I felt like I knew Linda Jefferson intimately, though we’d never spoken.
In many ways, Jefferson was the genesis for what would become the book that Lyndsey D’Arcangelo and I are writing. She was my entry point into the National Women’s Football League through her cover of womenSports magazine, which lead me to read about her football team, the Toledo Troopers, and eventually, the rest of the teams in the league.
I spent nearly a year researching her football career while also trying — and failing — to get in touch with her for an interview. It started with the piece I wrote for Longreads, which would become the sample chapter for our book proposal, about the first time the Toledo Troopers lost a game, six seasons into their existence. I wanted to know what happened when the winningest team in pro football history — the Troopers — lost for the first time.
There are no Troopers without Jefferson, though she’d disagree with that assessment. The team was dominant in the National Women’s Football League. Their exact record is disputed: an upcoming film about the team say 61–4; a website chronicling NWFL teams says 59–4; Steve Guinan, a Troopers historian, says 59–5. What all these numbers have in common is that they’re incredibly impressive — and unprecedented in the modern era.
Within those team accomplishments are Jefferson’s: she rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of her first five seasons; Billie Jean King’s WomenSports magazine named Jefferson its “Woman Athlete of the Year” in 1975; she is the first Black woman inducted into the Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame; she’s one of only four women in the American Association Football Hall of Fame. At the time of her retirement in 1978, Jefferson had scored more touchdowns than Walter Payton, O.J. Simpson, and Jim Brown.
I needed to talk to Linda Jefferson.
First, I interviewed Jefferson’s teammate, Mitchi Collette, who has been involved in women’s football since her Troopers days. I’d been given her email address and she was easy enough to contact. I asked if she was still in touch with Jefferson; she said she was and she’d try to connect us. Then I interviewed Trooper Gloria Jimenez, who also said she would connect me to Jefferson. I thought this would be easy.
I didn’t hear anything, nor did I assume those connections would pan out. I kept digging while I waited. I went to Facebook, my favorite place to find Boomers. There she was! I requested her as a friend and sent her a message. I hoped this would be simple. But nada.
Time went on, my story had to publish without a Jefferson interview.
But I kept trying. I started working on the piece about womenSports. Jefferson’s cover had been historic: she was the first Black female athlete to be on a magazine cover. I wanted to ask her about it. I started searching white pages services I use to find contact info. I tried several email addresses. I tried to guess others: variations on her name, variations of her name and jersey number. I tried some phone numbers and tried to explain to people on the other end that I was looking for someone who played football in 1974. I followed up with Collette and Jimenez. I asked a fimmaker working on a documentary about the Troopers. No dice.
Time went on, my story had to publish without a Jefferson interview.
But I kept trying. Lyndsey and I got a book deal and I knew I had to talk to Jefferson. How do you write about the league without talking to its best player? I mean, sure, I could write around her. I could ask teammates and opponents about her. I could read all the press written about her at the time. Jefferson would be in the book, even if I never got in touch with her. But it never ever feels good to write about someone who is still alive without getting their voice in the story.
I went back to Facebook. I couldn’t comment on any of her public posts because there were none. Then, I saw it: her niece had tagged her in a post of her womenSports cover and it could be commented on by people who weren’t friends. I commented, explained who I was, and that I was trying to get in touch with Jefferson. Her niece immediately tagged her aunt, who never responded.
Hail mary time: I left my email and phone number in the comments.
Nearly a year after I first started trying to contact Linda Jefferson, I got a call from an unknown number from Toledo, Ohio.
I picked up. “Hello?”
“Hi, this is Linda Jefferson. I hear you’ve been looking for me.”
Part of my job as an investigative journalist and history writer is to be a creep. A persistent one.
I messaged the quarterback of the NWFL’s Dallas Bluebonnets more than five times over six months before I got her on the phone. I found mid-1980s jai alai player Becky Smith via her job as a dental hygienist, which thoroughly freaked her out until I explained I’d just looked at LinkedIn.
When the longtime partner of All-American Girls Professional Baseball League player Terry Donahue, Pat Henschel, called me and I got what I believe is the first on-the-record interview in print about their relationship (Donahue’s great-nephew is working on a documentary about the pair), it was again after sending out some flares and hoping for a response. It came as a call from an unknown number while I was serving dinner to my two toddlers.
What is the line between being a dogged reporter and harassing people who don’t want to talk to you? When do I assume someone is deliberately ignoring me and leave them be, versus think that perhaps they’re just not getting my correspondence? Sometimes that line is thin and it’s more of a feeling in my gut.
As a woman who is largely contacting other women and often to talk about sensitive issues, I’m incredibly aware of this. I don’t pressure people who don’t want to talk to me into changing their mind, so if I’m given a firm no I will back off.
I also always wonder if male journalists have an easier time with this. As a woman, I’ve largely been socialized to not want to bother people. Doing this job has required pushing past that discomfort and unlearning some of the messages I’ve internalized, accepting that people might get mad and they might yell at me and that’s ok. I can handle it.
But what about when there’s not a “no?” What about the silence? The wondering if they saw my message? The waiting (hoping) to hear back?
It’s one of the hardest parts of this job. But every time I find someone and she says, “Oh my god, I didn’t think anyone would ever remember this. I never thought anyone would care,” it motivates me to keep going.
I live for those calls, the ones from unknown numbers, where a voice on the other end of the line says, “Hi, I hear you’ve been looking for me.”
I am usually shaking and sometimes screaming when I get off the phone. It's an adrenaline rush, a sense of accomplishment, a payoff of a lot of hard work and kind of creepy internet stalking. It’s a feeling of deep responsibility to do justice to the story these people are trusting me with.
Because I remember them, I care, and I want to tell their stories.