Dark Angels bond, revive championship spirit in Detroit women's football

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

They are cops and doctors, desk jockeys and students.

One is partially deaf, another has cancer, and a few of them have recently dealt with the kind of personal tragedies that could derail a life.

Wide receiver Danyelle Kerse, of Taylor, turns on the afterburners during practice.

All this season, they’ve leaned on their football family for support, and together the Detroit Dark Angels are trying to become champions.

“There’s never a day that goes by where we don’t talk about our record and what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Detroit’s Kay Wilson, a rookie offensive tackle on the Dark Angels. “We really want to go all the way this year and show the world that we are a championship team. Many believe that this is the best team they’ve seen in years, and I also believe that. We are a very good team and we can go far with it.”

The Dark Angels, members of the national semi-pro Women’s Football Alliance, are 5-0 with sights set on a championship, which used to be commonplace around here.

Much like Michigan’s sputtering major pro sports teams, the Dark Angels are trying to restore glory. But unlike the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings, the team is close to getting back on the mountain top.

The former Detroit Demolition, coached by former Michigan player Tony Blankenship, won five national championships in six years before disbanding in 2009.

Rising from the ashes after an ownership changes were the Dark Angels, with only a handful of holdovers from the glory days.

The culmination of a decade of sweat and sacrifice is playing out this year at Southfield’s MacArthur K-8 University Academy, where the Dark Angels practice three times a week and will host their final regular-season home game on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Passion.

Tiera Sticks, of Detroit, tries to tackle Nicole Guzman, of St. Clair Shores.

Wilson said she sees the secret to their success from the near-daily text messages she receives from teammates checking on her through her battle with endometrial cancer.

“I believe it’s because how we are with each other, we are all so close, we don’t have no separation,” Wilson said. “We spend so much time together that I think our connection and by us all getting along is helping us become a stronger team and succeed this year.”

Wilson is a cook and got her cancer diagnosis during her first week with the Dark Angels. Her doctor said the football exercise helps her fight, so she’s still out there.

Pay to play

Quarterback Maggie Hudkins of Flint said it’s stories like those that symbolize the resilience of the team, which is made up of more than 40 players who pay to play.

“The passion and commitment that we have this year has been different than any other year,” said Hudkins, who came to the Dark Angels after three seasons with a now-defunct Kalamazoo team. “We just have something special going on this year, and I think we just see the potential of what we can do and everyone is just buying into it.

“It really makes all the difference.”

The Detroit Dark Angels fire up each other in the team huddle at the beginning of practice.

The Dark Angels have outscored opponents by more than 33 points per game, holding opponents to under 4 points per contest.

Running back Tatyhana Pauling leads the offense, as her 857 yards on the season leads the division by nearly 300 yards.

One of the key defensive contributors is Danyelle Kerse of Taylor, a cornerback who reads lips and hand signals from her teammates because she’s hard of hearing.

The single mother, who works and attends college for graphic design, has two interceptions this season.

“I always say football is my therapy because every time I play football, I take my anger, sadness, any kind of emotion of what I’m going through and put it on the field,” Kerse said in a text message to The News. “When I get on the field, I feel so alive, so much better. I’m very competitive. I like to win, I hate to lose. Football is my medicine.”

'More aggressive'

Jacquie Bennington, a former youth gymnast growing up in Canton, was playing flag football in Port Huron and was looking for more.

“I needed something a little more aggressive,” Bennington said. “We have girls from every walk of life. We had players up to 54 years old play and as young as 17.”

A loss in the final game of last season kept them out of the playoffs and fueled the offseason, which included winter indoor workouts in Farmington Hills.

The fan base has grown each week and so has the exposure.

Last season, former Dark Angels player Alicia Woollcott of Grand Blanc was featured in a Nike commercial with Colin Kaepernick narrating, detailing her status as homecoming queen and linebacker.

This spring, on Mother’s Day, a new Nike ad featured Bennington, Marcy van Hartesveldt, Clarissa Tullis and Anna Eshuis in football uniforms, among other female athletes. The scene was filmed in a People Mover station in downtown Detroit.

It’s been a special season all around, said Keith Thomas of Troy, who is in his third season as head coach and ninth season with the team.

Detroit Dark Angels head coach Keith Thomas, of Troy, talks with his team after warmups.

The former Eastern Michigan walk-on leaned on the team while dealing with the death of his father last month. Grouped with a string of other personal tragedies and difficulties up and down the roster, the Dark Angels are drawing strength from the pain and taking it out on opponents.

“It’s very empowering, especially for females,” he said. “A sport that’s physically demanding, a sport the public still looks at as just for the guys, just for the boys.

“You talk about working together as a team, and I talk about my philosophy of effort, and being a good teammate and being a champion. That really resonates amongst the players, they take that back home, they take it to the job.

“It really gives them a boost. It makes them want to win, it makes them want to be a part of this.

“I see all this coming together.”

Pittsburgh Passion at Detroit Dark Angels 

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: MacArthur K-8 University Academy, Lathrup Village

Records: Detroit 5-0, Pittsburgh 4-2

Notable: Pre-game tailgate at 4 p.m. featuring food trucks, games, DJ. Fans are asked to wear all black.

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.