Manitoba pioneering girls tackle football
Photo credit: WWC 2013
By Kevin Hirschfield
Few opportunities existed for young girls to play tackle football against one another in Canada until two women from Manitoba had an idea.
Tannis Wilson and Lisa Zueff-Cummings founded the Manitoba Girls Football Association in 2011, the one of the first tackle football leagues strictly for girls.
And it’s proved to be quite the hit.
Beginning as a three-team league, the MGFA has expanded to two divisions (junior and senior) with 12 total teams (four junior, eight senior).
Wilson and Zueff-Cummings were part of the Manitoba Fearless women’s team formed in 2007 and helped create the Western Women’s Canadian Football League in 2009. Through their travels, they noticed the interest shown by women.
“If there are this many women that like football, there’s certainly gotta be that many girls who want to play football,” said Wilson, who served on Canada’s Women’s National Team’s first coaching staff in 2010.
“Obviously you can’t sustain a senior program without a foundation underneath it and there has to be girls out there with an interest in football. So why not give these young girls an opportunity?”
The league features girls from 9-16 years old and holds their season in the spring. There are six players on the field per team at a time.
Since the formation of the MGFA, several girls leagues have popped up in the United States, but it was the Manitoba one which they were modelled after. One also exists in the Maritimes.
Unable to crack her high school team several years ago, Winnipeg football player Ashley Williams was referred to the MGFA and immediately fit in.
“After the first week of practice, I just felt comfortable, I made new friends,” said Williams, who plays offensive line. “All these girls come from different places, and have similar mindsets. Similar to me, always thought they couldn’t play, weren’t strong enough or big enough or manly enough, all these insecurities. I learned to take those and throw them away before getting on the field just to come on the field with confidence and leave with that same confidence.”
Williams, 19, now plays with the Fearless women’s team and helps coach the Transcona Nationals girls team.
“My favourite part is getting to do things with them that they’ve never had to experience. It’s a life changing experience for them and me too,” she said. “It’s just amazing how far everything’s got and I can’t wait to see how much further it goes.
Wilson says girls are an interesting bunch to coach.
“From a playing perspective, they’re very tenacious,” Wilson said. “I coached boys for years in football and other sports and I always laugh, girls are tough to coach, you have to be a smart coach. They’ll ask you questions continuously. If they don’t understand what you’re saying, they’re going to keep asking until you tell them what they want to hear.”
One thing girls don’t want to hear is that they’re not tough enough to play tackle football.
“Those girls that get red cards and yellow cards in soccer, penalties in hockey, get fouled out of basketball. Those are the girls we want,” said Wilson. “They’re never going to be told, you’re being too aggressive, they’re going to say go out there and hit somebody.
“You can be a kick-ass football player and be feminine when you walk out,” she added. “They talk about dance and pink shoes on the sidelines, they’re still little girls. They still have that fight and that power to go out there and want to hit somebody, we don’t want to take that away from them. I want them to find a place in football that gives them an opportunity to be who they are.”
As this year’s Women’s World Championship kicks off, Manitoba girls could one day make up a large portion of Team Canada, thanks to an innovative league started in their very own backyard.
“These girls are the future of our sport, they’ve already played four-five years before senior women’s football,” said Wilson. “They have an advantage over the rest of the country in that they’re not relatively new to the sport, they understand the game better.”
The inaugural 2010 Women’s World Championship has helped accelerate the growth of female football around the world. As Canada hosts the third installment of the tournament from June 24-30, it may inspire girls and women to take up the sport as they dream of one day representing Canada on the world stage.
About the author
Kevin is a writer, reporter and producer based in Manitoba. Follow him on Twitter @kevin_hirsch.
This post is also available in: French