’s squad boasts the most sinister name in the league, hands down. Give Biloxi’s team (the HERRicanes) some points for creativity; the owners of the D.C. franchise (the Divas), on the other hand, ought to be benched.

The Assault, however, has more than just a snappy name to brag about — they’ve won the respect of many of their colleagues. Under the watchful eye of Coach Jay Norton of Brevard, they’ve carved a 7-4 record, climbing as high as seventh in the league standings and qualifying for a playoff berth.

“This has been like a dream come true,” noted Ashe after her team lost a nail-biter to Chattanooga. With a mud-stained uniform and blades of grass protruding from her helmet, Ashe looked every bit the exhausted warrior. “Playing football was a dream I never thought would happen. This is such a thrill — to be able to put on pads and play real football. And to know that there are so many other women out there like me who share this dream; it’s incredible.”

The women on the Assault’s roster (who range in age from 21 to 41) hail from Asheville, Canton, Little Switzerland, Waynesville and a dozen other mountain hamlets. They’re blue-collar and white-collar, black and white, mothers and daughters. And for the hometown fans, it’s not just about watching entertaining football — it’s about pulling for Asheville against the flatlanders with old-fashioned civic pride. It’s us against them. In the NFL, free agency and ever-shifting personnel have diluted the bond between home team and fan. But the Assault and the rest of the NWFA are bringing football back to its roots.

“Watching locals take the field has a certain nostalgia to it; it’s like being back in high school,” notes Jim Dalton, who’s enjoying the game with a few friends. That comparison also aptly describes the scene in the stands. Although many fans have their eyes riveted on the action, an equal number are chatting and laughing in groups and cliques — oblivious to the game, but grateful to the Assault for throwing such a lovely party. (And unlike high school, fans over 21 can buy a beer to help them work up the nerve to ask that special someone out on a date.)

Memento mori

But sometimes, nostalgia has a deeper dimension.

It’s appropriate that football so often seems to be played in war memorials (think Chicago’s Soldier Field and Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium). After all, this is a game with decidedly martial overtones. A quarterback can throw a bomb while being besieged by a blitz during sudden-death overtime — or so coaches and sports scribes like to remind us when they’re trying to lay hold of our emotions. And many of football’s finest moments have unfolded in these American coliseums.

Upon entering their memorial, Baltimore Colts fans were greeted by a giant inscription proclaiming that the structure had been dedicated “as a memorial to all who so valiantly fought in the world wars, with eternal gratitude to those who made the supreme sacrifice to preserve equality and freedom throughout the world. Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”

Time, however, proved less kind to the stadium itself, which fell to the wrecker’s ball in 2001 — three months after the events of Sept. 11.

The dedication of Asheville’s Memorial Stadium (on Nov. 4, 1949) was also marked by a benediction evoking images of honor, sacrifice, purpose and eternity. According to the Asheville Citizen’s account of that chilly fall evening, thousands packed the spanking new grandstands to watch Gastonia High School square off against Asheville High on the gridiron. Before the kickoff, however, the crowd bowed their heads as the Rev. Earl B. Weed delivered the invocation. He began by asking for “eternal peace upon the hearts and souls of those whose sons had made the eternal sacrifice.” Weed, notes the news report, then “prayed that material things, such as the memorial stadium, should always stand as a reminder that wars bring only suffering and are never won by any nation or people.”

But by the early 1980s, Memorial Stadium was suffering itself (even the high-school team had abandoned it in favor of the current on-campus facility). With its grandstands and brick entry arch crumbling, the old stadium was now a dilapidated reminder of how fleeting a community’s memory can be. Although the sacrifices may be eternal, the memorial, it seems, is no less mortal than the soldiers it honors.

Today, the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department (which maintains the facility) has brought the stadium back from the brink of total abandonment. But what remains is still a far cry from what was. Assault player/co-owner Shannon Ashe, although grateful to have a home for her team, notes that “it could really use a face-lift.” Talking about the stadium, Ashe grows quite passionate: “A lot of people forget that this place is a memorial to the soldiers; it’s more than a ballpark. Asheville has so many architectural positives, but Memorial Stadium is in sad shape.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Dennis Justice, who runs a local-sports Web site (www.wncsport.com). Justice diplomatically calls the stadium’s facilities “problematic.” But he eschews subtlety when discussing whether the field is a fitting tribute to Asheville’s war dead. “If you’re going to have a memorial stadium, at least have a permanent, lighted flag. They don’t even have a plaque up there; it’s disrespectful. Don’t call it an appropriate memorial when it’s not,” he noted in a recent interview.

The city, says Parks and Recreation Department Director Irby Brinson, “plans on renovating [the stadium] as funds become available.” Those plans, he reports, include upgrading the entrance, creating a plaza area, adding concession facilities, locker rooms, a press box and new lights. All told, the project will cost “around three to four million dollars,” he predicts.

“The stadium,” notes Brinson, “is named ‘Memorial’ for a reason, and few people realize that.” The city, he says, would like to save the old brick archway, which is now fenced off due to its instability. “The brick archway, is the memorial,” Brinson told Xpress. “We want to enhance that and create some sort of recognition of its memorial status. … We don’t have a time line, but we continue to look for corporate sponsorships and grant opportunities.”

Brinson is also quick to point out that Asheville voters rejected a Parks and Recreation bond initiative during the 1999 election. “The renovation was one of the top issues in that initiative, but it failed by 357 votes,” he recalls.

Despite showing its age, however, Memorial Stadium remains a living memorial. With every game, teams like the Assault, the Asheville Splash soccer team, the Asheville Grizzlies (the city’s pro-football team for men) and the Asheville Youth Football Association breathe life into the crumbling stands. Fans can still walk from downtown and nearby neighborhoods to take in a game — and maybe, just maybe, be reminded that there’s more to sports than money, and more to stadiums than corporate naming rights.

But nostalgia aside, sprucing up the old place might not be such a bad idea. After all, we’ve seen what Charley Cox can do when somebody disrespects her house.

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