‘It changed my life’: How tackle football is a growing option for high school girls in Ontario

Trista Thompson worries that once she graduates from high school her football career might end.

Thompson is a Grade 12 student at St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School in Sudbury, Ont. and plays as a middle linebacker for the school’s girls’ tackle football team.

Because girls’ full-contact football is so new at Ontario high schools, the team has to travel to Toronto and Ottawa to find opponents.

After Thompson graduates, her options with the sport in Ontario will be limited. 

“I’m really hoping that they start up like a league for us to go and play because there’s nothing right now and I think that would be really fun,” she said.

“I would definitely join if there was something coming up.”

The St. Benedict girls’ tackle football team has to play teams in Ottawa and Toronto because there are no other full-contact teams in Sudbury. (Kayla Guerrette/CBC)

Two years ago St. Benedict was Sudbury’s first – and remains the city’s only – high school to start a girls’ tackle football team.

Thompson said she was unsure about playing football at first, but when a lot of her friends joined the team she gave it a shot. And she fell in love with the sport.

“I want to change, like, the way football is seen and inspire other girls that are younger than us to come up and do the same thing,” she said.

More opportunities

Milana Hickey, a Grade 10 student at St. Benedict and a running back with the team, says she feels the same way about the sport.

“I was scared and it changed my life,” she said about giving football a chance.

“It’s one of the sports that I focus on the most now and I couldn’t imagine myself not playing it.”

By the time she graduates from high school, Hickey could have more opportunities to play full contact football than her older teammate.

On May 5 Football Canada announced an agreement with NFL Canada, which it says will improve opportunities for women’s flag and tackle football.

Over the next three years the agreement will focus on growing women’s football across Canada.

A bearded man holding a football while a teenage girl in a football uniform watches.
Kim Labrosse, head coach of the St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School girls’ football team, says it’s ‘well overdue’ for the game to get more support for organizations like Football Canada and NFL Canada. (Kayla Guerrette/CBC)

‘Well overdue’

“It’s well overdue,” said Kim Labrosse, St. Benedict’s head coach.

Labrosse said it’s great to see large organizations like NFL Canada and Football Canada put more support behind the women’s game.

But for the sport to grow, Labrosse said investments will need to focus on high schools to foster players and coaches at the grassroots level.

“This is where you get the most athletes,” he said.

Labrosse added it will be important to get more women involved in the game at the coaching level.

“Just because you’ve never played the sport doesn’t mean you’re not able to coach it,” he said.

“There’s coaching clinics out there that should be offered to a lot of women.”

It’s a priority for us as we continue to add more and more programming.– Shannon Donovan, executive director, Football Canada

Football Canada executive director Shannon Donovan says bringing greater visibility to women’s football is a big priority for both organizations.

“It’s a priority for us as we continue to add more and more programming,” she said.

Donovan said some provinces are ahead of Ontario when it comes to opportunities in women’s football, but the province is catching up.

“It’s a big province as we know, so I think it’s sometimes a little bit harder to bring everybody together on the same page,” she said.

Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta have the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, which features seven teams. 

On the East Coast, the Maritime Women’s Football League was established in 2004, and is Canada’s oldest full-contact women’s football league.

But Donovan said interest in women’s tackle football is growing across the country.

“I think that you’re going to see and hear more and more about women and girls’ football and the opportunities that are going to be popping up on a fairly regular basis,” she said.

“I expect that we will hopefully get close to having representation from all the provinces across the country at our women’s under 18.”

She added that greater representation at the under 18 level will lead to more under 16 programs as well, along with annual national championships for women’s tackle football.

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