Toledo’s largely overlooked connection to the 1970s-era women’s movement could be coming to the big screen.
One of Hollywood’s elite filmmakers — former Toledoan Brett Leonard — is raising money to produce a movie, Perfect Season, that has a plot revolving around the Toledo Troopers. They were a successful team in a women’s professional football league that many people never knew existed — or have long forgotten.
Think Remember the Titans meets A League of Their Own, Mr. Leonard said of the script.
The Toledo Troopers won seven consecutive national championships from 1971 through 1977 and often shut out its opponents, winning games by 30 to 40-point margins.
Mr. Leonard, 54, a 1977 DeVilbiss High School graduate, has gone on to direct stars such as Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, and Anthony Hopkins.
“I knew it in my gut. I know at this point in my career when something has that magic,” he said of the Toledo Troopers story. “It's a triumphant sports movie with a social issue at the core of it.”
Mr. Leonard said he is assembling a cast and is eager to begin filming on location in Toledo within a year, with a projected release of fall, 2014. Several residents are likely to be offered temporary jobs, he said.
Mr. Leonard is described by IMDb, one of the movie industry’s most authoritative Web sites, as “one of Hollywood’s most innovative film directors, and [someone who] is known as one of the entertainment industry’s digital media visionaries.”
He was honored in 2010 by the Producers Guild of America, in association with Variety magazine, as one of Hollywood’s “Digital 25” for being one the people in the movie industry “who have made the greatest impact on digital entertainment and storytelling.”
The script was written by two other native Toledoans, Guy Stout, 45, and Steve Guinan, 43. Mr. Stout was the team’s waterboy as a child. His father, the late Bill Stout, owned Toledo Troopers and was its head coach for most of its existence.
The trio hope to show how the Troopers — who practiced on Colony Field in West Toledo and played their home games at Waite High School — became role models for women interested in gritty athletic competition. Before then, women were relegated mostly to softer sports such as tennis and golf.
Some people are aware that feminist Gloria Steinem, 79, was born in Toledo and lived here long enough to attend Waite.
But few see a connection between Toledo — a working-class, shot-and-a-beer Rust Belt city — and one of history’s biggest social movements.
Perfect Season will open with images of Ms. Steinem, who founded Ms. magazine while ascending to global fame as a writer, lecturer, editor, and activist.
The storyline will soon shift over to Toledo Troopers, which dominated the fledgling and poorly funded National Women’s Football League throughout the decade that the women’s movement hit its stride.
“Successful as they are, the Troopers have not really been accepted in their hometown, principally because of a widely held skepticism about the idea of women playing football,” stated an excerpt from a Nov. 10, 1974, article in The Blade Sunday Magazine.
The article quoted Coach Stout as saying that a lot of spectators came out to laugh.
“They think it’s a joke or something,” he was quoted as saying. “But when the game starts and they see these girls play, they realize it’s a football game. These girls play great football.”
Mr. Leonard and the two writers want people to understand how the team’s success gave more relevance to Title IX, the 1972 federal civil rights act which outlawed sex discrimination in education, includingsports.
Title IX wasn’t fully implemented until the end of the 1970s, when colleges and universities were ordered to provide equal opportunities for athletic scholarships. But the film makes a case for the Toledo Troopers setting an example through football, they said.
Telling the story
The script is the brainchild of Coach Stout’s son.
Guy Stout said he has wanted to get the story told since the mid-1980s but became especially motivated by the passing of his father on March 22, 2012.
Bill Stout compiled a 47-1 record and coached the team to seven successive championships from 1971 through 1977. He also was the league’s commissioner during its last two seasons, 1978 and 1979. A 1961 All-City football standout for DeVilbiss, he coached the Dundee High School football team after the Toledo Troopers disbanded.
The Troopers began play on Aug. 6, 1971, as a rag-tag collection of women in a league that some people thought would be more entertainment than sport.
The team was originally affiliated with the Women’s Professional Football League, established in 1965 and operated by Cleveland talent agent Sid Friedman.
Bill Stout had a falling out with Mr. Friedman after he learned he was interested in making it more of a gimmick, like women’s mud-wrestling.
Records show professional women’s football was played as far back as 1926, but for halftime entertainment purposes of men’s games.
Bill Stout was determined to have the Troopers be a legitimate team.
“Back then, people still looked at women’s sports differently,” the younger Mr. Stout said.
Mr. Guinan agreed.
“It seemed the world was telling them not to do that,” he said. “It wasn’t a sideshow for them. It was a craft and they were taught how to play. They were proud of what they did.”
The two leading roles in the film will be the characters of Bill Stout and star running back Linda Jefferson, who ran for five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Ms. Jefferson’s feats are more impressive when one considers women of her era played seasons of eight games or less. NFL teams play 16. She rushed for more than 14 yards a carry several seasons and was so dominant that those who followed her said it seemed like she scored a touchdown one of every three times she got the ball.
