clock menu more-arrow no yes
black and white photograph of Elinor Penna in a football huddle from the 1960’s

Filed under:

The Girl in the Huddle

How Elinor Kaine Penna became a pioneering pro football writer in an industry where women weren’t welcome

“I didn’t know you were a big sports fanatic,” says a server named Ellen, wandering over to Elinor Penna’s table after overhearing her story about visiting Baltimore Colts training camp. “I know the Indianapolis Colts, but … the Baltimore Colts!”

“Well, I was,” Penna replies. “That was one of the most interesting things that ever happened, how they got the Colts out of Baltimore.”

We’re sitting in the dining room at the Garden City Country Club on Long Island, where she eats often enough to greet the staff by name — and to know what she’ll order. So instead of looking at the menu, Penna, 83, has started laying out a slew of old photos and magazines featuring a common subject: her.

“Ellen, look at this — this is 60 years ago,” she says, holding up a photo of her and Johnny Unitas. “The reason we’re having this lunch is because I was writing about football for 40 newspapers and I wasn’t allowed in the press box, being a female.”

“Really, back then?” Ellen replies. “Oh, my God.”

“Now look at all the women on the sidelines,” says Penna, a bemused smile crossing her neatly painted red lips. “It’s so easy for them — I’m so jealous.”

To say Penna was a pioneering woman sportswriter is an understatement. Working under her maiden name, Elinor Kaine, through the 1960s and early ‘70s, she was a bona fide sports media phenomenon with the syndicated columns, TV deals, book deals and trash talk from disgruntled peers to prove it. Though she’s intermittently remembered today for her widely publicized fight to get inside an NFL press box, Penna’s work meant so much more than that.

She was written up in Harper’s Bazaar, Women’s Day, Newsweek and Vogue (which called her football writing “funny, gossipy, frank and technical”) while getting bylines in Esquire, after that magazine called her “the best fortune-teller in pro football.” Her challenges to the sportswriting establishment were twofold: first, she was a woman, and, second, she refused both reverence and jargon, favoring a gossipy, bright tone that had more in common with contemporary blogs than it did the work of her stodgy peers. Fans treasured Penna’s fearlessness and wit, her willingness to comment on both what other writers wouldn’t think to (players’ marital status and pregame rituals) and what they wouldn’t dare to (juicy rumors about front office discord and trades). As one admirer put it, “She must have blood-stained shoes from stepping on so many toes.”

Skeptics — and sexists — dubbed her “pro football’s Tokyo Rose,” a nickname that unfortunately stuck: “the only woman in what was designed as a man’s game, and like Rose, an irritant.” In short, as one fellow columnist surmised, “Women like these hurt the men’s ego.”

But 50 years after what her friend Larry Merchant dubbed “The Kaine Mutiny,” Penna lives between Long Island and Miami in relative obscurity. Her very active Twitter account (@NFL_Elinor) has 329 followers; she plays in survivor pools (she won $3,000 a few seasons ago) and watches all the games — just on a substantially bigger and more colorful TV than in her early days covering the game.

photo clipping of Elinor holding binoculars at a game

“Imagine looking at a game on a 10-inch black-and white screen, you’re not going to see any of it again, the announcers are boring and that’s that,” Penna says. “It’s so much more fun now! You have a lot of replays. You can even tape a game and save it for later.”

It’s true that sports have changed dramatically over the course of Penna’s life. She was born Elinor Graham Kaine in Miami Beach in 1935, when there were just nine teams in the NFL. She grew up between Chicago and Miami — or between Wrigley Field and Hialeah Racetrack, as she tells it. Her well-off family owned horses, and racing was Penna’s entrée into the ever-entwined worlds of sports, gambling and high society.

After barely graduating from Smith College in 1957 with a degree in mathematics — where she had spent most of her time convincing boys to drive her to nearby racetracks, and playing pranks on her classmates — Penna spent a year working in an aeronautical engineering lab at Princeton while taking flamenco guitar lessons on the side (a clause that doesn’t sound real but somehow is).

