Allyson Hamlin broke the huddle and approached the line of scrimmage, one yard between her and a national championship. It was fourth down in the fourth quarter on a Saturday evening in August, and the D.C. Divas, the best team in the full-contact Women’s Football Alliance, had called upon their quarterback for the final push.
She looked toward the sideline, buzzing with teammates dressed in burgundy and gold. She paused and spread her arms, palms down, to settle the excitement. She crouched and braced for the snap.
“Wyoming on the first sound,” Hamlin had instructed her teammates. “We get this first down and we’re champions.”
Six years had passed since the Divas last reached the title game and nine since they last won, droughts that still stung the bedrock of the franchise. Nearing the end of her 13th season with her hometown team, the 38-year-old was considered among the greatest women’s tackle football players but lately had begun wondering about the future, when these pressure-packed chances — “moments you die for,” she said at their last practice — were no longer there.
But those concerns were gone on this night, on the campus of a community college in Los Angeles, shielding a four-point lead against the Dallas Elite, six seconds separating the game clock from the play clock. If the Elite stuffed the Divas here and took possession, it could heave one last prayer before time expired. From the bench, Hamlin’s coaches signaled for a timeout. Confident the opening was there, she instead bent under center and made the first sound.
The football was hiked, and she plunged ahead into the chaos. Hamlin was stopped at first contact but kept her balance and twisted around. Legs churning, she roared backward through a sliver of space and stumbled onto the turf. As she rose from her knees, the sideline erupted.
A comfortable first down. A league championship. A quarterback at the summit of her sport, a legend still winning deep into her career, unburdened by the stresses of a job that was everything outside football, unconcerned about how much longer all this would last.
The phone rang around 1 a.m., set to full volume inches from Hamlin’s ear, alerting the homicide detective to another murder. She was up fast and in the shower, maybe her last one for days. Suit on, earrings in, a new notebook in her hand, fresh pages for a fresh case. Then she was out the door.
“Investigative Police,” read the badge dangling from her neck. “Prince George’s Co. Maryland.”
The longest-tenured member of the M-40 unit in the Criminal Investigations Division at almost seven years, Hamlin drove toward the hospital, fueled by adrenaline on this mid-July night, after the call woke her from a 45-minute nap. Her partner, James Boulden, whose turn in the department’s rotation assigned him the lead on the investigation, was headed to the crime scene. Along the way, he called Hamlin and briefed her on the murder, a two-victim shooting in an area she knew from her time working the streets.
Not long after midnight, on Cindy Lane in the Central Gardens complex of Capitol Heights, two armed security guards were parked side by side, filling out paperwork from a previous incident. From their left, a stolen black Dodge Charger rolled past, then circled back. Out hopped at least one man, who before long began spraying bullets.
Zero-one-hundred: The initial call.
Zero-two-fourteen: One wounded, the other dead.
“Straight-up first-degree case,” Hamlin muttered, shaking her head as she entered the emergency room.
She ducked behind a curtain inside the trauma center, near the blood-soaked stretcher, dropped onto the tiled floor and circled the bed with a medical examiner, studying the dead man under the white sheet. She walked slowly and with purpose, pausing every so often to note the entrance and exit wounds scattered across his body — “defects,” they called them. The autopsy report wouldn’t return for several weeks, but Hamlin and her squad already could begin exploring certain scenarios, based on where the bullets struck.
Another officer approached.
“Mother should be here momentarily,” he warned.
Here was the most wrenching part of the job — notifying the next of kin. Hamlin had found herself knocking on fewer doors these days because families often learned of incidents through social media and beat detectives to the hospital. Wherever the news broke, Hamlin had her rules: Show sympathy but don’t mince words. Stay strong and take charge.
Other times, though, she didn’t need to say anything. The badge and suit confirmed the family’s greatest fear.
“They see me,” she said, “and they think death.”
The victim of the 31st homicide committed in Prince George’s County this calendar year — the seventh case of those assigned to M-40 — was Adrian Esau Kinard. He was 25 years old, the father of a daughter and engaged to be married. He had planned to take the Prince George’s County Police Department’s entrance exam in several weeks. Before taking the security job, he overcame a hatred for guns, which began five years earlier after his teenage brother was shot and killed while walking with a friend to buy candy at a store.