Ms. Jefferson, now 59, is one of only four women inducted into the American Association Football Hall of Fame.
She was named the 1975 Athlete of the Year by womenSports, the first magazine dedicated exclusively to covering women in sports. It was published by former tennis star-activist Billie Jean King and her former husband, Larry King, and was associated with Billie Jean’s Women’s Sports Foundation.
During an interview Friday, Ms. Jefferson said she didn’t compete to make a statement for women’s rights or Title IX scholarship equality.
She said she simply wanted to play football.
“We were not women. We were football players while we were out on that field,” she said. “We were women when we got off it. But not while we were on it.”
In 1976, when Ms. Jefferson was the league’s Player of the Year, she appeared on the ABC television network’s Women Superstars competition and finished fourth.
Her numerous other appearances during the 1970s included the popular TV game show To Tell the Truth and on The Dinah Shore Show.
“We were winners. And everybody likes a winner,” she said.
She said she’s flattered by comments she gets occasionally about those glory days. She’s surprised how many longtime Toledoans still recognize her.
Ironically, Ms. Jefferson’s biggest obstacle was at home: Her mother didn’t want her to play, fearing she would get hurt.
So, for the first five games of her career, Ms. Jefferson snuck out of her family’s house.
She said her mother then saw her talent and became her biggest fan.
Ms. Jefferson said she almost gave up football after the first play of her first game, when an opponent knocked the wind out of her.
“When I got the ball back, I ran for an 87-yard touchdown and I liked that feeling,” she said.
After the Troopers disbanded, Ms. Jefferson went into education. She attended the University of Toledo but stopped short of attaining her degree.
She said she spent the next 35 years as a teacher assistant and behavior specialist with youngsters, including 15 years in the Detroit area with autistic children.
Ms. Jefferson had been associated with Toledo Head Start until the program’s recent cutbacks. She is now looking for her next job.
Realizing a dream
The story of the Toledo Troopers has been in Guy Stout’s blood for years.
He has amassed what he believes is the largest private archive of National Women’s Football League press clippings and memorabilia.
He said his wife and son “are ready to kill me because I don’t stop talking” about his dream of seeing the film made.
“I grew up on the sidelines as the waterboy,” Mr. Stout said. “It’s part of my family history. We want to tell the story as completely as possible.”
He and Mr. Guinan agreed to collaborate on a script a few years ago.
The project had been a labor of love for Mr. Stout’s late father, who died of cancer last year knowing the screenplay was well beyond the talking stage.
The elder Mr. Stout “lived, breathed, and ate Toledo Troopers football,” his son said.
“I’m so sorry he’s not here to witness it, but I’m glad he heard about it,” Guy Stout said. “As a kid, these Troopers were my heroes.”
The younger Mr. Stout and Mr. Guinan connected with Mr. Leonard through a chance encounter on Twitter.
Most Hollywood directors aren’t known to get screenplays via social media. But Mr. Leonard said he was intrigued by their desire and their Toledo connection.
“I read thousands of scripts and most are not good,” Mr. Leonard said. “It’s a story that takes place in Toledo and during a time I was a teenager. All of these things came rushing back to me.”
Mr. Leonard is the son of a former Sherman Elementary School principal and teacher.
He specializes in the science fiction and horror genres. One of his most noteworthy films was the 1992 cult classic, The Lawnmower Man. Another was 1995’s Virtuosity, which starred Mr. Washington and Mr. Crowe.
He said he has great affection for Perfect Season.
“This is one I’m going to do because it’s close to my heart,” he said.
He credits his success in Hollywood to his Midwest work ethic, his exposure to plays through the Children’s Theater Workshop on Collingwood Boulevard, and the visual enlightenment he got from trips to the Toledo Museum of Art.
Mr. Leonard also said he benefited from being an usher in the former Showcase Cinemas on Secor Road as a teenager. That, he said, gave him the unique perspective of standing behind a movie screen and tracking eye movements of audience members during movie scenes.
“I am, at my core, a Toledoan,” Mr. Leonard said. “Growing up in the Midwest gave me a sense of reverence for [the movies] that you don’t get out here.”
He said Perfect Season has the potential to be “a truly great historic story.”
Ms. Jefferson paused when asked what she hopes Perfect Season will accomplish. It was obvious she wanted to pick the right words.
“That if you can dream it, you can have it. Believe and achieve,” she said. “Don’t let nobody tell you what you can’t do.”
Toledo has gone on to have other women professional football teams, including the Toledo Fury, the Toledo Spitfire, and, most recently, the Toledo Reign.
Contact Tom Henry at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6079.