“A guy at the NFL called me a pioneer once. The Sharks had the first-ever Junior Player Development program; and as we hung up the phone he said ‘You know what, Andra? You’re a real pioneer.’ But I never thought of myself in that way, it was much more of a day-to-day, keep-your-head-above-water feeling.”
When Florida State University won their first two national championships (1979 and 1980) they relied on Andra Douglas, a fast, physical wing. In addition to anchoring a line with future Hall of Fame player Candi Orsini, Andra took on most of the teams kicking duties.
“I really loved rugby and it came naturally to me. Perhaps because I was used to football. When I think about it, the biggest challenge for me was fitting in with the team. That had nothing to do with the players on the team, they were great, but I’ve always struggled to fit in.”
Andra played rugby for 3 years at FSU before leaving to play football.
“Football was my first love and flag football was a popular intramural sport at FSU. At that time, I was also serious about golf and played on the amateur circuit briefly. I tried to do it all – rugby, golf, football, and student – but I gradually left rugby behind.”
After graduating with a degree in graphic design, Andra moved to New York City where she earned a master’s degree in communications design from Pratt University. She had a successful career, becoming a vice president of creative for WarnerVision Entertainment, a division of Atlantic Records. During the 1990’s she was the creative vision behind a number of well-known artists such as Hootie and the Blowfish and The Lemonheads. She later became an independent consultant for the entertainment industry. But football was never far from her mind. In August of 2000, Andra bought the franchise rights for the New York Sharks, the newest team in the burgeoning women’s football league.
“Really, I just wanted to play. I never wanted to own any sports franchise or figure out how to run one but seems no one else was going to do it so I did it.
I was the team quarterback, but soon realized the duties required for ownership were extensive. I would often have to leave or miss practice for administrative chores. It was also awkward being the boss and a teammate. I tried to leave a lot of game-day decisions up to the coaches but that wasn’t always possible. I did all I could to make the team run smoothly for the players and coaches.
I grew up playing sandlot football which is worlds away from organized football. Women’s tackle football was new, and we were all learning. Some of the men I hired as coaches didn’t have a lot of experience, but they still knew more than any of us because they had played organized football much of their lives. But it’s evolved, today I know a lot of women who can out-coach men.
In the early days football was a lot like rugby, the Sharks practiced three times a week. It was hard to find field space in New York City for both practices and games. We started practicing in February and it was freezing. I recall times where we shoveled the snow off a patch of turf so we could do walkthroughs if nothing else. After the competitive season started in April, we had two weekday practices and played on weekends.
We had an eight-game season. We traveled for four games and were home for four. We chartered buses for away games and occasionally would have to stay in hotels due to the distance. On rare occasions, we had to fly to games and although those were fun times, it was expensive. Each player had to pay their own expenses as well as chip in for coaching salaries and other expenses. The total collected from the players never covered the entire amount and as the owner I paid the deficit, sometimes amounting to $20,000-30,000. Sponsors were few and far between and attendance at games rarely covered the cost of gameday. We struggled to find qualified coaches who would coach for the small salary. It was always rough.
But somehow it all worked. In the beginning the Sharks were far ahead of other teams in the league due to our experience playing flag football. We played 8 on 8 with contact which prepared us for full contact, tackle football. We also had known each other for years so that helped – we had our share of sibling squabbles – but in the end, we cared deeply about each other. But most of all we were living a dream! We were having the times of our lives!"
Under Andra’s leadership the New York Sharks went on to become the winningest team in women’s football. In 2003, Andra established The Fins Up! Foundation to provide underserved girls in New York City the opportunity to learn football. In 2015, the Fins Up Foundation merged with the Women's Gridiron Foundation, offering clinics to girls in cities across the world.
2018 was Andra’s last year with the Sharks and it was a storybook year, as the Sharks won the Women’s Football Association Championship Title and the First International Women’s Tackle Football championship. After selling the team in 2018, Andra focused on her art and began writing a fictional account of her life in football. In 2019, she published Black & Blue: Love, Sport and the Art of Empowerment, a fictionalized account of her life in football. Andra and her parrot named Pie split their time between their homes in New York City and Dade City, Florida and soon, Los Angeles. In 2021, Universal Studios bought the rights to her book and are currently developing a pilot for a TV series based on the book.
Andra is proud of her rugby roots and stays in contact with some of those early FSU teammates. As one of those early teammates, I’m proud of her accomplishments and the pioneering role she has played and continues to play in the development of women’s sports.
All images provided by Andra Douglas