The officer returned.
“Mother’s here,” he said.
Hamlin had hoped to escort her into the hospital and find a private room to talk, but the family met the detective in the entranceway. Hamlin never spoke. The mother looked at her suit, silver chain and badge. Her body swayed, and her knees buckled.
The next Tuesday evening, four days before the Divas hosted the Chicago Force in the National Conference final, a berth in the championship game at stake, Hamlin began practice as she always did, by giving her phone to the head coach. For a few hours each week, work would be put aside. Out here, on the field of a local high school, she was a quarterback and nothing more. She slipped on her helmet and joined her teammates in their stretching lines.
“Breakdown,” they yelled, smacking their pads.
“On a mission.”
A diehard Washington Redskins fan from suburban Maryland whose father, Paul, bought the Divas nine years ago, after she had become an established quarterback, Hamlin grew up understanding football on a fundamental level, but she never knew full-contact opportunities existed for women. When someone first suggested she would make a decent quarterback, Hamlin laughed, not just at the thought of strapping on pads, but at the entire concept of the league and women’s football itself. How could that work? How would that survive?
The doubts lingered until she attended a Divas game. Taken by how passionately the players played, how thrilling it felt to picture herself in those pads, how appealing it seemed to cross into another male-dominated world, Hamlin signed up for the next season. “It resembled football,” she said. “It was football.” Before long, Hamlin had thrown herself into this new world, studying flash cards about route trees and play calls, devouring as much game film as possible, trying to become fluent in what felt like a foreign language.
Her yardage and touchdown numbers ranked somewhere in the upper third of the WFA this regular season, but her quarterback rating led the league and she didn’t throw a single interception. Then there were the career numbers — almost 13,000 yards and 88 wins, both possible women’s football records, if centralized statistics had been kept. Rich Daniel, the team’s general manager, is fond of noting Hamlin’s 200-plus career touchdowns were more than any D.C.-based quarterback — male or female. Without intent to exaggerate, Hamlin’s offensive coordinator, Eric Evans, compared her success to NFL stalwarts Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, at least relative to their peers
“If you don’t at least have her in the conversation of the two or three best,” Daniel said, “then you’re watching a different game.”
“In my opinion, she’s the best that’s ever played the women’s game,” Evans said. “By far.”
When Evans joined the Divas in 2011, he restructured the offense around Hamlin’s pocket presence and handed her total freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage, which she now does before roughly 40 percent of snaps. Together, they also named every play — after cities and states — and started a running text thread, swapping formation ideas and sending pictures of opposing defenses. It updates every few hours.
It was this dedication and determination that set Hamlin apart, Evans said, an attitude she distributed equally among the two worlds her life occupied — one “a safe haven,” as she called it, the other at times all too real. She preferred to keep football and police work separate, stashing away investigations whenever she placed her gun into the trunk before practice and pulled out her pads, but every now and then they intersected without warning.
Raised in Prince George’s County, she could recall murders committed in neighborhoods she knew as a child. Once, after a hit-and-run near the football field, she chased down a drunk driver and made the arrest, still wearing pads, then returned to practice. And in mid-June, after the Divas clobbered Boston in their regular season finale, Hamlin arrived at a postgame police tailgate party, now deserted except for a detective’s wife who told her someone was dead and it was time to get back to work.
Her carefully separated worlds had collided again. Over the weekend, as she and the squad clocked some 40 straight hours working their latest murder, Hamlin learned that Kinard, the victim, was related to Jerome Davis, the defensive line coach for the D.C. Divas. A hardened officer at the federal level, Davis had encouraged his second cousin to work in law enforcement, helping him overcome that fear of guns by taking him to the shooting range. Kinard, who played high school football, even showed interest in one day helping out with the Divas.
When Hamlin heard about the connection, she quickly texted Davis, offering both her sympathies and optimism that they would close the case. She couldn’t divulge certain details, and Davis, respecting a fellow officer, never asked. Just stay strong for your family, she told him. The M-40 squad, leaders in case closure rates for Prince George’s County homicide this decade, would handle the rest.