Meanwhile, she began to see the appeal of the NFL: friends would come to visit her in New Jersey on Sundays since from there she could get Giants and Eagles games. Once she moved to New York a year later to become the librarian at an advertising agency in the then-brand-new Seagram Building (essentially living the plot of a minor character on Mad Men), Penna immediately fell in with the classy and sports-crazy crowds at places like P.J. Clarke’s, the now-defunct Toots Shor’s, Gallaghers Steakhouse — Midtown institutions that were, at that point, still hip.

Clarke’s, a famed destination for movers and shakers from Sinatra to Steinbrenner, was a particular favorite: she briefly dated the restaurant’s late owner Daniel Lavezzo Jr. (“It wasn’t really a huge romance, but he would be my best friend to this day if he was still alive”).

Among the monied, cosmopolitan crowd at Clarke’s, Penna’s sports fandom flourished. The Giants would come after home games: Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford, Dick Lynch, Emlen Tunnell. The panelists of What’s My Line?, like Dorothy Kilgallen and Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf, made up another table. “Sunday night at P.J. Clarke’s was really something special,” Penna says, “and with all those people, at least half of them were interested in football.” The restaurant even fielded its own touch football team for a very casual league in Central Park, and Penna played: one column explained she “can throw a football 35 yards, has great hands, and describes her running style as ‘very Mel Triplett.’”

Going to Giants games at Yankee Stadium was an event: “I remember that we would wait and plan our hats, and suits, and high heels!” she says with a laugh. “People dressed to the teeth — they weren’t just in sweatshirts. It’s so awful now.” Her roommate briefly dated Tim Mara, so they could get season tickets on the 50-yard line (which they paid for, Penna notes: at one point the price went up from $20 to $25, and “we used to crab about it”). There was the game, and then the game after the game: “Everybody waited in the Stadium Club [a VIP lounge, basically] for Frank Gifford to come and pick up his wife Maxine,” says Penna. It was also where she started meeting the people who would become her sources.

Penna, who had grown up around gambling because of her family’s racing bona fides, recognized a market inefficiency and saw an opportunity. Plus, she was tired of her day job at the agency. “There were bookmakers in all the sports restaurants in New York at that time, and they were all taking football bets,” she explains. “Nothing was legal, and so at that point they didn’t put the line in the newspaper — I don’t think it was allowed.”

So in 1961, she decided to go it alone and start a weekly newsletter called Lineback. First, Penna befriended a bookie in Vegas, who she would call every week to get the following Sunday’s lines. Then she would type them up and add the most interesting news from around the league, which she gleaned by subscribing to the local papers in every single city that had an NFL team — so many papers the post office wouldn’t deliver them, and Penna had to walk to Times Square and haul them all back to her apartment at 69th Street and 2nd Avenue. Then she would make 500 copies or so, and by Thursday, five or six select restaurants (which would each pay $10 a week) had a stack of copies of Lineback on the bar.

In other words, she was aggregating. “In the New York papers, they covered the Giants; In Chicago, they covered the Bears,” she explains. “They would write one article about the visiting team — like on a Friday — and that was it. But just think about it: 12 teams and no national news about them at all. No TV, no radio.” The paper had two droll slogans: “America’s oldest and only pro football newsletter,” and “You don’t have to like football to like Lineback.

various clippings of Elinor and women involved in football coverage

Penna began to meet more and more people in sports after she started the newsletter, and got better and better intel from fans, avid gamblers, team staff and players. She may not have been allowed inside the press box or in the locker room, but as one anonymous editor put it, “She can gather more inside information, without venturing inside a single locker room, than J. Edgar Hoover, Walter Winchell and Louella Parsons combined.”

