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Passion players juggle football, families, jobs

| Sunday, June 15, 2008

Decades ago, professional athletes had to work in the offseason to pay their bills. Baseball players would plow snow in the winter. Football players would do construction during the summer.

This is tougher.

The athletes of the Pittsburgh Passion football team don't get paid to play their sport. They practice late at night three times a week, compete in games on weekends and hold down jobs during the season.

"My husband wants to kill me, believe me," said Beth Amato, 43, a bartender, mother of three and sometime nursing student from Plum. She's a linebacker. "He says, 'What are you going to do• Graduate when Alexis (their 12-year-old daughter) graduates?'

"But I'm doing this for the women who come behind me," she said. "When we first started, our only fans were our families. Now we're on FSN and Comcast On Demand. People say, 'Oh my God, you're on that women's football team• You guys play a pretty good game.'"

No kidding.

The 8-0 Passion completed its second consecutive undefeated regular season last night in Washington. They beat the D.C. Divas (4-4), 17-12. The Passion will play a first-round playoff game at 7 p.m. June 28 at Cupples Stadium.

Last year, the Passion won its first national championship, capturing the Nashville-based National Women's Football Association crown, by trouncing the Columbus Comets, 32-0.

The team switched to the Austin, Texas-based Independent Women's Football League this year to play better competition, said Teresa Conn, 44, team owner and former player.

Ratcheting up the competitive intensity could mean even more demands on the players' time, bodies and jobs, she said.

"But we keep our priorities straight," Conn said. "If someone has to miss practice, we work with it. They need to take care of their families, anniversaries and jobs. The girls don't give each other a rough time."

Indeed, the opposite is true.

"A lot of us live out of our cars during the season; you become adaptable," said Lori Johnson, 36, a Passion wide receiver who drives more than an hour from Girard, Ohio, several times a week to practice. "I'm just like everybody else on the team. We're committed to the organization and to making it the best it can be."

Johnson teaches high school health and physical education and also coaches junior high girls basketball and track in Ohio. During the roughly four-month season and preseason, Johnson gets about five hours of sleep on practice nights.

"Each person on the team has something like that to deal with," said Talisa Beachom, 29, of North Braddock. She plays center and works at the Downtown YMCA. "We all handle a ladder of events every day. We have kids, animals, school to take care of and then we go to football."

The "sisterhood" of the team attracted Beachom.

"It's something to do outside of working, being a wife and a mother," she said.

Yet all three of those things often provide these women with what they need to keep playing. Most players' employers are team sponsors and donate hundreds of dollars for equipment, facility rental fees and travel expenses. Some of their husbands, like Beachom's, serve as coaches. And lots of the players' children attend all their moms' games.

"I'm her No. 1 fan," Iman Wilkerson, 15, said of her mother, Michelle Wilkerson, 37, a Passion free safety. "I think it's cool she plays football. So do my friends. They say my mom is their hero and their inspiration. She's amazing. She inspires me to do more."

Still, "it's rough," said Michelle Wilkerson, a single mom and surgical technician who lives in Penn Hills with Iman and her two other children.

"I have something to do seven days a week," she said. Wilkerson helps takes care of her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease and lives with Wilkerson's sister. She shuttles her eldest daughter to and from her job and, with her ex-husband, makes sure her two other kids get to their own sports practices.

Despite similar hardships Wilkerson and most of her teammates face, she echoes what all the Passion players say about how long they'll stay with football.

"I'll play until I can't. I love it."

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