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Old 04-02-2011, 10:24 AM   #1
mesaSteeler
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Default Former Steeler Starts Over as a Women’s Coach

Former Steeler Starts Over as a Women’s Coach
By BRIAN HEYMAN
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/sp...gewanted=print

The football players huddled on the sideline in the fading sunlight. Several looked out from under silver helmets at their 6-foot-3, 310-pound coach, Darnell Stapleton, in a gray sweatshirt with “Pittsburgh Steelers” emblazoned on the front.

“Let’s go out there and get better,” he said before sending the women of the New York Sharks out to run and stretch, the beginning of the first of two three-hour practices last week.

Two years ago, Stapleton started at right guard and helped the Steelers win a Super Bowl. Now he is starting the next chapter of his life at 25 after bad knees prematurely ended the previous one.

“I’m young, but I understand football,” Stapleton said before Tuesday night’s practice at Bushwick Inlet Park by the chilly Brooklyn waterfront. “I played on the highest level. It’s called the New York Sharks women’s professional team, not minor leagues, not midgets, not Pop Warner. So my approach is to treat the women like professionals and for them to carry themselves as such.”

Stapleton is breaking into the coaching game with the Sharks, playing N.F.L.-style tackle football. They have switched from the Independent Women’s Football League to the Women’s Football Alliance, and their eight-game regular season began Saturday against the Liberty Belles in Philadelphia.

Stapleton is being paid, but his players are not. In fact, they have to pay to play and help the owner and former quarterback Andra Douglas subsidize the team, from $725 to $925, depending on experience with the Sharks, with rookies paying the most. The team will carry 40 to 45 players. The age range is 22 to 51. Most work full-time jobs.

Douglas has owned the Sharks since their first full season in 2000 when they played in the Women’s Professional Football League after converting from flag football. She typically loses money despite typically fielding a winner, including a title team in 2002. This is indeed a love-of-the-game deal for all of them.

“It was a childhood dream, one of those quirky little dreams you have when you’re a kid, wanting to play tackle football as a girl,” said Darleen Hall, 34, a linebacker who played her first five seasons with the Sharks, then six with three other teams before returning this season after she took a retail-management job with a Brooklyn apparel company.

“I love the contact aspect,” she said.

Hall also loves Stapleton’s leadership style, as does Douglas.

“I’m so happy with him,” Douglas said. “He’s got the right personality. He’s not a screamer.

“Because screamers are not effective with the women much. He’s patient and yet he’s stern.”

Stapleton, also the offensive coordinator, has borrowed some plays from the Steelers — he wants to emphasize the running game — and some tactics from his coach in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin, after seeing that he was not a screamer, either.

“You don’t yell at professionals,” Stapleton said. “I have some players who are twice my age, and they respect and listen to me because of the way I carry myself.”

Left tackle Kymm Elliott is 15 years older than Stapleton. She has learned, she said, more about positioning and footwork from him.

Sarah Schkeeper is five years older than Stapleton, but they have something in common: both are right guards.

“When I found out who our coach was going to be, I was very excited because he played my position,” Schkeeper said. “Then I realized, he played my position; he’s going to pay really close attention to what I’m doing. But I’m really excited about it. I want to be the best player I can be.”

After being raised in the Bronx and in Union, N.J., Stapleton played center and tackle for two years at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y., then started at center for two years at Rutgers. As a senior, he became a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top center.

The Steelers signed him in 2007 as an undrafted free agent, then did not use him as a rookie.

But early in his second year, right guard Kendall Simmons was hurt. So Stapleton started 12 regular-season games and the three postseason games. And there he was in Tampa, Fla., with the confetti falling after Pittsburgh defeated Arizona in the Super Bowl.

“It’s something I dreamed about since I was a little kid,” said Stapleton, who plans to show the Sharks his ring as an example of what hard work can do for a team.

Stapleton tore the meniscus in his right knee during training camp in 2009, had surgery, went on season-ending injured reserve and was not brought back.

New England signed him last August. But he did not last a week because his knees were giving him trouble.

“Doctors were telling me at some point in my life I would have to have knee-replacement surgery,” Stapleton said. “The question was, do I keep pushing it and try to make everyday living tough on myself, or try to move on? Seeing myself limping around and struggling to do everyday things was tough.”

So he moved on. Stapleton had known for some time that he wanted to coach. In December, his mother saw Douglas’s ad for a head coach on iCoach.com. Fabian Alesandro, who led the Sharks to a 7-1 regular season in 2010, was becoming the general manager but also returning as one of the assistants.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity,” Stapleton said. “Football is football.”

Douglas said there were many applicants, but Stapleton’s N.F.L. ties stood out. He joined the Cincinnati Sizzle’s Ickey Woods and the Minnesota Machine’s Willie Howard as former N.F.L. players who are head coaches in the 18-division, 59-team Women’s Football Alliance.

“We’re very fortunate,” Douglas said.

The Sharks will play three home games at Moore Catholic High School on Staten Island and the other at Aviator Field in Brooklyn. The players see the potential to win their division, their only ticket into the playoffs.

Stapleton says he is not sure about his future beyond this season. Eventually he would like to assist and become a head coach in the N.F.L.

“That’s the dream and the goal, to coach at the highest level,” Stapleton said. “I’m not afraid of hard work. If I have to work my way up from wherever, I want to be able to do it.”
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