She started selling subscriptions — $3 each — and counted Yankees manager Casey Stengel and Ethel Kennedy among her readers. (Penna was particularly proud of her incarcerated subscribers: “Send a subscription of Lineback to your favorite convict,” she told one paper.) Even NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle eventually got onboard, despite the fact she continually ribbed “The Big Bopper,” as she called him, in Lineback’s pages. Her readership started in the hundreds, and would eventually grow to thousands — all served by her and a group of friends stuffing envelopes in her living room.

By the mid-60s, it was a cult favorite: “Religiously read by the George Plimpton set,” as one paper described, though Penna says she never met the Paris Review co-founder. “The foremost, chicest professional football newsletter in the land … that is becoming the rage of the game’s emerging social set,” said another. Esquire called it “the most accurate and interesting inside information about professional football.” It was even called “sexy.”

“But it wasn’t!” Penna protests with a laugh. “Just to be the only girl made them think it was something.” She pauses. “When a football newsletter’s sexy, that’s going to be the day.”

It’s true, though, that Penna delivered football news with a rare humor and irreverence. Before pundits, Twitter and blogs made them sports’ most valued currency, she understood the power of a quick, bold take — especially when accompanied by a good one-liner. She described Vince Lombardi, for example, as “the Sophia Loren of football: top attraction, big on top, very volatile but warm of temper.”

“My aim is to go against the public relations garbage, which makes every team sound like it has 40 All-Americans in perfect health waiting and ready to go,” she told one reporter.

Some of her peers reviled her unorthodox approach. Others, like Larry Merchant, who was a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News when Penna came on the scene, relished the way she turned things upside-down. “She had a take on what was going on in pro football that lined up with the direction sportswriting was starting to go into in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” says Merchant. “Dealing with professional athletes like they were 6-feet tall, not 10-feet tall; talking about their backgrounds and personalities, not just how many yards they gained that day. It was also a time when pro football was starting to emerge as a very powerful force.”

“The human interest stuff is what I was interested in, and that goes across genders,” Penna says. “When television came, instead of reporting the game the way it had been done for centuries, they had to look for another dimension — so people became writers. Old sportswriters weren’t writers.”

Uncovering trivia about player’s personal lives was one thing, but it was Penna’s accuracy and scoops that wound up getting her widespread attention. A big break came when she was one of the only sportswriters to pick the Browns over the Colts, who were 7-point favorites, in the 1964 championship game. What made her do it? She leans over confidentially: “Nobody else did.” After that, she was regularly called “Nostradamus.”

She was the first to posit that Lombardi would leave the Packers in 1968 (though she had guessed he would come home to New York), and she scooped the location of the 1969 Super Bowl by calling hotels in New Orleans and innocently asking for Super Bowl-weekend reservations. At the same time, she was reporting on how Donny Anderson was the only man on the Packers who wore black silk underwear and compiling lists of football players “with first and last names which could pass for first names.” She loved Steve Stonebreaker: “the ultimate in names.” Nothing was off-limits, and everything was at least a little bit funny.

Soon, she started getting punnily titled spots in papers around the country: “Female on the Fifty.” “Girl in the Huddle.” “Powder Puff Picker.” “From the Weak Side.” “Beauty and the Beef.” The one that eventually stuck was “Football and the Single Girl.” Despite their gendered titles, the columns had the same peppy mix of football miscellany found in Lineback — and were certainly too insidery for the novice.

Penna was also commissioned by teams and papers around the country to write guides to football specifically for women, including one that was syndicated nationally before the very first Super Bowl, and a chapter in the 1968 Encyclopedia of Football. Somehow, though, rather than patronize her audience, Penna proffered entirely lucid, often hilarious and highly educational introductions to the gridiron.

spread of Elinor in a football huddle on the left and headline on the right reading, “Who’s the broad in pro football’s huddle?”

