Photo: Josh Green More than 300 women turned out Saturday for Lingerie Football League tryouts in Fairburn. The Atlanta Steam franchise will play in Duluth, beginning next year.
FAIRBURN -- Up to age 11, Charis Bailey played the offensive line in Pop Warner football. In high school, she excelled at track and soccer but pined for the gridiron. In a league where underwear-clad women slam into each other, she saw her chance.
The Norcross resident on Saturday joined 348 women vying to land 20 contracts as inaugural members of the Atlanta Steam, the Lingerie Football League franchise that will call the Gwinnett Arena home. The appeal, for Bailey, is the league's balance of sex appeal and barbarianism.
"It's girly, and it's like tough-girl, but not too tough," she said.
The diverse collection of hopefuls, whose statures ranged from petite to Amazonian, gathered early for the three-hour workout at an indoor sports compound in Fairburn. They wore gym attire -- sweat pants, spandex, bandannas, whacky socks, with exposed midriffs aplenty and peeking tattoos. Their identities became three-digit numbers written in marker on their shoulders.
After a quick briefing, coaches in catching, passing and tackling drills barked orders like "Don't hold (the ball) like a loaf of bread," "You hug your grandma -- you hit the dummy," and "If you fall down, get the hell up!" A beauty pageant this was not. Women launched horizontally at tackling dummies, bounced off an enormous coach's shiver pad, and squared off in vis-a-vis pushing matches, some growling with adrenaline. The gauntlet was an assembly-line style metric of footwork, speed, agility and hand-eye coordination. Packs of male onlooker ogled at the fences.
Those who jumped snap counts or flubbed other tests were asked, politely, "Can you come back next time?" Rejections led to at least one American Idol-style tantrum near the concession stand.
LFL founder and chairman Mitch Mortaza called the tryout the most competitive in league history. To a degree, it was predictable: League offices were inundated with inquiries about the event, and more that 4,300 submissions were fielded in a contest to name the team.
"This is probably the most athletic group we've ever seen," said Mortaza.
Cheerleading coach Kristi Hildebran, 32, made the trek from Charlotte. She hoped to be a wide receiver but jumped offsides and was shown the door.
"I didn't get to hit anyone," she said. "This is my sport -- they don't have nothing like this in Charlotte."
Said her mother, Kimberly Olmo, of Buford: "I was a little worried about injuries ... there's some tough girls out there."
Coaches hoped to whittle the pool to 40 by day's end. That group moves to an Atlanta mini-camp, and then training camp, where further cuts are made to reach a roster of 20, with about seven players on the practice squad. As an amateur league, Mortaza said players are not paid, though expenses and travel are covered.
Once assembled, the Steam will clash with the likes of the Green Bay Chill, Seattle Mist and Philadelphia Passion. The league operates 12 teams across the United States, with plans to launch others in Australia and Europe, Mortaza said.
Beyond the minimal clothing, the LFL game differs from that of its male counterparts. The seven-versus-seven playing style is full-contact, but the field is 50 yards, with no field goals or punts. Above the sports bras, players wear sleek shoulder pads and hockey-style helmets, with clear visors where facemasks would be.
Melinda Grogan and her pal Jamie Russell, both of Woodstock, trained prior to the tryouts, tossing the pigskin around to hone dexterity. As the cuts mounted, they remained in the mix.
"The adrenaline starts pumping -- I'm just ready to go," said Russell, 25, a bartender.
"It's all about contact," said Grogan, 23, a finance student. "Where else can we get that?"
The Steam's four-game season opens March 30 in Jacksonville. The home opener at the Gwinnett Arena pits the Steam against the Omaha Heart on April 13.