All season long, they've been dreaming of this moment. The big game. Two professional football teams will take the field one last time, a final battle to crown a champion.
It's Pasadena, Texas, a week before and a world away from Tampa, Fla., and that other big game.
It's the Houston Energy versus the New England Storm, the first-ever championship game for the Women's Professional Football League.
It isn't the Super Bowl. For the players, it's much bigger than that. Tackle football is the latest frontier of women's sports.
According to one spectator: "It's worth watching. It really is --especially when it's your wife out there."
It's hard to tell what Houston Energy owner Robin Howington likes more: breaking through another long-established barrier for women, or igniting the imagination of so many young girls.
"This is a huge step, because it's mostly a male-dominated sport," says Howington. "It is males, all males, and I think this is a huge step for women... I get 50 or 60 e-mails a day from young 13-, 14-year-old girls, saying, 'Thank you for doing this.'"
It's the world of women's sports nearly 30 years after Title IX, the federal law mandating equal spending on boys' and girls' athletics in public schools. In 1972, just 1 in 27 girls played varsity sports. Now, it's 1 in 3.
No sports are out of bounds. These days, a tennis player can command $40 million in endorsement money. The WNBA is in its fourth season. Fans fill the Rose Bowl for a women's soccer game, and the word "tomboy" is used as often as a typewriter.
"I would say the biggest barrier that women's sports has leaped over is the barrier of acceptance," says Sandy Bailey, managing editor of Sports Illustrated for Women. "I think it's great that, in 2001, women have the opportunity to play any sport they want to play. It's wonderful that there's a chance for women to actually play football if they want to. Women have proved they could compete in...any athletic arena. And men now...are not surprised or appalled by that."
Lucia Ryker would agree. She works in what many consider the other "ultimate" male sport: boxing. Widely regarded as the best female boxer in the world, Ryker makes tens of thousands of dollars a fight. Even the boxing ring, it seems today, is a much different place for a woman.
"At first," says Ryker, "it was very difficult when I would go to a gym. I really had to prove myself."
As barrier after barrier falls and sport after sport becomes fair game for both genders, an assumption that's always been accepted as fact by so many is getting a new examination. What about the barrier of physical equality? Will women ever reach a point where the best femalathletes are as big, as strong, and as fast as the best men?
In Colette Dowling's book, The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality, she says the time has come to stop thinking of woman as "the weaker sex," that as women get the same opportunities and training as men, physical inequality itself could disappear.
But isn't there a genetic limit, a physiological brick wall?
"Well, the truth is, we do not know," says Dowling. "I don't know of any...geneticist or any scientist who is really making the claim that women can only go to X."
So are we going to see a 6-foot-5-inch 230-pound quarterback for the Giants or the Ravens who is also a woman?
Dowling's reply: "You know, when you think about the kinds of women who are lifting weights today, and the size that some of these women are, who knows? You know. Really, who does know?"
Well, Dr. Aurelia Nattiv, for one. She's a sports medicine specialist and the doctor for the men's and women's track teams at UCLA. And she says you will never see such a football player unless she is taking steroids. While she also says science has much to learn about women's physical potential, you can't ignore some basic facts.
"There's the combination of the physiological differences, the hormonal differences, and some of the anatomical differences," she explains. "Women have smaller hearts. They have smaller lung volumes. They have smaller red blood cells. They don't have quite the same capacity to carry oxygen in their cells. The muscle size is larger in men. Even though the muscle fiber composition is the same, men have more of it."
Will the best woman ever beat the best man? It's a question that has captivated, irritated, and enraged. It has started 1,000 barroom arguments, and it has fueled at least one indelible moment in sports history. In 1973, at the Houston Astrodome, Billie Jean King played and beat former men's tennis champ Bobby Riggs in a match that had more cultural than athletic significance.
"I understood...it was going to trigger people's emotions...and it really did," King recalls. "I have never seen people get so heated over man vs. woman...the battle of the sexes."
And she was well aware of the match's significance.
"I knew this match...was about social change. It wasn't about tennis," she says. "It had very little to do with sports. He was as old as my father. It was not an athletic achievement, personally, for me to beat Bobby. But it certainly was a social achievement."
But even Billie Jean King, the mother of that moment, wonders if the male vs. female question hasn't lost its spice (if not its relevance) for both genders.
Says King, "The men I meet today in their late 30s and 40s -- I call them the first geeration of the women's movement. And these men are the first generation that really insist that their daughters have equal opportunity with their sons."
In a hockey rink in Montclair, N.J., you can see what the old battles and new mind-set combined to produce: The next generation of female athletes. Sports are a proud part of their identity.
Explains one female player, "Every Monday, my science teacher asks what we did over the weekend, and I'll be, like, 'Oh, I had a hockey game.' And the boys in the class will be, like, 'Oh, you play hockey? Oh, cool. I play, too."
And sports are pursued with a freedom their mothers could only dream of.
Says one proud mom, "I had four older brothers. I grew up with all of them playing hockey -- and my father, too -- and I always wanted to, and there I was, with the white figure skates, mad I couldn't play. I'm so proud of my daughter. I tear up, watching her and how good she is and how hard she tries."
This new generation, it seems, will never accept someone else's limits and never use the opposite sex as their athletic yardstick.
While the playing field still may be far from level, access to it has clearly changed so many lives. At a women's football game just outside Houston (just a few miles from where Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs 27 years ago), you don't hear much snickering about gimmicks and sideshows.
In the words of one spectator" "I think the crowd showed tonight that people really care, that they're gonna come out more and start supporting these women. They have a lot of heart. If you didn't see that tonight, you didn't see anything.
"That's what it's all about, at whatever level...whatever gender."