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Canada’s only girls tackle football league breaking barriers

Like most things, it started with an idea.

Almost eight years ago, a conversation, on a field in Winnipeg, turned into a gutsy gamble. The discussion focused on creating an opportunity for girls, between the ages of nine and 17, to play tackle football: girls against other girls.

From the right set of circumstances, grew the Manitoba Girls Football Association – believed to be the first full contact football program for girls in the world. Well, to be sure, in North America.

Tannis Wilson, now the Commissioner of the league and a former executive member of Football Manitoba, and Lisa Cummings, extensively involved in the growth of amateur football in the Province, said there had been quite a bit of informal chatter. The two decided to see if there was enough interest to form a league.

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Cesca Johnson (20) at the 2018 MGFA Provincial Champions

“There was touch football, flag football and then came a desire for young girls to learn and play tackle football – against other girls,” said Wilson who, along with Cummings, play in the eight-team Western Women’s Canadian Football League that involves squads from Alberta to Manitoba.

“A segment of our population was born to compete, and that goes for girls and football, too. What we’re doing is inspiring and energizing – giving (younger girls) an opportunity to learn, play, develop and go from there.”

From three teams, grew an organization in the Greater Winnipeg Area that now involves a few hundred players. Girls’ ages 14 to 17 years have a seven-team Senior league while four-team Junior loop exists for those between the ages of 10 and 13. The season runs in in May and June with championships at the home of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

No longer toiling in a state of obscurity, tackle football has attracted girls – some, like Tessa Anderson, who had never watched a game in past.

Anderson lives on a 4,000-acre grain farm, about one hour south of Winnipeg, where she contributed with various functions that included helping with an agricultural auger and running the combine harvester. Things changed, when her older brother came home one day and told her he had signed her up for football – and she didn’t know what to expect.

“I remember that first practice, the coaches were very supportive, and that first game when I had lots of penalties for going offside,” said the 16-year old, who has had to deal with dyslexia for a good chunk of her life. “Four years of football later, I look back and went from terrible to being chosen an all-star.”

At 5-foot-9, Anderson plays on the offensive line for the St. Vital Mustangs – a team that has won three championships. Focusing now on academics, and what could be her final year of football, the passion is changing for a different kind of gridiron – the cookie grill and a future career in culinary arts.

Cesca Johnson was born in Manchester, England and now lives, with her family, in Beasejour, a town some 46 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. She gave up playing the flute to play tackle football.

“I have always been a super competitive athlete and while tackle football was something I saw on television, I had no idea that one day I would be playing – and enjoying it so much,” said the Grade 10 student at École Edward Schreyer, a 670-member school with classes in Symphony Orchestra and Home Economics, but no football team.

A league all-star last year, playing linebacker for the Sunrise Coyotes, Johnson sees playing tackle football, along with several other sports that helped her get selected school Athlete of the Year three times, as valuable experience for pursuing a future in athletic therapy.

“I have learned that girls are very capable playing tackle football against other girls,” said the 15-year old, who competed in a Battle of the Borders tournament, her team had won, last year against a U.S. squad in Indiana. “For someone who never played, and having benefitted from supportive parents and great coaches who taught me how to play, this has been a sport that has helped me build confidence, meet friends and have lots of fun.”

Jordan Land recalls her first year of tackle football, at age nine, when things didn’t go well, and she seriously had doubts about finishing the season.

Jordan Land hopes to one day get an opportunity to play in the Canadian Football League

“I just figured I wasn’t good enough, but when I put some serious effort in to playing, learned how to properly, make plays, things changed and I became very committed, focused and supportive of my teammates,” said the 13-year old from East St. Paul, a Winnipeg suburb.

“Now, I love the game so much that I’d like to, one day, play in the CFL and prove to people that females can also play.”

A former Rookie of the Year on her cheerleading squad, Land has also won an award playing on the offensive line in a boy’s league. For now, Land, a three-time team captain and 5-foot-6 kicker, punter and linebacker with the East Side Eagles, is focusing on teamwork.

Kaity Cummings has a very busy schedule – from dance and choir to playing trombone and appearing in staged musicals like the Little Shop of Horrors.

For her, a top priority is also maintaining academic honors at Garden City Collegiate in Winnipeg. Somehow, she still finds time for tackle football with the girls and when the season ends, a few months later, also plays on a boys’ team.

“Just because we’re girls, people can be very quick to underestimate us as players,” said Cummings, a 15-year old who suits up for the North Winnipeg Nomads in the MGFA. “I am always looking for advice, along with important advantages, and playing football builds friendships, helps me learn about responsibilities and a commitment to teamwork.”