Celebrating 150 of Canada’s female football heroes (1-10)

In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, Fourth and Feminine is recognizing this landmark anniversary by saluting a collection of sensational female football heroes. Since the inaugural IFAF Women’s World Football Championships in 2010, the awareness of women gracing the gridiron the world over is quickly gaining awareness. Undeniably, Canada has been part of this fascinating movement.

Adding to the momentum of the sport’s evolution is the fact that many of the competitors are multi-sport stars. From the hardcourts of basketball, to the frozen perimeter of the hockey rink, football has served as an athletic extension for so many inspiring women, adding a unique facet to the game’s growth, while exemplifying the potential for women in sport to serve as role models.

Since league play has been established in Canada, one of the most notable is the Maritime Women’s Football League. Having existed since 2003, the Saint John Storm have emerged as the signature franchise of MWFL football. Valiant competitors from the Halifax Xplosion, Moncton Vipers and Capital Area Lady Gladiators have all made their presence felt in league lore too, supplying no shortage of gridiron heroes that have donned the Team Atlantic jersey in national championship competition.

Atlantic Canada’s contribution to female football was also an essential springboard towards setting the foundation as a truly national game. The first Canadian team that competed at the IFAF Women’s Worlds, back in 2010, saw the majority of the team hailing from the MWFL. In addition, the head coach for Canada also called the MWFL home. The level of competitive experience cultivated in the MWFL found its greatest legacy across the Atlantic, as the inaugural IFAF Worlds were contested in Stockholm, Sweden.

Nearly a decade after the existence of the MWFL, female football in Prairie Canada enjoyed the beginning of its proud roots. In existence for over a decade, the independent Edmonton Storm spearheaded an amazing era which saw football grow by a quantum leap in Alberta. With the existence of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, the Western Conference has included a gathering of teams from throughout Alberta, including the Storm, Calgary Rage, Lethbridge Steel, the Grand Prairie Northern Anarky, plus the now defunct Okotoks Lady Outlawz.

Neighbouring province Saskatchewan has emerged as the hub for elite female football in Canada. With the shared dynasty between the Regina Riot and the Saskatoon Valkyries (combining to win the first eight championships in WWCFL history), their dominance has been highlighted by players from both teams amalgamating to become Team Saskatchewan. In unification, this stellar group captured the 2016 Canadian National Women’s Championship.

Prairie Pride is also emphasized by the impact of Winnipeg’s involvement in the WWCFL. With two teams, the Fearless and the Wolf Pack, gracing the gridiron, both clubs enjoy a steady stream of incoming talent through the existence of the ground breaking Manitoba Girls Football Association. Long before a competitive girls league existed in Utah, the MGFA was staking its claim in the province’s sporting conversation, providing girls with an empowering option to pursue their athletic endeavors.

As Ontario looks to expand its imprint on the gridiron, the establishment of the MIFO holds tremendous potential. Considering that Canada’s roster for the first three IFAF Women’s Worlds did not include one player from Ontario (attributed to the fact that Ontario did not field teams at the Canadian Women’s Nationals), the possibility for growth in Canada’s biggest province may result in a roster richly filled with prospective international talent. With Canada seeking its first-ever gold in IFAF play, help from Ontario may serve as the key to capture the elusive gold.

Worth noting, Ontario’s gridiron legacy involves a triptych of unique moments. The admirable effort to establish the Central Canadian Women’s Football League (CCWFL), which gained the endorsement of the two Canadian Football League franchises in the Greater Toronto Area, was a positive step forward. Although the league never enjoyed its inaugural season, it helped raise awareness that female football in Toronto was a possibility.

Such a possibility was also increased by the presence of the Toronto Triumph, a team that played indoor football at the Ricoh Coliseum, and later, Mississauga’s Hershey Centre. Under the brand of Legends Football League, the Canadian-based grouping of teams included the British Columbia Angels (competing in Abbottsford), along with clubs in Regina and Saskatoon. Although a second season never materialized, which would have included a team in Calgary known by the moniker “Fillies”, a handful of Canadian talent made their way south of the border, competing for teams in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Nashville and Seattle.

