Four months ago Mary-Anne Hanson stood in front of television cameras at the first tryout for the B.C. Angels, one of four Canadian expansion teams in the Lingerie Football League, and provoked an extravagant comparison from the league’s founder, Mitchell Mortaza.
The commissioner and owner of the much-criticized LFL smiled broadly as he strolled toward the press. In a few words Mortaza praised Hanson’s leadership, her coolness and, of course, her arm that throws like it’s packed with gunpowder.
“Like Peyton Manning,” he said, comparing Hanson to the prodigious National Football League MVP and Super Bowl champion. I heard him say this, and it was evident that he was pleased to have a quotable and skilled player out in front at the LFL tryouts. I tried out for the team beside Hanson because I wanted to know why women would play lingerie football; I’ve stuck around ever since as a B.C. Angel. Contracts were handed out this week.
Showmanship aside, Mortaza may not have heard the athlete’s serious commitment to the sport of football—“I want to play at the highest level possible,” she declared—but he couldn’t have overlooked her tandem appeal of athleticism and beauty, two chips the LFL looks to cash in when casting women for its rosters.
What Mortaza thought he spotted at one brief March tryout in Richmond, he witnessed in late July at a mid-day scrimmage staged especially for him at another indoor turf field, this one in Burnaby. As a QB, Hanson is good and becoming great; she threw four touchdowns and ran for a first down to the one-yard line, cradling the ball in the crook of her arm and darting ahead in her distinctive, upright stride. In Hanson, the controversial sports entertainment venture has scored a new star, a pivot upon which the LFL will try to establish a Canadian beachhead. The Angels need all the Canadian talent they can get if the LFL is going to attract hometown fans to the Abbotsford Entertainment Centre and build a local following.
When the B.C. Angels kick off Aug. 25 against the Regina Rage, four U.S. players will join 14 Angels in the line-up. The starting quarterback for Regina will be an LFL “all-fantasy” all-star from the Las Vegas Sin, because the prairie capital didn’t yield a good enough player who also wanted to play in a push-up bra. Five other Americans will play for the Rage.
They play seven a side arena football. It’s a fast, violent and high-scoring game. We will find out if the team is ready. The Angels have still not been taught to tackle and are still without helmets but have been joined at practice by the U.S. players, three from the Seattle Mist and one from the Las Vegas Sin.
Once the Americans—who have been warm and supportive but serious—arrived at the East Side park for practice, Angels head coach Kevin Snell warned the Canadians: “Those four girls are going after your spots. I said that to the girls because I don’t want them to be satisfied. There is no need for them to be satisfied.”
The Americans were brought north to set an example and fill positions that have been vacated because of player injuries and personal commitments. After just one day with the play book, an American player asked advanced questions that astounded Snell, who later emailed the Angels: “THIS IS HOW YOU STUDY.” The Angels took note.
“I want to see them go full out. I want to see so I can judge where I am and get to that,” says Nadège Saint-Felix, a running back competing for the starting position against a U.S. star and Stephanie Manou who has emerged as the public face of the team.
“I want to look at who is the best player on the team and this is what I want to get to,” continues Saint-Felix. “It’s not a competition against her, it’s me competing against myself and my limits.”
The pressure is on for the Angels. Few are feeling it as much as Hanson, a 36-year-old mother and Main Street stylist of Filipino descent. She has dark shiny locks, a wide grin and a measured voice she rarely raises unless to shout at herself, crying out the self-talk of a perfectionist.
“I had to rip her and strip her down and yell at her a lot. And then build her back up a different person,” Snell tells me. This was often hard to watch. “I yelled at her in front of all you girls and I did it on purpose.”
He was pleased with the outcome. “It was awesome because she went down and said one day, ‘OK, it’s time to learn. It’s time to be accountable.’ And now she’s grown.”
As the voice in her ear, the designer of her offense and the head coach of her Angels, Snell is in her head every day. Hanson dreams about football, wakes up with football on her mind, talks to her clients and husband about football.
To rise to superstar status in this league, Hanson has more to do than deliver the ball. She must entertain and arouse, as a sexy, fit and feminine athlete, talk trash for the cameras, and promote herself as someone with a memorable, magnetic personality. At the moment, though, she’s not thinking about any of that.
On the field in the forward march of gridiron football, quarterbacks select the right routes for their running backs and receivers, the blocking scheme for their offensive line, know the time clock down to the second, the distance to a first down and the yardage to the end zone. They read defense, call out adjustments at the line of scrimmage, perfect cadence and footwork, scan for the best option and make countless split-second decisions to advance and score.
Most of all, a quarterback must be in control, says Snell. “That’s what I need Mary-Anne to do. Even if you don’t know, you know—you know? It is football, that’s the way it is and it has to be like that.”
Snell first coached Hanson as a flag football quarterback roughly six years ago. He changed what he considered ineffective, stifling habits that left her unable to improvise in the pocket once the coach called a play. “So I never coached her. I just let her go on her own and she wasn’t ready yet. We kind of didn’t too well because she didn’t know how to read defenses, she didn’t know how to be a quarterback. And I failed at that.”
