Sports

Tough as nails

Hawa Wiley-Ross’ smile is genuine and inviting. Her eyes are penetrating yet welcoming. Her demeanor exudes a sense of kindness and approachability.

To look at her is to see an average woman brimming with optimism who is also humbled by her experiences.

Those closest to her, however, see her as a source of inspiration, a constant reminder of what can happen with a ton of determination, a penchant for hard work, a little luck and a positive disposition.

All those qualities have led Wiley-Ross to where she is today — a 32-year-old mother of six living out her dream.

There have been a few sacrifices along the way and plenty of sleepless nights. There have been nay-sayers and doubters. There have been tough decisions and tougher obstacles.

Yet, none of those elements proved tougher than her.

THE SEEDS OF A DREAM

Frank Wiley knew at an early age that his daughter wasn’t going to be like the rest of the girls. Sure, there are scattered memories of his daughter playing with dolls and passing the time doing other things typical to girls his daughter’s age.

But Sundays were always much different.

That was when Wiley would get together with some of his friends and play pickup football games on occasion, and Wiley-Ross, who currently lives in Warner Robins, rarely missed a chance to watch her father play.

When Wiley-Ross wasn’t doing that, she was off playing football with the boys in the neighborhood. Little did Wiley know that the experiences with the game would lead to an unusual request years later when Wiley-Ross reached high school.

“She walks into my room one morning and says, ‘I want to play football,’ ” Wiley said.

A police officer with Georgia Southwestern at the time, Wiley wasn’t often caught off-guard, but even he didn’t expect this. He knew that the idea was improbable, perhaps even impossible. But if his daughter wanted to do it, he was going to support her in any way he could.

“I said, ‘Hawa, I don’t think they’re going to let you play football, but hey, try out,’ ” Wiley said.

An underclassman at Americus High School, Wiley-Ross took her father’s advice and waltzed into the head coach’s office. Getting right to the point, Wiley-Ross explained that she wanted to try out for the football team. The request was brushed off.

A short time later, Wiley, who also was the in-school suspension officer at the middle school, received a phone call from the coach. Wiley couldn’t understand what the call could be about, and he assumed that Wiley-Ross had gotten into some sort of trouble.

“Until he said, ‘I need for you to tell your daughter that she can’t try out for football,’ ” Wiley said. “And I said, ‘No, I’m not telling her that. You don’t want her to play football, you tell her.’

“He said, ‘You know she can’t compete with these boys. She’ll get hurt.’ I said, ‘Look, if you don’t want her to play football, all you’ve got to do is tell her, but I’m not going to tell my daughter that she can’t play football and she can’t try out.’ ”

Reluctantly, the coach broke the news to Wiley-Ross. She was crushed.

“Actually, I was really upset that we couldn’t play, because I felt like girls could play just as well as guys could,” Wiley-Ross said. “Growing up and being able to run with the guys, I was faster than the majority of the guys I grew up with, and I was like, ‘Why can’t I play, too?’ ”

Determined to prove that she could play just as tough as any boy on the team, Wiley-Ross thought about starting a petition about the coach’s decision to keep her from trying out.

After some thought, Wiley-Ross decided to abandon the idea, but even through the adversity she faced, the seeds of a dream had been planted.

PLENTY OF HATS,

ONE HELMET

Wiley-Ross had to put off any thoughts of playing football for a while after being turned down in high school. After getting married to a Marine and starting a family, Wiley-Ross, like most in military families, began to move around the country, landing in Washington D.C., North Carolina and California.

By the time she started getting herself settled in on the West Coast, Wiley-Ross had been so consumed by family life that her dream of playing football seemed more and more impossible. While taking care of six young children, Wiley-Ross began to attend college and work a full-time job.

Wearing the hats of a mom, a wife, a student and an employee led to a busy life.

But, as it turned out, there was room for more.

Wiley-Ross signed up to play in a charity flag football event in San Diego that was to benefit soldiers injured in Iraq, and little did she know that a chance happening would provide the spark she needed.

One of the teams she ended up playing in the flag football event was made up of members of the Women’s Professional Football League’s SoCal Scorpions, a team based in Wiley-Ross’ area. While playing offensive line during the event, Wiley-Ross forgot for a moment that it was supposed to be just a fun game of flag football. The momentary lapse in judgement resulted in one of SoCal’s starting defensive ends walking away with a busted lip.

The women she played against encouraged Wiley-Ross to try out for the team, and she jumped at the chance.

“I was ecstatic,” Wiley said. “I really was happy for her because this really was her dream, to play football, and to get to this level and play women’s professional football, she was just overjoyed. And I was overjoyed for her.”