The Canadian content that filtered its way into the US based teams of Legends Football only comprised a fraction of the narrative. Worth noting, the Women’s World Football Games, the brainchild of Samantha Rapoport, an employee from USA Football, who was raised in Montreal, it became one of the most notable events of the decade. Hosted in states such as Florida, Louisiana and Texas, the profile of the Games took on a much more profound meaning, as the event would be held in Orlando, just a few days before the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl, also in the same city. The NFL certainly noticed, commendably sponsoring a seminar for women hoping to gain careers in football, which saw all participants from the Games cordially invited.

Appropriately, Rapoport’s impact in the game had its initial footing on home soil. Having lined up at the quarterback position for the Montreal Blitz, she was among a long line of notable women in female football that donned the club’s colours. Having provided players to Canada’s entries at all three IFAF Women’s Worlds, the dazzling display of world-class talents stand as one of its greatest legacies.

For the hockey-mad city, the rise of the Blitz as one of the most competitive teams in club play ran parallel to the emergence of women’s ice hockey capturing the imagination of fans. Akin to the Storm, the existence of the Blitz also spans over a decade, although its greatest achievements took place south of the border.

Having competed in the IWFL, the Blitz became the first-ever (and only) Canadian team to win a league championship. Eventually capturing championships at both the Division I and Division III levels, the biggest irony is the fact that such triumphs did not take place on Canadian soil. Of note, the Blitz captured their championships in Round Rock, Texas.

Spending the 2017 season in the Women’s Football Alliance, the Blitz made history as the first Canadian team to align with the league. In that same season, the Blitz would not only advance to the second round of the WFA playoffs, adding to the sense of history, they would also supply over 10 players to Team Canada’s entry at the IFAF Worlds.

Considering that the 2017 edition of the Worlds were held in Vancouver, the first-ever to be held on North American soil, it proved to be an iconic moment in sporting Canadiana. Not only did the Canadian contingent score a touchdown against the United States in the gold medal game, the first time that the Americans ever allowed a touchdown. Taking into account that 2017 was also Canada’s sesquicentennial, national pride took on a whole new meaning for the women who donned the Canadian jersey.

Approaching the future with a tremendous optimism, the women of Canadian football have a lot to be proud of. Fittingly, Atlantic Canada’s role in the future of Canadian female football may hold a unique component, adding a strong feeling of full circle. As the Montreal Blitz no longer compete in the WFA, their newest initiative involves taking a look inward, keen towards establishing an Eastern Canadian league. With exhibition games against MIFO and Team New Brunswick (a team of MWFL All-Stars), such events are setting the stage towards the next great goal of the game; establishing an East vs. West National Championship.

1: Samantha Rapoport

Photo credit: Eric Espino, NFL

In an era that has seen the likes of Sarah Thomas and Dr. Jen Welter positively change the perception of women in football, just as relevant is the presence of Samantha Rapoport. First involved in football during the early 2000s, as a quarterback with her hometown Montreal Blitz, Rapoport has also brought her A-game to the board room.

Having joined USA Football, Rapoport, an alumnae of McGill University, was the architect behind the Women’s World Football Games (WWFG). Welcoming players from over a dozen countries, the event would not only foster a sense of friendship and unification among players from the world over, running parallel to the development of the IFAF Women’s Worlds.

Of note, the second of the WWFG would signify a monumental milestone in Rapoport’s gridiron vision. Hosted at the New Orleans Saints training facility, it provided the participants with a major league feeling worthy of the ambition the women of football brought to the gridiron.

Since then, the WWFG has continued to increase in prominence. With the event also featuring a seminar geared at women aspiring for careers in football, the presence of numerous figures from NFL football, including Terry Pegula, the co-owner of the Buffalo Bills has only added an important relevance to such aspirations. Taking into account that Phoebe Schechter, a player from Great Britain, gained an opportunity for a coaching internship with the Bills through her attendance at one of the seminars, it stands as one of the crowning achievements in Rapoport’s commendable concept of shaping the future of the game for women.