The Cindy Lane case, however, represented the rare instance in which Hamlin knew someone related to the victim, which meant it became the rare case that reached her on a personal level. “One that gets under your skin,” she said. “It’s actually kind of scary, the degree of separation.” But with roughly 25 murders assigned to her as lead and some 150 more handled by her squad — not counting hundreds more death investigations and dozens of suicide calls — Hamlin also had experience finding relief through football.
Once, working on a special assignment task force, Hamlin and her unit hit “The RIP,” a complex in District Heights that received its moniker for the number of killings along that block. After handcuffing several suspects and chasing down others who fled on foot, Hamlin and her colleagues were walking back to their cars. From a balcony above, someone hollered at the officers.
“What’s up, 19?”
Her jersey number.
Hamlin never stopped moving, no intention of acknowledging the pit in her stomach, but afterward she turned down several interview requests for Divas stories, hoping to lay low in case the shout was a threat. With time, though, football pushed back and squashed the fears. There was no time to think about shooters taking aim from the stands or even someone hoping to intimidate her by forcing the worlds together. On the field, there were audibles to call, coverages to read, blitzers to avoid, a game to play.
“They balance each other out in that way,” she said.
Hamlin already had promised teammates she would quarterback at least one more season, but anything beyond next summer was uncertain. She would turn 40 soon, and while the closeness of the Divas and thrill of the championship run kept her feeling young, idle moments allowed the thoughts to creep in:
Who would succeed Hamlin at quarterback and as one of the team captains? Could she transition to coaching, a path she once resisted, unable to stand the idea of watching from the sideline? How much longer would an aging Hamlin be able to perform at the highest level of women’s football?
“This doesn’t last forever,” she said. “You want all this to keep going, but the reality is you can’t.”
She booked an earlier flight from Los Angeles and returned home late Monday, nervous about being so far from work. She was up in the department’s rotation — “At Bat: Hamlin,” read the board inside the office doorway — so the next body would be hers to manage. Sitting at her desk on her first day back, fortressed by stuffed case folders, Hamlin flipped through pictures on her phone from the postgame celebration, recalling the thrill of last weekend.
“Back to reality,” she said.
Newer cases had divided their full attention from the murder of Adrian Kinard, but Hamlin and her squad were making progress. They had located the Dodge Charger, found abandoned in Northeast Washington, and were retracing the car’s history since it had been stolen. They had more people to pick up, more interviews to conduct, but each morsel of evidence nudged them further toward closure.
Midway through the worst month for murders in Prince George’s County since Hamlin joined homicide, M-40 now had five active cases. The first came on New Year’s Day, either a hit or a drug deal gone bad. Two were led by Boulden, Hamlin’s partner, including Kinard’s death on Cindy Lane, and two were Hamlin’s — a hit in January over some prior beef, then a retaliation shooting at a pool party in June — plus whatever fresh homicide was coming down the pipe. She laughed at the timing: Football ended; work picked up. Of course. It was just as well, anyway. She never quite learned how to fill free time.
Her life had followed this steady rhythm ever since she moved from station-level detective to homicide in November 2009, but only now did the future forecast change. Next April, around the start of football season, Hamlin planned to take the sergeant’s exam, which promised a raise — the Divas are not paid — and a promotion into a supervisor’s role, maybe even out of homicide, a move she was now more willing to take. Her retirement age wasn’t far away, and she also wanted to start a family, but the “baby clock,” as she called it, was ticking. And maybe if she had a daughter, Hamlin could raise her in a world where women’s tackle football was a full-time profession, no splitting time between the sport and something else.
“So much of who I am is a police officer and a quarterback,” she said. “I have to find out what life’s going to look like without them.”
That night, Hamlin and the rest of M-40 went to dinner, a rare instance when everyone could spare enough time for a meal together. After eating, they idled in the parking lot, chatting and delaying the drive back to work for a few more minutes. Across Prince George’s County, inside a local hospital, a man was pronounced dead. Hamlin’s phone rang.