Wiley-Ross’ mother, however, wasn’t so enthusiastic about the endeavor. She held the typical reservations of a mother — she didn’t want to see her daughter get hurt.

But after seeing how beneficial the sport could be — and how much Wiley-Ross wanted to play — Rena Canaby-Laster began to come around to the idea.

“It’s a rough sport, you know? It’s a rough sport even for guys,” Canaby-Laster said. “But then Hawa’s tough. After I saw that she could handle it, I was fine with it. And, of course, she enjoyed it so much, so I got rid of the reservations.”

Finding a team and gaining the support of her family proved to be the catalyst Wiley-Ross needed to do what she had always dreamed of, but just as one obstacle had been cleared, another one presented itself.

Wiley-Ross remembers the first time she put her pads and helmet on, feeling the full, true weight of the equipment around her body. It was almost overwhelming, but it was nothing compared to the first time she made real contact.

The first hard hit she received, she said, was much different than practicing with her kids or her husband in the yard. This was for real.

“The first time I got hit by one of our players, I mean, she put me on my back,” Wiley-Ross said. “I laid there like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Is this something I really want to do?’ I mean, I was hurt. I had a couple of hits like that for me to realize that, ‘OK, you need to get your head out of your butt, concentrate and do what you’re supposed to be doing,’ and once I did that, I think I started getting better and better.

“In order for me not to get hurt and to be able to take care of my children, I had to stay focused, but I enjoyed it. And then, when I got to hit other people, the enjoyment came even more.”

Despite her ability to self-correct her mistakes, Wiley-Ross came in as a rather unremarkable addition to the team. Undersized, even by professional women’s football standards, at 5-foot-3, Wiley-Ross didn’t have physical attributes that made the coaching staff take notice right away.

“When the defensive line coach said, ‘Hey, we’re going to put her at defensive line,’ I shrugged and said, ‘OK,’ ” SoCal offensive coordinator Mark Ring said.

But Ring soon would have a chance to work with Wiley-Ross and see just what she could bring to his offense when the coaching staff decided to put her on the offensive line.

It didn’t take long for Wiley-Ross to find her true niche in the sport. Ring said the biggest thing that stood out to him was Wiley-Ross’ uncommon strength for someone her size. Because she was short, however, he worked her in as a backup guard and she learned the position quickly.

Her first season with the Scorpions in 2006 yielded very little playing time as she spent much of the season learning. She saw the field sparingly, getting into games during garbage time.

But when Ring got a hold of her the following season, everything changed. Against Dallas, one of the Scorpions’ toughest opponents, midway through the season, one of SoCal’s starting offensive linemen went down with an injury, which opened the door for Wiley-Ross to prove herself.

“When I went in, I did my job,” she said. “It wasn’t that I was trying to show up anybody; it was just that I was observant and did my job. To be able to go in and play against Dallas was a huge accomplishment for me, and I thought that was going to be the end.”

It wasn’t. Wiley-Ross ended up starting the rest of the season, becoming a much-needed cog in an offensive line beset by the injury of the previous starter.

As the season rolled along, SoCal became a viable contender for the WPFL championship. A long road against tough opponents ended with the Scorpions earning a shot at the title. But that was when Canaby-Laster’s fears became reality.

In the final practice before the championship game, Wiley-Ross sustained a concussion, and her chances of helping the Scorpions earn a championship were in doubt.

“It was to the point where, when we were coming into the championship game that we thought she had a concussion and I was really sweating bullets,” Ring said. “Going from a player that we didn’t think much about to sweating bullets thinking that she wasn’t going to play. That’s the type of improvement that she showed, that’s the type of commitment that she gave us to getting better.”

Her presence on the field during the Dec. 1, 2007 title game proved invaluable as SoCal pulled out a 14-6 win over the Houston Energy.

All the struggling through adversity and ignoring those who said she couldn’t do it paid off. Wiley-Ross had the championship ring that at one point seemed like an impossible achievement.

A JUGGLING ACT

For a period of about a month-and-a-half while playing with SoCal, things got rough.

Wiley-Ross was in college working toward a degree in forensics when the opportunity to take an internship came up. Naturally, Wiley-Ross jumped at the chance.

But she soon found out that there weren’t enough hours in the day.

A typical day started with Wiley-Ross going to work at 11 p.m. as a bouncer in a night club. She’d get off of work around 7 or 8 a.m. and head directly to school. As soon as that was over, she went to her internship for a few hours before heading home to pick up her children. She’d load them up in the car and drive them an hour to SoCal’s practice site where they would watch their mother practice with the Scorpions until 8 or 9 p.m.

When that was through, she’d load the kids back up, take them home, grab a shower and head off to work. The cycle would start over again.

There was no time for sleep. Between her various activities on top of her responsibilities as a mother, sleep deprivation was a common obstacle.