Currently employed with the NFL, it represents a sensational summit for the revered Rapoport. Celebrated for her achievements with recognition in People Magazine, honored among a group of women that are changing the world, she is crafting a legacy as one of the game’s modern builders. Leading the way for an empowering generation that is redefining the role of women in football, Rapoport is a gridiron great on both sides of the border.

2: Trina Graves

3: Alex Black

4: Candace Bloomquist

5: Aimee Kowalski

6: Candice Ward

7: Christine O’Donnell

8: Stevi Schnoor

Stevi Schnoor garbed in a Nashville Knights T-Shirt (Image obtained from Facebook)

Having also played for Canada’s national rugby sevens team, Stevi Schnoor brought such skills from the pitch to the gridiron.
Employing a tenacious athleticism and an endurance that has made her one of the most dependable players on any team she suits up for, Schnoor is known affectionately among fans as “The Bull”. Among the top 10 all-time leading rushers in Legends Football League play, she has simultaneously established herself as the league’s finest Canadian competitor.

Enjoying her first Legends Cup championship as a member of the British Columbia Angels, Schnoor would bring her skills to the Seattle Mist, quickly becoming a gridiron hero among American and Canadian fans alike. In her Mist debut, she would score multiple touchdowns in a Pacific Cup victory against their archrivals, the Los Angeles Temptation, garnering the nickname “Stevi Wonder”

Winning a pair of Legends Cup titles with the Mist, Schnoor was constantly among the league’s leading rushers. Adding luster to such a magical time in Seattle was the fact that there was a significant amount of Canadian content. Joining Schnoor on the Mist included Mary-Anne Hanson, who was also the quarterback during the Angels’ championship season. A former volleyball player in Atlantic University Sport play, the statuesque Deanna Schaper-Kotter gained a spot on the Mist’s offensive line unit.

The 2018 season would mark a new chapter in Schnoor’s gridiron odyssey. Suiting up for the expansion Nashville Knights, there was a recurring theme upon her arrival. Akin to first joining the Mist, when a handful of players from British Columbia joined the team, Schnoor was part of an eastward migration of Seattle players that joined the Knights.

Led by Danika Brace, the first female coach in league history, Schnoor called wondrous women such as Jade Randle, fellow running back Dominique Maloy and quarterback KK Matheny teammates once again. Although Schnoor did not enjoy the statistical season in Music City that she was accustomed to in Seattle, her imposing presence translated into strong leadership, contributing towards a Knights team that gained a postseaon berth in their expansion season.

9: Saadia Ashraf

10: Jaime Lammerding

Disclaimer: This list is not endorsed by Football Canada, the IFAF, LFL, IWFA, MWFL, WWCFL and WFA, any clubs affiliated in the aforementioned leagues, along with its players and/or management.

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Football players make the grade in the classroom

As women’s football continues to experience unprecedented growth, one of the realities is that players from various leagues have to maintain employment in order to pursue their athletic dreams. While football attracts remarkable women from all walks of life, one of the most admirable occupations is that of a teacher.

Such a role not only cultivates patience but stimulates a willingness to learn and empathy for those that may be struggling. It is qualities that make these strong women become stronger leaders on the gridiron. From the complexity of learning plays to just supplying friendship to another teammate, the role of educators helps to forge a strong culture based on respect and dedication.

Some of the educators that are part of feminine football cover a wide range of leagues. The Western Women’s Canadian Football League features women like Connie Fekete, Allison Mouland and Ashley Sharpe. These three titanic pioneers in the nascent league represent different age groups but have seen their lives intersect on the field of play.

Although their involvement in football sees all of them occupy unique times in their lives, each one is a pioneer in the growing game. Having relocated to Alberta from Newfoundland, Mouland is the youngest of the three. Having earned a degree in kinesiology, Mouland is currently studying education. Well-read and highly studious, part of her curriculum now involves a school portion with teaching work. Employing leadership skills from football, she is dedicated towards building a strong fundamental future for her students.

