O’Leary: Reina Iizuka breaking barriers for women in football
When she thinks back on it, Reina Iizuka has always loved football.
She says it started for her as a three-year-old, sitting in front of the TV at her home in Mississauga, transfixed with BC Lions games. A few years later, when her friends brought a football out at recess, she jumped into the game.
“I just think football’s so different from other sports. There’s so much involved in it,” she explained. “You’ve got to throw, you’ve got to kick, you’ve got to tackle, you have to catch.”
By the time she was nine she had fallen head over heels for the game. It was all she wanted to do.
“It just felt right,” she said. “I can’t really explain it.”
Her story is complicated when you follow the obvious. It’s unprecedented to see a young woman carving a spot out in a man’s game the way that she has, having spent 2018 as a redshirt freshman (freshperson?) defensive back on the University of Manitoba Bisons’ football team.
Talk with Iizuka for any amount of time, though, and when you get past the remnants of the barriers that lay scattered around her, things get simplified. Hers is the story of an athlete that has loved the game of football as long as she can remember and is driven like few others to find her place in it.
She knows she owes a lot of that to her mother.
“I think my first year playing she was a little nervous,” Iizuka said of getting her mom to buy in on letting her play.
“After that she saw how I was, I think she grew to love it, really. She supports me 100 per cent.”
That support meant that the single-mother would have to drive her young daughter, from the age of nine into her high school years, around the GTA to practices and games. As Reina got more serious about football, the map expanded to include specialized workouts with trainers.
“Her mom is super supportive. Her mom will move heaven and Earth to get Reina wherever she needs to get to,” said Edmonton Eskimos receiver Natey Adjei, one of several CFL connections Iizuka has built up over the years. Adjei started training her in high school.
“Her mom will say, ‘Reina told me she wants to play football and I ask her, what are you doing? But she wants it so bad. And I can’t deny her.’ Her mom will do anything for her and I think that’s huge.”
She’d been in football a couple of seasons and knew she wanted to continue playing. Not knowing the game of football, her mom suggested to her daughter what she would to anyone in the business world. Get out there and network.
“I know it sounds weird but right out of the gate, maybe 11, 12-years old, I started getting out my emails, asking for coaches. Literally any coach that would train me,” Iizuka said.
“I would travel all over southern Ontario for football skills training or weight training or anything like that because you don’t know who people know. Everywhere I went I would treat it like it was game day, even at 12-years old.
“Everything you look for with traits in your daughter, Reina has. The respect factor…strong minded, determined, I could go on for days. Reina is a model athlete, a model person and someone you definitely want your daughter to be like. I know that’s true for me. I’ve told her that.”
Esks receiver Natey Adjei on Reina Iizuka
“I really tried to prove myself to coaches (to show them) this isn’t a joke to me. Then just to gain their confidence and trust. We’d exchange information and I keep in contact with a lot of those coaches even up until now.
“It was one of those things where I had to develop that skill of, ‘Hi my name is Reina. This is what I want to do.’
“Recruiting was definitely something I had to approach…I don’t take offence to it at all, but I don’t think a coach is going to go, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a girl. Let me talk to her and recruit her.’ This is very new. I don’t blame coaches for not approaching, really.”
That attitude became prevalent in everything she’d do. If a coach needed a volunteer in a drill, she’d be the one to step up. In team meetings at the U of M she’s at the front of the room, always taking notes. Adjei jokes that when he makes plans with Iizuka to train, she’s there an hour before him and will stay an hour later. He laughs as he tells a story of how when she goes to former CFL defensive back Shea Pierre’s gym for training, Pierre will say that he can’t get her out of the gym, that she always wants to do more.
“She’s probably one of the hardest workers, female or male that I’ve ever trained,” Pierre said.
As she climbed through peewee and bantam football with the Mississauga Warriors, then into high school ball at Brandon Bridge’s alma mater, St. Marcellinus Secondary, her resume grew to reflect the respect she’d earned. Growing up, she was named a captain on her teams 10 times and won a leadership award as a high school freshman in the 2013 season. She was at a camp in the GTA in 2015 when she first met the Manitoba Bisons’ head coach, Brian Dobie.
“She was in a drill and I made a comment about what a great tackler that guy is to some of the coaches, after seeing her make a couple of really good tackles,” Dobie said. “The coaches turned to me and said, ‘Yeah coach, that guy’s a girl.’”
Dobie was shocked.
“I went over and kind of gave her a coaching tip and some advice and then throughout the weekend of the camp she kind of gravitated in my direction. We sat down after lunch one day and we talked football and life, etcetera.”