“Men pro football fans have certainly made it hard for a girl to enjoy the game,” one began. “They pretend football is too complicated for a female to understand, hoping to keep the gridiron a no-woman’s land. Beat them at their own game!” It proceeds to instruct women to do exactly what men do to this day: note extremely obvious facts about the game as though they are revelatory, and use well-worn football cliches to sound in the know.

“Before the play you might volunteer the fact that third down situations (and use the word — it’s very ‘in’) make you terribly nervous. If the team makes a first down, say, ‘I was worried they might not make it. Football is such a game of inches, isn’t it?’ and smile.”

Another evergreen tidbit: “Any girl who wants a sophisticated football fan to fall in love with her should talk about the offensive line. That is one line that is guaranteed.”

She started doing additional widely syndicated columns just to pick the following week’s games, touted with full-page advertisements insisting “Elinor Kaine can outpick ANY MAN!” while challenging readers to not “let her get away with it.” There was another column for Football News, and racing coverage in the offseason. Regular local TV appearances followed, and by 1966 she was making picks weekly on NBC’s Today.

“Most of the time when I was on television, I was not on television because they wanted me personally as a football writer to be on,” Penna insists now. “They wanted a girl, and they didn’t care what I said. I made the picks because nobody else wanted to.” She appeared on What’s My Line? and To Tell The Truth, always stumping the panelists who could never fathom that a woman would write about football.

Penna generally downplays the sexism she faced, or deflects with jokes — but there’s no question it was inescapable. There’s how she was constantly introduced: “Pert,” “pretty,” “reasonably pretty,” “nicely developed intellectually and otherwise,” etc. In the early days, when she was trying to get on the mailing list for NFL’s weekly press releases, the head of PR told her he couldn’t send them to her because “you don’t work for a newspaper and you’re a girl.” So each week, he left a copy at the reception of the NFL headquarters, and she went to pick it up. Eventually he decided it would be alright to send them — as long as he addressed them to “Mr. E. Kaine.”

At one point, she applied for a press credential for a Giants game. “Listen, girl: the turf at Yankee Stadium is sacred,” the team PR rep told her. “No female is ever going to put her foot on it — at least as long as I’m here.” Penna recalls the incident with typical good humor: “Through the years, the Giants have been the most old-fashioned, backwards organization possible — and here they are in New York City, which is a shame.”

She sent application after application to the Pro Football Writers of America, which were ignored until Rozelle invited her to dinner with the head of the organization and insisted they allow her in. She never met most of her newspaper editors, never went to the offices; at that time, there were almost always two papers in every city, and the more prestigious ones would never pick up her column.

Penna got a slew of hate mail — “and they aren’t all love letters either,” she joked at the time. It may have been less profane than the responses women sports reporters get now (though Al Davis was known to refer to her as “that bitch”), but it was certainly no less mercurial. “I get a royal ribbing on how a woman can be expected to know, comprehend or delve into the man’s world of professional football,” she told one interviewer. “They say I ought to get married and go to the kitchen because they don’t agree with what I write. They’re people who are stupid or don’t have a sense of humor, or both.”

Then there was the fact she was single for most of her professional life. When I ask if she ever felt pressured to quit and get married, she interrupts me: “No, no, no. I never wanted to do that. I don’t know what I wanted to do ...”

Penna was asked about it at the time, too — specifically about what her parents thought. “They think I should be married,” she said. “You know, we are a square family, and they think I should be married to an executive and having children. They don’t say anything, but they seem to be puzzled by my entire life.”

Most of the time, her personal life was just one more source of jokes. One anecdote that appeared over and over quoted a nameless escort as saying, “I thought I was out with [storied journalist and racing fan] A.J. Liebling.” Penna dryly insisted she had “army of beaus,” all of whom she told to buy a subscription to Lineback. “Nobody ever said no,” she added.

Looking back on it, she sighs. Penna doesn’t have much patience for self-indulgence or over-seriousness, but the realities of what she went through are still daunting. “Some of these things are just so incredible,” she concludes.