Mouland scrambling against the Calgary Rage (Photo by Remy Greer, OWW)
Mouland scrambling against the Calgary Rage (Photo by Remy Greer, OWW)

Such dedication runs parallel to her role as quarterback with the Foothills Outlawz. Having undergone many growing pains as an expansion team, her leadership as the team’s pivot is providing the club with a solid building block for their promising future.

Based in Winnipeg, Sharpe is one of the members of the famed Manitoba Fearless franchise. Having competed at the university level as a wrestler, this multi-talented athlete had a desire to return to sport. With a commitment to return to a level of fitness, Sharpe found her motivation competing with the Fearless.

In donning the helmet and shoulder pads for the Fearless, it has helped to transform Sharpe’s life. Playing football has also resulted in giving back to the community. With the Fearless holding workshops and camps for young girls interested in playing the game, Sharpe has graciously volunteered her time. The result is that Sharpe’s dedication on and off field has made her a role model to her students.

Fearless players Pauline Olynik (left) and Sharpe during a photo shoot. (Photo credit: Brook Jones, Selkirk Journal, QMI Agency)
Fearless players Pauline Olynik (left) and Sharpe during a photo shoot. (Photo credit: Brook Jones, Selkirk Journal, QMI Agency)

Having made the transition from player to coach, Fekete is extending her glorious football career. Like Mouland, she is also a native of Newfoundland. An alumni of the University of Victoria, she is a former educator at the elementary school level in Calgary. Currently, she is a pottery instructor for young children from various school boards in Southern Alberta. Incorporating an element of play with education, it is a labor of love.

Employing her leadership skills along with her friendly demeanor to the X’s and O’s of the game, she is an assistant defensive backs coach with the Calgary Rage. As the next step in women’s football is to see more women occupy coaching roles, Fekete is helping to shatter new barriers while providing her daughters with a vision of how women can create positive change.

Connie Fekete image courtesy of Candice Ward
Connie Fekete image courtesy of Candice Ward

Looking towards the Eastern region of Canada, two teachers have also competed on an international scale. Members of the Canadian National Women’s Team that claimed silver at the 2013 IFAF Women’s World Football Championships, Saadia Ashraf and Alex Black are two of the game’s builders in that region of the country.

Ashraf holding the IWFL World Championship Trophy in 2010. Obtained from: http://www.iwflsports.com/news/index.html?article_id=88&content_type=printable&plugin_id=news.front.system&block_id=5001
Ashraf holding the IWFL World Championship Trophy in 2010. Obtained from: http://www.iwflsports.com/news/index.html?article_id=88&content_type=printable&plugin_id=news.front.system&block_id=5001

As the starting quarterback and proprietor of the Montreal Blitz, Saadia Ashraf grew up not allowed to compete in contact sports. After high school, she would compete in touch and flag football and would start up her own team, the Montreal Warriors. In between teaching, she would dedicate herself to providing quality coaching to young girls interested in the game.

Setting a true example of leadership that her students can follow, Ashraf would eventually purchase the Montreal Blitz in order to keep women’s tackle football alive in the city. Such sacrifice and commitment on her end would culminate with a 2012 IWFL Tier 1 Championship.

Donning number 10, Black comes out during player introductions at the 2013 IFAF Women's Worlds
Donning number 10, Black comes out during player introductions at the 2013 IFAF Women’s Worlds

Alex Black, the most decorated player in the history of the Maritime Women’s Football League had another accolade to complement her IFAF silver; she recently became a certified teacher. A former track and field star with the University of New Brunswick, she would major in Physical Education.

While one of her greatest legacies as an athlete was competing with Team Canada at both the 2010 and 2013 IFAF Women’s Worlds, the opportunity to influence a generation of young students proves there are many greater legacies to come. Entering her first full school year, Black is a rookie all over again.

Although handling a room full of young students may be tougher than leading an offense in rainy or snowy conditions, she has proven herself to be capable of handling any challenge. Having also worked as a coach for junior boys’ soccer, Black is a proven leader who should be able to develop into an elite educator.