“During that time, we were pretty much like single parents because she’d be coming in and I’d be leaving,” said Wiley-Ross’ husband, Castro Ross, who was an active duty Marine and also played semi-pro football with a team in San Diego at the time. “It was hard, but I understood because I play football, and along with all the stuff that had to be done, I knew she was trying to further her career and her job skills, going to school and her internship.

“It was hard, but it was harder on her because she wasn’t getting any sleep. Me, I was getting sleep. It was almost like a watch: I’m on, and then you’ve got it and vice-versa.”

If the grind of daily life took a toll on Wiley-Ross, she never showed it or complained about it. She knew that in order to accomplish the things she wanted to in her personal life, her professional life and her football career, sacrifices had to be made, and she had to be tough.

That’s a quality she got from her father.

He made a strong impression on her from a young age, and she always has looked up to him.

Wiley never shied away from much. He had been a police officer, a bouncer in a night club, a football player with his friends on the weekends and a hunting and gun enthusiast. Being influenced by such a strong personality with a penchant for the rough and tumble, in turn, instilled those same qualities in Wiley-Ross. She was a bouncer, she toyed with the idea of becoming a cop, she pursued a career in football, and she’s currently studying to become a correctional officer.

“I’m afraid that’s my fault,” Wiley said with a laugh. “That’s all my fault.”

Throughout the extremely busy lifestyle she led in San Diego, Wiley-Ross — despite her tough interior — couldn’t help but feel guilty.

She sacrificed a lot to be able to play football, and the game had paid her back handily for her efforts, but she often allowed herself to wonder what she was missing. Had she been so focused on herself that her family felt somehow neglected? Was she being the best mother or the best wife she could be?

The questions haunted her, but encouragement came from an unlikely source.

“Mainly, my kids, they understood how important it was to me, and they were really encouraging to let me know that, ‘Mama, you’re still doing your job as a mom. You’re not putting us on the back burner. We believe that you can do it,’ ” Wiley-Ross said. “My husband encouraged me a lot, but if it wasn’t for the encouragement of my kids helping me to understand that they understood what I was trying to do and that they were behind me, I probably would have stopped. My kids are great.”

Sacrifice is a common thread among women who strive to play in the various professional women’s leagues, Ring said, and having a support system is crucial to success.

Wiley-Ross’ case, however, was extreme. Ring had seen players who deal with being full-time employees, full-time students or both, but very few were also full-time mothers of six children.

“There were times where they had to take off work, especially if they work weekends because we’d have overnight trips to different cities to play, so yeah, there could be a combination of all sorts of sacrifices just depending on the individual circumstances,” Ring said. “I would say Hawa’s, because she was going to school, I know she worked at least one job and with the multitude of kids, I’m not sure that there was anyone out there that had to juggle more balls than she did.”

EYE TOWARD THE FUTURE

Life has calmed a bit for Wiley-Ross. She’s still working toward her forensics degree through online classes and expects to graduate in about a year-and-a-half. She’s still working nights as a bouncer at a club in Macon. She’s still a full-time wife, mother and daughter.

But she had to leave football behind when she moved to Warner Robins.

That doesn’t mean that chapter in her life is closed. In fact, Wiley-Ross is planning to try out for an Independent Women’s Football League team called the Atlanta XPlosion for the upcoming season. Ross, who had hoped to continue his football career, tried out for the Arena Football League’s Georgia Force a few weeks ago and performed well. Last week, however, while sitting down for a meal, he saw on ESPN that the AFL owners had decided to cancel the 2009 season.

“I kind of stopped in mid-chew while I saw it come down on the bottom line,” said Ross, who added that he’s considering giving up the game so he can concentrate on the football aspirations of his children. “I was like, ‘Wow, what happened?’ ”

With some down time before possibly getting back on the football field, Wiley-Ross is content spending more time with her family and playing the role of a mother who just happens to be the coolest one on her block. At least, that’s the way her children view her.

It’s pretty common that one of Wiley-Ross’ six children — Endea, Dejahnira, JaCody, Jalen, Jordan-Jamir or Kebriana — will bring one of their neighborhood friends home to show off their mother’s SoCal uniform, the pictures of her playing or a definite source of pride — her championship ring.

Playing the role of local celebrity can be tough sometimes, but when it comes to Wiley-Ross, what else is new?

“It’s cool, but at the same time, I don’t want the little kids to feel like my kids are bragging — which they do,” Wiley-Ross said. “But I don’t want them to come over to the house all the time. I get the questions a lot, which is not really a bad thing, but it overwhelms me sometimes because I don’t feel like a celebrity like that.

“I feel like I’m just an ordinary person playing football.”

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