The incident that Penna is, unfairly, best known for is her battle to get in the press box at the Yale Bowl, where the Giants and Jets were slated to face off for the first time in a 1969 preseason game. She had been admitted as working press for the first time at Super Bowl III earlier that year, though relegated to an auxiliary press area in the stands. Otherwise, she had been paying to get in alongside the fans.

Penna met a lawyer who offered to file a show cause order in New Haven Superior Court against the Jets, the Giants, Yale, and the New Haven writer who was managing the press box, demanding an explanation for why a registered member of the Pro Football Writers of America was not being admitted to an NFL press box.

What followed was a media firestorm: Penna’s challenge was covered from coast to coast. “I don’t want to take over the press box, I just want to sit in it,” she said at the time. “It isn’t fair to base the availability of press box credentials on the gender of the applicant. I mean, we were all born by the luck of the draw, weren’t we?” Eventually, the teams and school acquiesced and gave her the credential — but not before smearing Penna and claiming the case was a publicity stunt backed by the publisher of her upcoming book. “But wait until she sees where she’s sitting,” the press box coordinator sneeringly told one paper.

“So LeRoy [Neiman, the artist and Penna’s close friend] and I hop into my car — I had a Cadillac convertible that was just incredible — top down, drove up to the Yale Bowl, parked, and when I got to the bottom of the stairs to the press box, they said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, we don’t have any seats — we’re totally full.’ This was about 11 in the morning,” Penna remembers. “They showed me to … I think it was probably a newsreel photographer press box under the regular press box, which had like four folding chairs and no place to type. They said, ‘We’ve saved this for you.’ That was the story.”

There were empty seats in the press box, as Penna’s writer friends relayed to her, but she still wasn’t allowed in. The game was a big deal because the Jets were the reigning Super Bowl champions and it was the first time the New York teams had ever played each other, so she had a tighter deadline than usual — but Penna couldn’t file on time because she couldn’t type.

“It was the writers who were against me, the teams didn’t give a shit,” she says now. “They didn’t want me in there. No girl. They wanted it just for themselves.”

So, for the first time, she wrote about what it was like to be a woman sportswriter. “The Establishment, the New Haven sportswriters, the Jets and the Giants conspired yesterday, and yours truly watched the Jet-Giant clash practically by my lonesome in a separate and very unequal situation,” she wrote as the lede for that week’s column. “I’m not crying,” she told another writer who interviewed her about the incident. “I’m just tired of getting treated like garbage. I hate to get kicked around by such little people. I really don’t know what I’m going to do — I don’t want to be made a fool of any more.”

Fighting to get inside the press box unintentionally brought Penna an entirely new degree of visibility. It also inspired more ire from both women and men, including other women sports journalists of the era who saw it as attention-seeking. The attention, though, finally got her inside a press box at the Orange Bowl by the invitation of the Dolphins — generally, she just stuck to watching in the stands, where one peer described her as having a transistor radio in one ear, a portable television in a shopping bag at her feet and a thermos of martinis. “If you got right down to it, I never particularly wanted to go into the press box especially since I wasn’t writing about the game itself — I was just annoyed that I couldn’t,” she says now. “Wouldn’t you rather sit in the stands at Yankee Stadium?”

“I’ve yet to find a writer with a sense of humor who wanted to keep me out of their press box. And I’ve never met a good writer who didn’t have a good sense of humor,” she wrote about her press box battle later in 1969 for Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists — the same month that organization admitted women for the first time. “I’m lucky I’m not a baseball writer. If it sounds like football is conservative, provincial and full of old fogeys, baseball has a mind that’s strictly centuries B.C.”