That kicked off about an 18-month recruiting process that was aided in its length by Iizuka tearing her ACL going into her senior season of football in 2015. She stayed in touch with Dobie throughout her recovery.
“We built this really honest relationship, I feel,” she said. “I told him that the original plan was for me to go to grade 13 and just train an extra year and go to university. But then I started thinking about school…so I just applied to the University of Manitoba.
“He already had his recruits ready for the season (in 2017) so it was really, really last minute. Because my knee was torn, I said ‘I can’t do anything. I can’t run, I can’t hit, all I can do is lift. At least, can I please be a part of it? I don’t have to be on the team. I don’t have to be on the roster. I just want to learn football. I want to learn how to watch film, I want to see what practice is like, I want to lift with the guys. I just want to be in that environment.’”
“I saw two things in Reina,” Dobie said. “One, I saw a young woman that no matter how she viewed it was literally, very determinedly, in an uphill battle on a football field full of guys and she didn’t flinch. She didn’t look at it that way. Second, I saw someone who was as impassioned about the sport that she chose as anybody else that I’ve ever recruited.
“She was that person. I’m not saying that guy, not saying that girl. She was that person.”
Dobie remembers pacing in his office at the start of the season, thinking about what he was going to say to his team about its newest member.
“When I introduced her to the team she wasn’t in the room,” he said.
“I explained her situation and unquestionably there were guys in the room that did not feel that she should be here. There were others that literally stood up and said, ‘This is a great opportunity. If she is who coach Dobie has described, let’s give her a chance to prove herself and have the kind of opportunity that we’re having here and to be able to grow from that.’”
The year was rewarding for her from a learning and immersion standpoint, but injuries kept her off of the field. On top of her ACL recovery, she developed a stress fracture in her foot from overtraining. She’s optimistic about what the 2019 season will look like for the Bisons and she has laid out some goals for herself.
“I’m just here to work just like everybody else,” she said. “My goal this year is to get some time on specials at least and hopefully travel a game or two. Otherwise I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing.”
If she can go from the practice roster to the active one, it would be a monumental moment in Canadian sports. Iizuka has worked extremely hard to be just another player in the game, but there’s a significance that would come with a woman taking those first steps onto the field and making that first tackle in a game.
“I know how determined she is,” said Pierre, who has worked with Iizuka since she was in the ninth grade.
“Her relentless drive for perfection was greater than most of the top (university) guys I was training. I always said that if she’s training at a pro level that she’s going to get the opportunity somewhere. I knew she’d break the barrier and that’s huge.”
Adjei first met Iizuka after she’d messaged him out of the blue to ask about getting training from him. It was long odds to get to the U SPORTS level, but Adjei wasn’t surprised that she got there.
“If you knew Reina,” he said. “It’s crazy, the amount of work ethic that she has. I haven’t seen anyone with that kind of work ethic. Any other athlete, it’s insane.
“The big thing that people are going to take from this, especially young girls is that no matter what it is: If it’s any other sport or any other thing in life, through hard work and determination, through believing in yourself, you can do it. She’s going to inspire a lot of people.”
While she’s focused on the football season in front of her, Iizuka is weighing her options about her future. She says her dream job in football would be to coach defensive backs, but she sees doors opening up around women in football and knows her goals could change. She’ll be one of four women in U SPORTS that will travel with the CFL this week to the 2019 Women’s Careers in Football Forum in Indianapolis, IN. as part of the NFL combine.
Dobie wants Iizuka to be the best player she can be, but he sees a huge opportunity in front of her after her time with the Bisons comes to an end.
“You could go to 200 football clinics and you’ll learn a lot about football,” he said, “and you wouldn’t learn what you learn in a university program over that four-to-five-year period of time. It’s not even close. It’d be impossible.
“I think that this young woman, because she is so driven…I think she could end up having a career where she’s very impactful in the sport of football. I honestly do. Whatever that means, however that translates.
“She’s got all those things that spell success. She has them. She has all the intrinsics that can lead to her being successful and impactful at whatever she chooses to do.”
Iizuka has already inspired the people close to her. Adjei met her shortly after his daughter, Laila was born. As he’s trained her, Adjei hopes his child goes after life the same way.
“Everything you look for with traits in your daughter, Reina has,” he said.
“The respect factor…strong minded, determined, I could go on for days. Reina is a model athlete, a model person and someone you definitely want your daughter to be like. I know that’s true for me. I’ve told her that.”