by Avi Saper
Talk about a long road home. Finally, in its third year of existence, the Manitoba Fearless women’s tackle football team will play a game in their home province.
The Fearless, which includes 29 players from Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie ranging in age from 16 to 47, will host the Edmonton Storm at East Side Eagles Field on May 29 at 2 p.m.
For a team that only played a three-game tournament in Edmonton in its first year and an exhibition game in Duluth, Minn., in its second season, having a bona fide home game is a major deal.
First and foremost, Fearless players are hoping the local contest will raise the club’s profile.
"Some high school coaches don’t even know we exist when we call to see if there might be some girls interested in playing," said Lisa Cummings, the team’s 35-year-old centre from Garden City.
"With people actually being able to see that the game is no different than when guys are playing — it’s just as intense, hard-hitting and fast — we’ll hopefully get the word out that we are around."
Like the vast majority of the players on the inaugural Fearless squad in 2008, the closest Cummings had previously come to football was as a spectator.
She took up the sport at the same time as her eight-year-old son and quickly fell in love. Even showing up at her financial workplace with bruises up and down her arms or on crutches hasn’t slowed Cummings down.
"I had a little bit of apprehension," she said. "I wasn’t 19 anymore, but getting the opportunity to try it… it would have been giving up a lot to not give it a go."
Charlene Mash-Hadlow, 42, was no stranger to intense competition, having played basketball for the University of Manitoba. The idea of full-fledged tackle football immediately struck her fancy.
"I generally like aggressive sports, so tackle football was quite appealing," said the wide receiver from St. Vital.
At first, the focus was on the basics. As Cummings put it, "it was like coaching eight-year-olds" for coach Craig Bachynski, who has since been succeeded by first-year head coach Dan Washnuk.
"They had to tell us what a thigh pad was, or a tail pad. We had no idea," Cummings recalled.
With most of the team now consisting of veterans, the Fearless have turned their attention to expanding the team’s playbook and running more complicated schemes.
The players are also committed to expanding the sport locally as well as globally. Nine members of the team, including Mash-Hadlow, were selected to play for Team Canada at the inaugural World Women’s Tackle Football Championship in Stockholm in July.
"It’s a huge honour to be part of the (national team) program," Mash-Hadlow said. "When I heard there was an opportunity to try out for Team Canada, I was extremely excited and couldn’t wait."
Meanwhile, on the home front, Cummings and her teammates would like to see more options for young girls to play tackle football. The local clubs all have female players, but most drop out around age 11 or 12 when the size gap between the boys and girls becomes too big.
"We’re trying to promote a six-man league for girls 11 to 15 to play in," Cummings said. "We’re hoping to get some of the major clubs involved.
"There should be no sports out there that should be only one sex. Anyone can do anything they put their mind to."
Tickets for the Fearless vs. the Storm are $5 each, and free for children under 12.