At the time, going into the locker room as a woman was a complete nonstarter, as one might imagine. “Some of the guys said they would come out [of the locker room], the ones I knew — all I had to do was come down and ask,” she says now. “The whole thing about going into a locker room is so overrated. What those players say in the locker room is so boring, when you think about it — unless it was that Rams[/Saints] game last year with the foul, and you interview the guy who says he didn’t do it but he did, or something like that. But otherwise there’s nothing that comes from the locker room that’s interesting, and never has been.” At the time, of course, she had a quip: “They give you the same answers whether they have their pants on or off.”

Her book, Pro Football Broadside, came out that same year and was widely serialized in early 1970. Ostensibly framed around the idea of presenting football from a woman’s perspective, in reality it was just a smartly written survey of the state of the league, filled with both the basics of the game and anecdotes from some of its most memorable characters (the image of Joe Namath shaving his legs in the middle of the locker room stays with you).

“There is something basically discomforting about a gal sportswriter,” one review began. “Too many times it’s just a gimmick; in Elinor Kaine’s case, though, it’s downright embarrassing. She’s good.”

Pro Football Broadside begins not with an explanation of the game or a list of the teams, but in the locker room, where Penna vividly describes various players’ pregame routines and superstitions based solely on secondhand observations because, of course, she wasn’t allowed in. She talks about the pharmacy used to get players through the season, from vitamins to morphine and amphetamines, as breezily as she does the preferred cologne of the New England Patriots (Estée Lauder Aramis).

She describes the game in thoughtful, fresh terms: “If it is taken two at a time, football can be broken down for spectating purposes into 11 individual duels. Watching one duel at a time is absorbing. Superb athletes, football players use finesse, quickness and cunning as much as size and strength. The mini-wars are violently sophisticated and highly unpredictable.”

And within the book, there’s no concession to the amateur: Penna covers the pros and cons of “establishing the run,” the futility of prevent defense and punting (“super conservative” but “[Don] Shula would rather eat worms than run on fourth and inches”), while explaining Norman Mailer’s theory of the hypersexualized relationship between the center and the quarterback and allowing one center to describe the way different quarterbacks’ hands feel against his inner thigh. Penna describes spirals thusly: “The ball is never served with an olive. It’s always served with a twist.”

Penna covers racism and segregation in college football and the pros in frank terms, even explaining it wasn’t easy for Black players in Green Bay to get a haircut. She cites renowned sociologist Harry Edwards’ assertion that “[B]lack athletes have long been used as symbols of nonexistent democracy and brotherhood.” The book concludes with a call to get women in football: “According to doctors, who claim that nature made women the hardy sex as an ally for childbearing, women are physically as well as emotionally suited for football.”

“I don’t think it sold 10,000, but I may be wrong,” she says now. “When they’re on eBay for $2, I always buy them. I have two or three in my kitchen.”

By 1971, Penna had been invited to be on the CBS pregame show, NFL Today with Pat Summerall and Jack Whitaker. She’d known them for years prior to getting the gig, where she would just make the weekly picks — despite that, she says they barely greeted her when she came on set.

She’d already found warmer reception, though: Penna married an Argentinian horse trainer named Angel Penna in 1971 in a surprise ceremony at a dinner party she threw in New York. Angel had just gotten a job managing the stable of a French countess, so at the end of the 1971 season, Elinor decamped alongside him to live in a castle. “Perhaps it’s our male chauvinism, but we are glad to hear that Elinor Kaine has departed to become one of the newer Americans in Paris,” the Daily News wrote upon her departure. “Her track record as a cutie-pie, self-styled football expert was a low-class, put-on performance.”

At 35, her career as a sportswriter was over.

Penna looks at me skeptically over my salad. “You’re going to have too much stuff.” She’s right.

Elinor interviewing an athlete

Epilogue

These days, Penna watches football more or less like the rest of us. From a big, comfortable office chair, she has access to both a TV set to RedZone and a desktop computer with Twitter open.

“You’ve gotta be careful,” she says, opening a tab up to check on the state of her survivor pool. “I’m trying not to tweet, but I can’t help it — I could do it all day. It’s exactly what I was doing 60 years ago: a gossip column.”