Snell, 36, sought out the Angels coaching job, determined to support flag players he respected as athletes and oust coaches whose motivation he questioned and skills he doubted. “When I got the job, I said I was going to redeem myself and teach Mary-Anne what it takes to be a quarterback.”
Hanson, whose teammates call her Billie or M.A., is married to the head coach of the AAA provincial champion senior boys basketball team at Coquitlam’s Terry Fox secondary. She tried out for the LFL because it was the next progression after multiple Vancouver and B.C. flag football championships.
“I love the challenge of it, to be honest,” she says. “I’ve never played football to run around. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to try to be the best and play at the best level.”
A quarterback’s responsibilities are singular and like no other in the world of sports. The B.C. Angels starting QB breaks into a peal of laughter when she describes what she thinks about in the moment before the ball snaps into her palms. “There’s a progression that happens in my head. It happens really quickly but it’s everything,” she says. “And then delivering the ball.”
Receiving a pass from Hanson is like getting hit with a weapon. You have to meet the ball or it will hurt you. “I have busted thumb, busted pinky, busted index fingers,” says Saint-Felix, who plays flag with Hanson. “She has a cannon.”
No tackle football exists for women in B.C., making lingerie football the only full-contact option. The uniforms, says Hanson, don’t mean the women’s athleticism shouldn’t be taken seriously; she defends her aspiration. She doesn’t care about detractors or that the uniforms can be torn away to expose what’s underneath. “As far as turf burn,” Hanson jokes about the lingerie. “I have not yet experienced that, so I may change my mind.”
That said, she hasn’t yet worn the sporty panty set, which the Angels saw for the first time Wednesday. To my eyes, the gimmicky costume detracts from the potential of the LFL as a sports league, if that were all it aspires to be. This week the league announced a reality TV series, which may expand to Canada. The commissioner believes the LFL could be an Olympic sport.
The royal blue and green-trimmed B.C. uniforms feature two white, looping bows between the breasts and below the bellybutton. The garter and loose-hanging elastic garter straps are wedding white. Several Angels, like safety Ashley Hamer-Jackson, acknowledge reality: the LFL is equal parts sport and modelling. Tight end Darnelle Bernemann will leverage revealing clothing in her favour, eager to show off the hours she’s put in shaping her abs. Some players have said they fear skilled and athletic women who contribute to the team will be benched because the commissioner doesn’t like their look. The expectation is that players keep polished make-up, tight bodies and will put both on display.
If the pressure is on for the Angels, it’s equally serious for the two coaches.
At one psychologically punishing practice in June that one player likened to “mind-games” and “terrified” another, Snell and defensive coordinator Kevin Estabrooks, known as K2, tricked Hanson and everyone else, hoping the tactic would panic the Angles to master a still unfamiliar sport, perfect specialized skills and memorize their assignments to faultless, unconscious precision.
In retrospect, Snell says it worked and chuckles about it. The coach learned what he needed about the Angels, especially Hanson. At the difficult practice session, he called the same play and nothing else for 90 minutes. The play was designed to fail. It was a ruse. Hanson had to break through.
“She changed the play at the line every single time because she had to,” says Snell, irrepressibly boyish even when he directs the most foul of language at players. “She didn’t know that—she thought she wasn’t learning and the play was failing, but the play was set up to fail. I saw the things she did to react to that and it was one of the best practices I ever had with her.”
Players returned home and those who couldn’t sleep called their coaches with anxious questions the next day. For Snell, the play designed to fail went exactly as planned. “Me, as soon as I was in the huddle, I was yelling. And as soon as I walked away, I smiled at coach K2 cause I told him what I was going to do. It worked, it worked.”
The U.S. season was put on hold this summer so the LFL could introduce its brand to Australia and Mexico, but especially so it could expand to Canada. The Angels are dealing with considerable demands to do much more than score touchdowns. They have to make the LFL money, build a fan base, and then play one hell of an entertaining football game or they may not ever get the chance to play more than one maiden season. The Angels, if unprofitable like several markets in the U.S., could fold.
Each player is on the hook to sell 25 tickets each week to fill the 5,000-seat Abbotsford arena. They are not paid for playing, but the team will receive a small percentage of the tickets they personally sell; coaches are also volunteers, according to Snell, who works in sales.
The LFL is pinning its hopes on Hanson so it can promote a homegrown talent and turn her into a household B.C. name. In the Angels, Mortaza is confident he can sell the LFL to Canadians because, he says, there’s not much else to watch. “I honestly think Canada is going to be bigger than the U.S. when it’s all said and done. […] Quite frankly, there is not much up here. It’s easier to stand out.”
The Angels do want to stand out, but few would say it’s easy. Late last month at the indoor turf field in Burnaby in front of the owner who stands to profit from their talents, good looks and the exposure of both, the Angels prepared for opening night.
The chaos was manageable but Snell closely watched his quarterback. “I’ve always believed in her,” he says.
Hanson was revved. Serious and good-natured, she laughed again as she considered her characteristics as a quarterback for the first time. “Can I be that commander in chief? Yes. I think it’s in me,” she says. “I think it’s part of the role. As far as being the most prepared, I have to be the most prepared. I have to know where everyone is going. I must know what everyone else must do if they’re not sure. It’s on me. I tried to leave the quarterback position once a few years ago and I always go back to it. I always do. It’s who I am.”