It’s been said that there are two major religions in Texas: Christianity and football. Yet the Houston Herricanes largely have been forgotten. The professional, full-tackle women’s football team, formed in 1975, is thought to be the only organization within the now-defunct National Women’s Football League owned by the players themselves and not their male coaches. Though they lasted just four years, the Herricanes are a part of Houston sports history.
“I was a teenager when I started realizing that not everybody’s mom played football,” says Olivia Kuan, whose mother, Basia Haszlakiewicz, played safety for the Herricanes. “Maybe five years ago I thought, Somebody should make a movie about this. A year ago, I was like, Well, maybe that somebody should be me.”
Kuan, a Los Angeles–based cinematographer, and her mom began trying to track down the former Herricanes, who had lost touch over the last 40 years. They spent months doing online searches, sending hundreds of letters, and cold-calling anyone with names matching those on the old team roster, entirely unsure of what they’d turn up. If they got 10 people to participate in the documentary, the two decided, the project would be viable. In the end they got almost 20.
“As soon as I say, Did you play for the Houston Herricanes?, they get so excited, you can hear them smiling through the phone,” Kuan says. “This was one of the highlights of their lives.” After a successful crowdfunding campaign raised about $30,000 for the documentary’s initial production costs, Kuan began filming Brick House—her directorial debut—here in Houston this summer.
The Herricanes were, by all accounts, a motley crew. The roster of about 35 women truly ran the gamut in terms of race, age, sexuality, socioeconomic status, profession, and personality. There were Monkey and Peaches, sisters from a rough neighborhood who grew up learning to play football with the boys on their block; there was Billy, a chemical plant worker who’d never played a day in her life; there were interior designers, truck drivers, and—in the case of the quarterback—a playwright. Some had kids; some even had grandkids. Many were lesbians, a potentially dangerous admission at the time; one player, who was transgender, was welcomed by the Herricanes after being turned away from a women’s rugby team.
“They all just wanted to play football,” Kuan says. “They found family among each other.”
The sheer diversity of the team was revelatory to a young Haszlakiewicz, who’d grown up “very Polish” in Chicago. She’d been intrigued by the sport since she was a child but, always tiny, never thought she’d actually play. That changed when she went to college in Kansas and joined a ragtag group called the GDIs—“God Damn Independents”—the only non-sorority women’s flag football team on campus. She loved the game and, after moving to Houston in the mid-’70s to work at an architecture firm, thoroughly missed it.
One night Haszlakiewicz happened to catch a segment on the Herricanes by Anita Martini—KPRC’s pioneering female sports journalist, who will get her own arc in Brick House—and decided to try out. She made the cut, playing her first game as No. 1—meant to be a funny contrast with her last name, whose 13 letters had to be shrunk to fit on her jersey—at Delmar Stadium.
While the GDIs had played flag, this was full tackle. “It was a surprise—contact is a surprise,” she says. “I was eager, but I still had a lot to learn.”
The atmosphere was rowdy, but the team was devoted. What they lacked in skill, they made up for with passion. The disparate group bonded during long bus rides to away games in places like Tulsa. It was in that city, Haszlakiewicz recalls, that a massive storm delighted the Herricanes, who took inclement weather as a good luck sign. “We were just whooping it up and cheering,” she says. “It kicked us into gear.”
The problem, as it so often is, was money. The Herricanes already had to buy—and modify—their own equipment, an expensive venture. And they struggled to fill the stands. It all got to be too much by 1980, when the team played its last game.
Of course, it’s extraordinary that the Herricanes existed in the first place. After all, when it came to women and sports in the ’70s, most people were skeptical at best—something that went double in Texas, where Title IX met with fierce resistance when it was passed in 1972. And girls playing football? Well, that was downright unconscionable. Some of the women Kuan interviewed said they were teased, even bullied, at work.
So, when Kuan first announced her intention to make Brick House, her mom, long resigned to the public’s lack of interest and support, ignored her. “I was like, really?” Haszlakiewicz recalls. “I mean, who cares?” She only acquiesced last year after Kuan said her mother’s participation was all she wanted for Christmas.
Today, despite some progress, most people are still largely unaware that professional women’s football is even out there, let alone played—and played well—all over the world, including in Houston. “I don’t know exactly how to fix that other than trying to make noise about it,” says Kuan, “and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
She hopes to finish Brick House by the end of the year, get it on the festival circuit, and, eventually, strike a deal to stream it on a platform such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon. “I just want the Herricanes to know that what they did wasn’t nothing,” Kuan says. “It means a lot to people who look back on it today.”