Penna’s a prolific quote-tweeter, particularly when it comes to her longtime home team, the Giants. She speaks — and tweets — with the easy assurance of a born pundit. Her commentary ranges from “terrible snap” to various critiques of players’ and coaches’ hair: Kliff Kingsbury’s hair is too short, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s beard is too long. She likes Andy Reid because he doesn’t have those “Adam Gase eyes.” “Isn’t it amazing that Belichick doesn’t open his mouth when he talks?” she’ll ask out of the blue, flashing a grin, ever observing the details that other sportswriters ignore.

“I think that reporters are missing that now — the gossip angle,” she says. “Now they would over-do it — take the fun out of it. And there’d be [law]suits.” When Penna was working, the league was still sort of the Wild West: in the middle of rapid expansion via the NFL-AFL merger, and only very recently a mainstream phenomenon. Monday Night Football, for example, was born in 1970. Now, the amount of money and power at stake makes playfully prodding players, coaches and owners seem impossible, especially if you want to maintain your sourcing.

“It’s so big. Think how big it is!” Penna says, reminiscing about the era when all the games were on one day. “And the London stuff — completely ridiculous. It’s not good for the players or for the home fans, who can’t go unless they’re really rich.”

After spending almost a decade in France (where she couldn’t watch football), she moved with her husband to the same house she lives in now on Long Island, spitting distance from Belmont Park. They started antique shops in Connecticut that have since closed, but she still sells 19th century English pottery online; Angel died in 1992.

I ask the woman Merchant had described as the “female Grantland Rice” if she had ever thought about returning to writing. “Never,” she replies. “Sometimes I say, ‘That would be a great idea for a column, but not for me to write about.’ Think about Jerry Jones. You wouldn’t want to interview him, because he wouldn’t tell you anything. But you could write columns about him, by reading what other people say.”

“Elinor laughed at the pretensions of men who patronized women with their pseudo-expertise,” Merchant wrote on the occasion of Penna’s retirement from sportswriting. “She poked fun at the juvenile antics of grown men who played, coached and owned. She fleshed out the people hidden under all that armor and money.”

“She would come up with these anecdotes that ordinary sportswriters at the time wouldn’t care about, would never find out about,” he says now. “It tickled me that this woman had created a space for herself. One of the reasons I love New York is because I met so many people who had sort of made up their lives in different ways that nobody could have anticipated.”

Penna had made something entirely new with her newsletter and her columns, not only because men wouldn’t let her in the room but because she didn’t like the rote, dull writing they were doing in that room anyway. She exposed the fallacy of football’s mystique with frankness and humor, while encouraging women to participate with the confidence of a man: knowing next to nothing about a topic (especially one as ultimately inconsequential as football) and loudly sharing opinions on it anyway.

“I don’t know what my goals were then,” says Penna. “I wasn’t trying to lay any new roads. I didn’t give a shit about that. Trailblazing...that had nothing to do with it at all. I was having fun.”

It’s perhaps because she’s so resistant to the idea of being labeled a pioneer that Penna’s accomplishments have been mostly forgotten; quitting the industry and changing her name also likely had an impact. She remembers being asked to sit on one panel about being a woman in sports media with a shudder. “Natalie, they were the most boring people,” she says. “You wouldn’t want to sit with them for five minutes. They had no sense of humor and took themselves so seriously.”

That’s what Elinor reminded me: This is supposed to be fun. Yes, 50 years later, women have only made it to the men’s professional sideline, not onto their gridiron as she called for all those years ago. But as I try to guess how she might end this piece, I have to laugh — that’s probably a lot closer than they’d like us to be.

NFL

The art of the forced fumble, explained by the NFL Draft class of 2020

NFL

The gore, guts and horror of an NFL fumble pile

NFL

I understand why Andrew Luck retired, because I’ve been in his shoes

View all stories in NFL