Image obtained from: http://leahhinkle.wordpress.com/
Image obtained from: http://leahhinkle.wordpress.com/

Among the stars in the Women’s Football Alliance, Portland Shockwave superstar Leah Hinkle is one of the more accomplished players that also occupy time in the classroom. Having also played with the Corvallis Pride in seasons past, she helped the USA win gold at the 2013 IFAF Women’s Worlds.

Currently serving as an English Language Learner Support Specialist with various public schools in her community, Hinkle would be a tremendous role model for her students. Joining several other members of Team USA, she would have the opportunity to visit Washington, DC and meet with the White House Counsel for Women and Girls. Hoping for a future with more equitable opportunities for aspiring female athletes, it was an opportunity to help plant the seeds for what one day may yield a strong and sustainable sporting foundation for women.

Berggren in action with the Force (Image obtained from: http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Basketball-star-dreams-of-a-football-national-championship/43833.html)
Berggren in action with the Force (Image obtained from: http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Basketball-star-dreams-of-a-football-national-championship/43833.html)

Ashley Berggren also played with Hinkle on the US National Team at the 2013 IFAF Women’s Worlds. It was part of a tremendous year that saw Berggren help the Chicago Force to the 2013 Women’s Football Alliance national title. Prior to her gridiron glories, she was a former professional basketball player in the ABL. In addition, she was the first female athlete at the University of Illinois to have her jersey retired.

Eventually, she would use her hardcourt skills as a basketball coach at the high school level. Having also worked as a special needs teacher, Berggren has used her strong coaching skills and maturity in the classroom to help shape lives in a positive way.

Another female football hero from the state of Illinois is former physical education Heather Furr. While she continues to carve a remarkable legacy on the gridiron, she was once a high school basketball coach like Berggren. Having led the Chicago Bliss to the 2013 LFL Championships (making Chicago the first city to have won WFA and LFL titles in the same year), she continues to show her tremendous leadership qualities.

Heather Furr
Heather Furr

Growing up with five younger siblings taught Furr a remarkable amount of patience. With a love of sport that would shape her young life, she would eventually play NCAA basketball and run track with Valparaiso University. Such a love of sport was emphasized with her students. In Furr’s philosophy, sport was used it to help manage her time and set priorities while developing social skills.

Another LFL hero is Donna Paul. Two-sport star Donna Paul is a teacher at a Montessori school in the Greater Toronto Area. A two-sport star that once played for the Ottawa Raiders of the NWHL, she also won a women’s hockey national title with the University of Toronto.

While at U of T, she earned a Bachelor of Physical Health and Education. She is using her athletic skills to help transform and shape her students lives in a positive way. Of note, her personal dedication to fitness paid remarkable dividends in the summer of 2013. With famed TV star and fitness guru Jillian Michaels visiting Toronto for Canfitpro, Paul was in attendance at the event.

Donna Paul with the Toronto Triumph
Donna Paul with the Toronto Triumph

Having competed in the Legends Football League as a quarterback with the Toronto Triumph (she was their starter in 2011), she would end her 2011 season as a nominee for an end of season award which recognizes values such as sportsmanship, dedication and perseverance. Those values are what inspired Paul to conduct an after-school program devoted to improving the fitness of her students.

Prior to becoming an educator, Paul had worked with small groups of children in the fitness industry. While the opportunity to teach at the classroom level is different, it is helping Paul make an impact at a larger level. Reputed as a good teammate and a strong leader, Paul is incorporating those teamwork values with her program.

Paul’s dedication towards introducing a healthier lifestyle which incorporates fitness helps to build character and self-esteem. Volunteering her time to this mission is a remarkable sign of character as her leadership skills and strong athletic background provides students with the drive to become healthier.

Proving that sport is more than just glory and triumph, these women are positive influences who are working towards inspiring and motivating their students. While not all of the teachers who occupy the gridiron could be mentioned, this piece is dedicated to their dedication. These remarkable women, like all competitors in female football are helping to change the cultural norm of what sports women can play, educating an entire generation.