Daring Divas
May 8, 2003

Allyson Hamlin didn't have time to think. When a driver hit a motorcyclist and side swiped another vehicle on Warner Street in Landover Hills a few weeks ago, the Prince George's County Police officer immediately rushed to the victim's aid. She called for an ambulance on her walkie-talkie and put out a description of the vehicle: a white BMW. Hamlin would eventually get a much better look.

Minutes later, the car headed back up Warner Street with its front right tire blown out. As Hamlin approached, the vehicle took off and a chase ensued from Allison Street to Annapolis Road as Hamlin followed the BMW in her police cruiser. Hamlin eventually boxed the BMW in, jumped out and went to the trunk to retrieve her revolver. With several other cruisers arriving on the scene, Hamlin repeated into her walkie-talkie, "I'm not in uniform, I'm not in uniform."

The warning to her fellow officers wasn't precisely accurate.

Hamlin wasn't in her gray County Police gear. But she was dressed in a uniform -- a football uniform, that is, complete with shoulder pads.

The driver, who was drunk, probably thought she was hallucinating.

"She's looking at me like, 'What the hell?'" said Hamlin as she stood on the Landover Hills Park baseball field where she saw the incident take place. Hamlin, the police officer had crossed paths with Hamlin the first-year quarterback of the National Women's Football Association's D.C. Divas.

From its start with two teams in 2000, the NWFA has spawned 29 teams from Maine to Oklahoma with eight more set to begin in 2004. Though it doesn't have the exposure or financial backing of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) or the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA), it has helped hundreds of women realize their competitive dreams, including several county residents.

"I think people are really intrigued," said Donna Wilkinson, a Fort Washington resident who plays running back for the Divas. "They love the fact that I'm doing something different."

Love and football

At his desk in the office of Housing and Urban Development in the District, Jamie Dilla has a Divas schedule poster and a "glamour shot" of his wife, Gayle, a Divas offensive lineman.

"Gayle started playing flag football 10 years ago and she really got into it," Jamie said. "Three years ago, this came up and she wanted to give it a shot and I said 'Go for it.'"

Gayle has competed in softball, pro beach volleyball and taekwondo. When the NWFA put a franchise in Washington, she wanted a chance to finish something she started as a teen-ager.

"I tried to play in high school. I made the team, but they didn't make it comfortable," said Dilla, who was a three-sport athlete at Pompano Beach High in Florida. "I always tried sports that I didn't know anything about. It takes a while to learn things, so I like to do things that challenge me."

Growing up in Nebraska, where University of Nebraska football is a religion, Jamie has always had a taste for the sport, which he played in high school. After serving as the public address announcer in the Divas' first season, he's been on the sidelines the last two seasons coaching the defensive backs and special teams.

"He asked me if it was OK because he really didn't want to step on my toes and take anything away from my experience," said Gayle. "The first season, the coaching staff was one person and he needed to surround himself with people who were committed. [Jamie] actually gave up all his sports so he can coach. Now, it has become a way of life."

Jamie and Gayle, married for 12 years, watch pro and college football games together in their Upper Marlboro home. Gayle admits having difficulty remembering the line between the field and home.

"When I get frustrated I talk to Jamie like he's a coach not my husband," said Gayle. "It's usually very constructive, I just have to remember he's my husband not my coach."

"I get a lot guff from my friends," Jamie says, "because they think, and it's true for the most part, that my wife can kick my butt."

Wearing a maroon-colored Divas warm-up suit, T.J. Dilla was playing on the far end of the sideline during the Divas' 24-0 victory over the Baltimore Burn April 19 on their home field at Eastern High in Southeast D.C.

T.J., the Dillas' 4-year-old old son, is a fixture on the sidelines for practice and game days. He's become the team's unofficial mascot.

Because women's football has become a part of T.J.'s life at such a young age, his parents said he won't have preconceived notions about women and sports as he grows older.

"He'll never have in his mind that women can't play football," Jamie says of his son. "He'll think that women can do anything that they set their mind to. Whatever she said, whatever she does, that's what she's going to do and he knows that."

Said Gayle: "I'm not really changing everything because he doesn't know anything different. He really only knows this, so he'll grow up thinking this is normal."

An officer and a quarterback

Hamlin, 26, works in one of the county's toughest districts, Palmer Park. But the University Park resident had to conquer her own fears and work schedule before taking on the toughest position in football: quarterback.

"This is the opportunity of a lifetime," said Hamlin, wearing a black University of Maryland hat. "There's nothing compared to football, now I understand how the pros feel, not the same level but I understand."

Hamlin was a three-sport athlete at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, then played softball at Maryland, where she was part of the Terrapins' 1997 Atlantic Coast Conference championship team.

Many of the Divas' players were athletes in high school and college, and the NWFA is an extension of their competitive nature.

"I've played sports my whole life," said Hamlin, who has been a county officer for three-and-a-half years. "There's nothing like being on a team."

Hamlin sometimes practices during a break in her shift. After stopping the hit-and-run driver on Annapolis Road, she returned to Allison and Warner streets to find out that the victim left the scene. Police later discovered the motorcycle he was riding was stolen.

Several officers watched the Divas practice after the accident was cleared.

"My co-workers and others underestimated it, they don't believe that women can hit," said Hamlin. "They watched the practices, and they're telling people. Once they see it, they're OK."

Said Gayle Dilla, a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch: "Most clients know I'm athletic and don't know the extent of it. It kind of gives you the ability to talk about other things and get to know your clients. Every Monday, they call to make sure I'm on both legs."

Some often pause to watch to the Divas run through tires and or practice offensive and defensive sets on the Landover Hills Park outfield. Others just stop to verify that it's women they're seeing.

"It's cool especially when someone asks, 'What do you run?'" Hamlin said. "And they expect me to say, 'three people go out this way.' We run the 'I,' the 'power,' the 'pro-weave' ... Then they listen. It's amazing how quickly when you throw out some terms, all of sudden they stop talking."

Playing with pride

Donna Wilkinson's personal goal is to "help enough people to make a difference in the world." Her goal on the gridiron is to create havoc.

A running back for the Divas, Wilkinson weaves through holes and punishes any defensive lineman or defensive back who tries to slow her down.

"When you love the game of football, you'll do anything to play," said Wilkinson, a wellness consultant with Nikken Corporation. "I think most of the girls are out here because they truly love to play and they're out here because it's their dream. It's nice to be able to let out aggression in a legal way."

Wilkinson, 28, who grew up an Oakland Raiders fan in Riverside, Calif., is the Divas' top offensive performer with four touchdowns. The Divas are unbeaten at 3-0 in the Mid-Atlantic Division.

"We learn so much every week and every single year, we learn something we didn't know the year before," said Wilkinson, who played basketball and volleyball at Columbia Union College. "If we had a chance to play in Pop Warner all the way through, it would be different. They're teaching us what would be learned in high school. Because we're older and a little more mature, we're able to learn a lot more and game becomes more fun."

The league doesn't have a major national sponsor or broadcasting contract. The players must provide their own insurance. There is no salary, but it's hard not to find satisfaction.

"It's special, I can't really describe it. It's always special on sports teams, especially a team like this," said Wilkinson. "All the personalities, lifestyles, we accept each other. It's different communities coming together and saying we have one common goal."

Said Hamlin: "There's nothing like game day. We have a commitment and a lot of respect for each other. We know we're living an opportunity of a lifetime."

E-mail Derek Toney at dtoney@gazette.net.